St. John’s – This Brier is everything we all thought it would be. The buzz, the energy, the welcoming nature of the locals. All of it in excess. Most of that excess is aimed straight at the local favourites from Newfoundland & Labrador, Team Brad Gushue. Can they take advantage of it?
The results were decent for Gushue after the opening weekend of play, but they could have been better, he figures. “It was a sloppy day,” said Gushue, after his team split its games with a morning loss to Manitoba and an evening win over New Brunswick, on Sunday. “I think we’re still feeling out the ice and the emotions and the feelings that go with all of this and how we’re going to handle it effectively. You are feeling different things.”
Up and down the streets of the downtown – and beyond – storefronts are filled with posters of Brad Gushue. Many of those storefronts have gone beyond the duty of merely plastering those posters in their windows; They’ve done curling themed displays, some of which took a great deal of time and care to pull together. The restaurants are festooned in Brier regalia, the games on every screen. The town is highly caffeinated for curling and that means great love for the local side as well as, perhaps, great pressure to perform.
Nowhere is the energy more obvious than the arena, of course. The love for Team Gushue and the delight at having the Canadian men’s national curling championship in the city for the first time since 1972 all got distilled into the 6,000 seat venue on Saturday afternoon, when Team Newfoundland & Labrador met Alberta on sheet C. Converging all those curling fans and local pride in one buzzing venue made for bolt after bolt of curling electricity, a power source that Gushue and his teammates – third Mark Nichols, second Brett Gallant and lead Geoff Walker hope to ride all the way to the province’s first Brier championship in decades.
They cheered when Gushue made a routine hit for two to score their first two points, in the second end because of course they did. They lifted the roof when Gushue made a draw for three in the eighth end to take an 8-5 lead, cracking the game open.
However, it was the very first rock of that first game that confirmed what maybe didn’t need confirmation at all; that Team Gushue’s fans were more than ready to ignite the frenzy.
Without hammer in the first end, Gushue’s lead, Geoff Walker, settled a stone on the centre line in the free guard zone and it was met with a great cheer. “Usually it’s only your parents who might be the ones cheering for those shots,” laughed Walker, a few moments after Draw One was in the books. “You play a guard in the first end and you get a huge roar. You have to sorta smile to yourself.”
“That was incredible.”
Asked if he’d ever heard a roar like that go up for a centre guard, Gushue was incredulous. “I’ve never heard a cheer like the one for my warm-up slide,” he said, smiling and shaking his head in wonder.
For Gushue and his teammates – and a legion of underpinning supporters who helped land this Brier for St. John’s, the lead up has been filled with fantasies about how it would all go, and the imagination could run wild with just how that first walk out of the tunnel behind the provincial flag would feel. It did, indeed, meet expectations. “The very first game, to go out there and hear the roars like that? It’s gonna be an incredible week,” said Walker, who admits that while he did his best to keep the crowd out of his mind during that first game, he found there were moments where he caught himself wishing for the next eruption.
“You’re sort of waiting,” he said. “When can we make that next big shot? Because you know the roar’s gonna come and you’ll get the goosebumps.”
Gushue felt the same as his team ultimately made its way to an 8-6 win over Alberta. “Really trying to stay in the moment,” he said. “But certainly there was times where I let myself go and I looked up at the crowd and seen all the flags and the cheering. It’s gonna be a fun week, for sure.”
Sunday morning was a bit of a different story for Team Newfoundland & Labrador and for the crowd. Waiting for a reason to let it all out, a packed Mile One was fairly quiet, as Gushue’s team ran into the exacting shotmaking of Mike McEwen and Team Manitoba, losing by a score of 8-4. Things were a little more back to normal on Sunday night, with the Gushue Four eking out a 5-4 win over New Brunswick’s Mike Kennedy. It wasn’t a masterpiece – as Gushue alluded to – but there were times where the sea of humanity in the stands was fluttering with flags, roaring with approval. They even pulled off a healthy wave at one point.
If there is pressure that comes along as a by-product of the adoration, Walker denies he feels it. The Brier is back in St. John’s for the first time in 45 years, with the province’s only win coming in 1976 (why Gushue has been known to wear the number 76 on his back at Grand Slam events). “We put enough pressure on ourselves,” Walker said.
No, this town’s crazy-mad energy for the event and the local heroes is nothing but a gift, the team figures. If there are ancillary psychological tangents of that – some of them pressure-packed – it’s up to them to manage them. “We’re trying to stay sheltered from all the extracurricular stuff that’s gonna be going on and the hoopla behind the Brier,” said Gushue, while circling back to the main theme.
“This is gonna be a fun week. We’re very appreciative of the support St. John’s and Newfoundland is giving to this Brier and to our team.”
For Walker, the super-charged atmosphere is a big plus and one that he figures will pay off as the Brier’s grind wears on. “By the end of the week, we’re gonna be a little bit sore and a little bit tired but I think the crowd’s only gonna help us get that extra bit of strength and energy in every shot,” he said.
He may be right on that.
Because at this Brier, the home crowd has been known to go wild for even an opening game centre guard.
It’s been a beautiful thing to behold.
— Don Landry (@donlandrymedia) March 4, 2017