Brier 2017: Contenders, challengers and long shots

Alberta skip Kevin Koe, third Marc Kennedy, second Brent Laing and lead Ben Hebert will attempt a repeat at the 2017 Brier. (Curling Canada/Michael Burns photo)

Well, this should be epic.

Really and truly epic. And I’m not even talking about the curling itself. After an absence of 45 years, the Brier is returning to Newfoundland & Labrador. Mile One Centre will be packed for many of the draws, and the home province has a legitimate contender for the crown. No pressure, boys, but after that sensational Scotties final, you’ve got something to live up to.

Here’s my look at how the Brier field shapes up.

CONTENDERS

These are the four teams (in no particular order) I feel are most likely to be in the playoffs when the round-robin is complete.

Can the storybook ending happen? Can Newfoundland & Labrador’s Brad Gushue win his first Brier right in St. John’s as that city plays host to nationals for the first time since 1972? It’s as likely an outcome as any other. Gushue will be fresher than ever before after missing the first half of the season with a hip/groin injury and he dispelled any notion that he’d have trouble shaking off rust when he shot 100% in the final of January’s Canadian Open. During Gushue’s absence, third Mark Nichols jumped in at skip and the team didn’t miss a beat, remaining at the top of the World Curling Tour’s Order of Merit standings. In eleven events this season, this team has not missed the playoffs once, winning three finals and losing another two.

Brad Gushue is shooting for his first Brier championship as his home province plays host for the first time since 1972. (Anil Mungal/Sportsnet photo)

Having the luxury of already earning a berth in the Olympic Trials, the defending champions, skipped by Kevin Koe, came into this season with not much to prove or to earn. They’ve fallen out of the top ten on the World Curling Tour’s men’s list (year-to-date standings) and missed the playoffs altogether at the Canada Cup as well as three Grand Slam events, earning a quarter-finals berth at another slam competition, The National. They did win a couple of early events against good fields and also won big at The Skins Game, last month. Koe has shown an ability to turn it on in the midst of a down season or even a down week before, and so it’d be tough to bet against him and his Team Canada running mates doing that again here.

Northern Ontario comes into this Brier with purpose, having failed to nail down an Olympic Trials berth at the Canada Cup, an event for which they’d planned to peak. Even though skip Brad Jacobs and his 2014 Olympic champion team are in pretty good shape, points-wise, when it comes to earning a berth, Jacobs has professed a desire to nab that spot in the easiest way possible and there’s a straight line to those trials, right now, with a Brier win coupled with a podium finish at Worlds. The Canada Cup notwithstanding, this team has enjoyed a pretty good year on the circuit, winning The National, losing to Nik Edin in extra ends at The Masters and finishing in the semi’s at The Canadian Open.

Mike McEwen and BJ Neufeld will attempt to give Manitoba its first Brier championship in six years. (Anil Mungal/Sportsnet photo)

Manitoba, skipped by Mike McEwen, hadn’t had a stellar year up until the Manitoba championship. As one of the teams that had really mastered the art of directional fabric sweeping the previous two years, perhaps there was a needed adjustment period for them after this season’s clamp down on brooms. They missed the playoffs at the Canada Cup and The National, though they did get to the quarter-finals of three slams. At provincials, they seemed to find the range, beating Reid Carruthers in the final and posting a 7 and 1 record. “This is the best we’ve played in a long time,” McEwen told the Winnipeg Sun. Manitoba’s fates can be bolstered by the play of third B.J. Neufeld, who is one of the game’s best clean-up artists when he is on a roll.

CHALLENGERS

British Columbia, skipped by three-time Brier champ John Morris, is the most likely team from this category to leap into a playoff spot if any of the four contenders hit the ditch. Morris and vice Jim Cotter got together again this season and it’s a pairing that has done well in the past, as the two – along with teammates Tyrel Griffith and Rick Sawatsky –  surged all the way to the finals of the Olympic Trials in 2013. This same line-up won silver at the 2014 Brier, with Cotter throwing final rocks and that is the modus operandi they’ve been using again this year, with Morris throwing third stones. They’ve won two events this season and made at least the quarter-finals in three Grand Slam events. Not a stretch to say they ought to have been placed in the “contenders” category.

Quebec’s Jean-Michel Ménard and his well-seasoned rink are rarely an easy mark at the Brier and are most always alive for a playoff spot as the proceedings reach midweek. They face the challenge of rising to the occasion after a long layoff between this competition and their own provincials, as usual. They’ve won four of the eight events they’ve played in but missed the playoffs in the other four, those being spiels filled with top drawer teams. A lot hinges on them just getting hot at the right time. Ménard won the whole thing in 2006 and last saw the playoffs in 2014.

This is not the same Ontario team that was perennially placed in the “contenders” category over the years but with skip Glenn Howard and third Rich Hart on the back end, all the right calls will be made and with a young, strong front end they’ll be able to squeeze every inch out of a draw. They made a playoff appearance at the Grand Slam’s Tier 2 Tour Challenge, where they lost the final to Greg Balsdon. At the Masters, they went winless. Scott Howard remains at lead but second David Mathers is new this year, joining a team that went 4 and 7 at last year’s Brier.

Ontario’s Glenn Howard makes his 17th Brier appearance. (Michael Burns/Curling Canada photo)

LONG SHOTS

Jamie Koe’s Northwest Territories team is the same crew that went 3 and 8 at last year’s nationals. Those strong Koe curling blood lines course though the skip’s veins and he always makes you earn it honestly. Brendan Bottcher’s Alberta crew is still rising and while their coach, Kevin Martin, gives them a strategic leg up, it’s still early for a young team that won a jittery Alberta final. This Brier will likely serve as a learning experience. Saskatchewan’s Adam Casey is appearing in his sixth Brier, but his teammates are all rookies. New Brunswick’s Mike Kennedy brings the same squad that went 3 and 8 last year in Ottawa.

Nova Scotia (Jamie Murphy), Prince Edward Island (Eddie MacKenzie), Nunavut (Jim Nix) and Yukon (Craig Kochan) will play the pre-qualifier, with one of them advancing to the main draw.

PREDICTION: Gushue wins over Jacobs. The locals run up and down George Street draped in provincial flags. Not just the locals, actually.

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Don Landry is a multi-talented media pro: an accomplished morning show host, a sought-after voiceover artist and master of ceremonies, and a thoughtful commentator and interview specialist.