Gushue’s shorthanded team tops Alberta’s Koe in extra end of epic Brier final

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They came to the Tim Hortons Brier physically and mentally exhausted, after fighting for a bronze medal at the Olympics just two weeks earlier, and then had to play a man short throughout the playoffs.

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Somehow, someway, Brad Gushue and his teammates from St. John’s, NL, still managed to win the Canadian men’s curling championship on Sunday night at Enmax Center in Lethbridge, Atla.

Gushue, 41, captured his fourth Brier title with a 9-8 win over Alberta’s Kevin Koe, despite playing without long-time vice-skip Mark Nichols, who missed the entire playoffs with COVID-19.

“This was for Mark,” Gushue said moments after the final rock came to rest.

“To go on the run we did for the last three games, that’s pretty epic.”

With only Gushue, second Brett Gallant and lead Geoff Walker carrying on, the trio beat Saskatchewan’s Colton Flasch in the 3-4 Page playoff game, knocked out defending champion Brendan Bottcher in Sunday’s semifinal and finally topped Koe, who was looking for his record fifth Brier title as a skip.

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It was an absolutely epic finale, complete with the kind of shot-making you’d expect of two of the greatest skips of all time and a win for the ages for Gushue.

“Brett and Geoff, they did all this,” Gushue said. “Holy smokes, they worked hard.

“All week we struggled with the energy and the focus and once Mark went down, we knew we had to bring it to be competitive. Boy, did they ever bring it. I’m just so proud of everybody and I can’t wait to see Mark, in a couple days.”

Of all the many memorable wins Gushue has had over the years — this is his fourth Canadian championship in six years — this one has to be near the top, just because of all the adversity his team had to overcome.

The Gushue foursome, which has now won the Canadian Olympic trials, a bronze medal at the Olympics, and the Brier all in one season, will represent Canada at the world men’s championship in Las Vegas April 2-10.

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“I gotta get some rest before we get to Vegas,” Gushue said. “A couple weeks off, for sure, before we head down there, but we’re excited… it’s a long curling season.”

With Nichols cheering the team on over social media from his Lethbridge hotel room, where he has been laid up with COVID-19 symptoms since testing positive on Friday, Gushue, Gallant and Walker played brilliantly in both a 9-3 semifinal win over Bottcher and the final against Koe.

Walker threw the first three rocks of every end, Gallant the second three and Gushue the last two. On many shots, the team used just one sweeper, but the team still managed to get rocks in the right places with regularity.

In the absence of Nichols, Walker took on the role of vice-skip, holding the broom in the house and calling the line when Gushue was shooting.

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Gushue said he had never even played a game of any significance with only three players before Friday, but his team won three straight playoff games despite being a man down.

He also worried before the Brier began that his team would be too tired after competing at the Olympics in Beijing. They had barely overcome the intense jet lag from their trip home from China when the event began.

And yet, there they were in the tournament final once again.

“We’re on smokes right now… I’m on smokes,” Gushue said before the game.

All indications are the Alberta foursome will split up after this season but that sure didn’t stop Koe, BJ Neufeld, John Morris and Ben Hebert from putting up another valiant battle and reaching the final for the third time in the last four years.

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While Brier endings are often low-scoring, defensive affairs, this one featured plenty of multiple-point ends.

Koe had the hammer to start because he won the Page 1-2 game over Bottcher on Saturday night and, after blanking the first end, he made good in the second, scoring a deuce to go up 2-0.

Gushue bounced right back with a three in the third end but Koe blanked the fourth and took the lead again in the fifth, with another deuce.

A big potential turning point came in the sixth. A Koe miss with his last rock of the end allowed Gushue an opportunity to draw to anywhere inside the eight-foot for three more points and a 6-4 lead.

But Koe is an all-time great in men’s curling for a reason and his team battled back right away, in the seventh. When Gushue’s hit-and-roll attempt on last rock didn’t get far enough behind cover, Koe played a soft-weight hit and stick to score a deuce and tie the game at 6-6.

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Koe made a huge double with his first rock in the eighth to take away a potential big end from the Newfoundlanders and that forced Gushue to draw for the first single point of the game and take a 7-6 lead.

Gushue poured on the pressure in the ninth and Koe had to draw the button against two with his last rock, but he came up light, resulting in a steal of one and an 8-6 lead for the wild card team.

But Koe was undeterred, and his team clawed out another deuce in the 10th to tie the game at 8-8 and send it to an extra end.

Gushue had hammered in the extra and that made it extremely likely his team would win. Sure enough, Gushue was left with a simple hit and stick for a single point and the win.

He won his first Brier in 2017 in his hometown of St. John’s, beating Koe on that day with a last-rock draw. This time he won it on last rock again, becoming as his foursome he became the first wild card team to ever win a Canadian men’s or women’s championship.

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“This is right up there with St. John’s, to be honest,” Gushue said.

Meanwhile, Bottcher’s reign as Canadian men’s curling champion, and his streak of appearances in the Brier final, both ended on Sunday afternoon.

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Bottcher’s Edmonton team lost to Gushue’s in the semifinal and missed the playing in the final for the first time in five years.

Bottcher, third Pat Janssen, second Brad Thiessen and lead Karrick Martin, were Team Canada this season after winning the Brier in 2021 (Darren Molding was third at the time).

The Bottcher foursome also played in Brier finals in 2018, 2019 and 2020, losing all three times. Bottcher has won one gold medal, three silvers and one bronze over the last five years.

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