Sean Whyte has a conundrum. He feels the lure of curling, but he has a busy April in front of him at home in British Columbia.
The Edmonton Eskimos’ can’t-miss placekicker – perhaps the biggest curling fan presently playing in the Canadian Football League – knows the World Men’s Curling Championship is coming up at Northlands Coliseum, April 1st to 9th. Even though some of the best men’s teams on the planet are converging on the same city where he plies his professional sporting trade, and that holds great attraction for him, Whyte is in a tough spot. He has commitments at home, including trying to get his pilot’s licence. You can, however, hear it in his voice; the tumblers in his head are clicking, searching for a way he can maybe make a live appearance happen.
“Well, I can maybe shoot over….” he says, humming and hawing a little.
He’s already thrown stones (and kicked field goals) with Team Canada skip Rachel Homan, who’s currently leading her team at the Women’s World’s in Beijing, China. Perhaps he’d get the chance to toss a brick or two with Brad Gushue at the Men’s?
“If you think I can throw a rock with Gushue, then for sure, maybe I’ll drive over there,” says Whyte, chuckling. “Quick road trip. That’d be awesome. He just seems like a classy guy and how do you not cheer for a guy like that?”
Whether Whyte makes it over the Rockies for some live draw action in Edmonton is questionable right now. What is not, is his love and respect for the game of curling. Nor is his proficiency at nailing field goals for the Eskimos, something he did at a 93.8% accuracy clip (45-for-48) during the 2016 season, making him the league’s most accurate kicker last year.
While he is not curling this year, Whyte is watching on television whenever he can, intently spying his friends on the Homan rink and taking in what he agrees was an amazing Brier in St. John’s, complete with a final, iffy draw to the circles for a win for Team Newfoundland & Labrador.
A BIG DRAW IS LIKE A BIG FIELD GOAL
“It’s just like hitting a game winning field goal,” says Whyte of the final Gushue shot that won N&L it’s first Brier title since 1976.
“It could be from (only) thirty-two yards away, but those uprights close up on you when you’ve got pressure on you,” he says of the so-called “gimmes” in his sport.
He feels the same feeling could have come over Gushue, who was attempting what is the equivalent of a chip shot field goal in the CFL. A simple draw to the eight-foot, something that a pro skip can do in their sleep almost all of the time. However, put the weight of a province on your back and know that the moment you’ve been waiting your life for is at hand? That changes things.
— Sean Whyte (@SeanWhyte6) March 10, 2017
“I can only imagine looking down from the hack,” says Whyte. “This is something so simple you could do it in your sleep but now it’s for this? It makes things a lot tougher. To calm the nerves and to have that touch is pretty impressive. It comes down to one shot like that. The enormity of the pressure is… huge.”
He adds a little something, knowing that Gushue’s draw needed some furious sweeping in order to win it all. “I thought oh my God he’s gonna be short! The sweepers did a good job, it was a team win. It was fun to watch.”
As was The 2017 Scotties, for Whyte, who struck up a friendship with Team Homan, a few years back. He chatted with Homan, he says, early on during the tournament, indicating that she wasn’t feeling hugely confident heading into the event. He says he told her to look at things in a way that is very familiar to him.
“It’s like a football season,” he recalls saying to Homan during their conversation. “As long as your team builds and you guys are hot at the right time, the very end, that’s all that matters.”
Whyte – who won a Grey Cup championship with Edmonton in 2015 – was impressed by the Homan team’s win over Manitoba in the Scotties final, especially the extraordinarily difficult double take out Homan needed to pull off in the tenth, in order to force an extra end. “I just don’t know how they do it,” he says, laughing. “It’s such a precise shot and they’re so friggin’ far away.”
A JOKE TURNS INTO A VALUED FRIENDSHIP
Whyte met Team Homan after what he thought was just a bit of a gag interview he gave while playing with the Montreal Alouettes four years ago. In that interview, he was told to throw a rink together consisting of football players, and to choose who he wanted to play. He chose Homan and didn’t give it another serious thought. He was surprised when she later messaged him and asked him to not only throw stones, but to kick field goals with her. Homan, he says, surprised him again when they took to a field in Ottawa to split some uprights.
Whyte decided to spice things up with a little wager for drinks, he says, and bet Homan “whatever field goal you make, I have to make it from double (the distance).”
“The girl goes out there and makes a 45-yard field goal,” Whyte says with what seems a mixture of righteous indignation and respect. “I think it was her second try, she made a 45-yarder. Later on, she tells me she was a soccer player,” he laughs.
Those who know Homan well speak of her competitive nature in all sports. Those who don’t know her can obviously see that nature leap off a TV screen as she stares down the ice with a steely gaze of concentration before she shoots. Whyte’s friendship with Homan provides some insight that might be surprising to those who believe Scotties champions do not ever feel any doubt.
“When we first became friends we were talking and she said ‘I wish I didn’t ever get nervous. There’s gotta be a way to defeat that.’ I’m like what? Then you wouldn’t be human. It just doesn’t work that way.”
For his part, Whyte has gleaned some info from Homan and her teammates Emma Miskew, Joanne Courtney and Lisa Weagle. “It’s pretty cool to talk with them about their mental approach,” he says, agreeing that a kick from the hack and a field goal attempt have some things in common. While curlers often go through a checklist just before they shoot, Whyte does the same before a snap sends a football hurtling back to his holder and is placed on the kicking tee. “Weight to broom” is a mantra you can hear curlers say often. “Head down, swing easy,” is what Whyte says to himself before a field goal or extra point try.
CURLING COMES LATE… AND FOR FINANCIAL REASONS
A love for curling did not blossom at a young age for Whyte. His parents, Tom and Pat, were curlers but he had no interest himself. That changed when he joined his first pro football team, the B.C. Lions. As member of the team’s practice roster, Whyte earned little money and was looking for a way to put a few more loonies in his pocket. That’s when he became an assistant for the ice tech at the Peace Arch Club in White Rock, B.C. “I just needed a job and my parents curled there,” he says.
Whyte learned to take care of the ice – “I liked to put a thicker pebble down with an extra fine pebble on top,” – and then started to throw rocks in his down time, picking up the odd game as a spare. He was 23-years-old when he threw his first stone. He had a knack for it, he says, particularly the hitting side of the game. He liked it.
“Once I started actually playing and understanding and respecting the game – because it’s friggin’ tough – then I started to really watch it and enjoy it,” he says.
Sparing for teams whenever he could, Whyte became more attached to the sport but as his football career took off, curling had to take a back seat. He did play in a spiel, a year ago, with his father and Dean Joanisse, the skip who’s elite team fell to John Morris in the final of the B.C. Men’s championship this season.
— Sean Whyte (@SeanWhyte6) February 12, 2017
While he did have an offer to play on a team with Eskimos’ Assistant Equipment Manager Graeme Scott – “For the most part the guys that talk curling are the equipment guys,” Whyte says of the Edmonton locker room – Whyte, instead, needed to head home for the off-season.
With the CFL schedule stretching into November (late November for playoff teams), long after curling season has begun, Whyte’s options are limited. “I can’t really sign up for any team,” he says. “All I can do is stop by and ask ‘hey, you guys need spares?’”
He can also sit on his couch, watching his friends go for a world title.
And while he’s doing that, maybe he’s seriously contemplating a trip over the mountains to meet Brad Gushue.
Well, of course the 2017 Brier came down to a moment like that. How could it not?
After a 45 year absence, the Canadian men’s curling championship came back from away to be hosted in St. John’s, Newfoundland & Labrador. Fittingly, it was won by a skip who had championed his city and province as being too long kept out in the cold when it came to being considered a suitable place to hold it.
“It’s gonna be a deep night, I’m sure,” a giddy Brad Gushue told TSN right after his team’s hometown victory, just the province’s second ever Brier win and Gushue’s first. You’d have to expect there would be long lines up and down George Street, with grateful locals waiting for their chance to touch The Tankard.
Gushue, I’m sure, can’t imagine things being any better, especially his team’s “oh me nerves” 7-6 win over a very game defending champion Team Canada rink. He and his teammates – third Mark Nichols, Second Brett Gallant and lead Geoff Walker – had eyes on being Team Canada, themselves, for this Brier, but had those hopes dashed in last year’s final when they lost to the same team, in Ottawa.
In retrospect, I’m sure they wouldn’t disagree that winning in this place and in this time turned out to be a whole bunch sweeter. Here’s the moment, as recorded by Gerry Geurts at CurlingZone.com:
A week and a half of festival and sport, of celebration and adoration, coming down to a jam-packed Mile One Centre crowd on its feet, feeding all of its hopeful energy into sweepers Gallant and Nichols, absolutely willing them to drag Gushue’s final stone for every inch it had, until it rested in the eight-foot, just out-counting a stone that had been placed there by Team Canada’s remarkable comeback artist and skip, Kevin Koe.
A place that had been bananas over and over throughout the week for Team Newfoundland & Labrador, might have well been an actual part of the victory with that roaring, and that was something Walker alluded to on day one. “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 had said after his team’s first game on the opening Saturday.
On Gushue’s final draw, an injured Walker got out of the way as a hard-charging Nichols rushed down the ice from the far house in order to join in with Gallant’s feverish brushing. Good thing he did. Walker’s reportedly injured shoulder would likely have prevented him from mustering up his usual force and then… well, would that rock have made it to the eight-foot and victory?
It did, though, and the celebration was on, Gushue tossing his broom in the air and gathering with his mates in an emotional hug. I wonder if he imagined that moment, just as it was, when he tweeted this out four years ago, signalling the beginning of an endeavour that would culminate in one of the most memorable Briers of the modern era.
— Brad Gushue (@BradGushue) March 8, 2013
The crescendo moment, in all its perfect anticipation and panic, didn’t seem to be in the cards, early in this game. Gushue’s squad had picked Team Canada’s pocket for three in the second end and then led 5-1 after five ends, and there was a building feeling that there would be no drama in this one, just a methodical running out of ends to an inevitable conclusion.
That, however, is when we got another reminder, 24 hours after the previous one, that Koe and his teammates Marc Kennedy, Brent Laing and Ben Hebert are never out of a game. They staged a furious comeback, keyed by an unconscious shot by Koe, who fired a bomb straight down the stripe in the sixth end, unlocking a cluster of stones in a dizzying display of curling power and precision. Somehow – somehow– he scored three on the shot and left me wondering how no rocks exploded like in that scene in the movie “Men With Brooms.” I’d say that it’s a challenge that should be added to the Hot Shots competition at next year’s Brier, but that might not be fair if Koe is taking part.
“This is Kevin Koe,” said TSN analyst Cheryl Bernard soon after the shot. “He just never goes away.”
As they did the night before – scrambling back from a 5-2 deficit against what appeared to be an unalterable Manitoba foursome – Team Canada roared back and they tied the thing up at 5 after stealing one in the seventh end. After Newfoundland & Labrador was forced to one in the eighth, it was Gushue’s turn to be ridiculous when he picked out a Team Canada shot rock that was showing a sliver – and I mean a sliver – behind a cluster of his own stones, in the four-foot.
On a night of remarkable shooting, Koe’s sixth end miracle and Gushue’s ninth end razor will remain unforgettable. Starting from 125 feet away, give or take, from the spot they needed to hit, Gushue and Koe nailed targets that were an inch or two wide, with little to no margin for error. Tell that to someone the next time they say “it looks easy, anybody could curl.”
I’m sure if we’d polled the faithful in the arena before and during the early stages of the game, they’d have told us that a Team Gushue walkover would have suited them just fine. When things got nervous in the late stages and it seemed as though the scripted ending was in danger of going all Game of Thrones shocking, they most definitely would have told you they could do without all the drama, the threat of bitter disappointment hanging over their heads. Gushue and his teammates might have preferred that as well, as coming so close to a dream ending and being denied would have no doubt stung like nothing has stung them before.
But you know what? This Brier deserved the evaporated lead. It deserved the nerve-racking build to a climax and the eruption that ensued. It deserved to be in doubt right down to the very last pass of a frantic sweeper’s brush.
It was a wild and wonderful ten days in St. John’s, just like Brad Gushue said it would be when he first insisted, four years ago, that it was high time for the Brier to return. The people of St. John’s welcomed it back, warmly, presenting a great gift to the sport and its fans, day after day after day.
In return and in the end, they got a nice one right back.
St. John’s – The headline is accurate. Gotta be, right? The Brier is filled with the loudest of the loud on a yearly basis and the 2017 field is stacked with some pretty damn good bellowers.
Yet there is one man who is standing head and shoulders above them all, making the rest of the big boomers sound like mice in a church basement.
Martin Crête is that man and his reputation is so well earned. The third for Jean-Michel Ménard’s Quebec crew can be on the other side of the rink but that doesn’t matter when the intensity comes up as a stone in motion needs some sweeping. You will hear him.
“Yeeeaaah,” he starts with a thunderous, albeit clipped growl.
“Yeeeeeeaaaaahhhhhhhh,” comes the second part as the line is becoming tight.
Then, his masterpiece. He goes up and octave and really gives ‘er.
YEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH,” he exclaims and a murmur goes through the crowd at Mile One Place. He does it again, dragging the word out even longer and there are gasps and giggles sprinkled throughout. The whole arena has taken notice.
Martin Crête is a leather-lunged superstar, whose rafter-rattling sweepers’ commands are really something to behold and celebrated.
“Yeah, they love it,” says the 31-year-old Crête, a few moments after his team’s win over Nova Scotia during Sunday night action. “In the first row tonight, I was speaking to some people. They said ‘I like you! I like your intensity and what you’re doing.’”
Crête is a big man, with an innocent face and a jovial nature, laughing constantly as he’s pressed about his notoriety as a human shockwave. The sharp-shooting vice on Quebec’s impressive team is used to being queried about his decibel level and he remains good-natured about it. He seems a little sheepish about his powers, denying that they are a point of pride for him and that it’s just something that he has always naturally been able to do. He shrugs.
At that point, his skip, Jean-Michel Ménard, walks by. Ménard is, himself, quite adept at waking the dead with one of his own exhortations but when he is asked who is louder, Ménard waves his hand and shakes his head dismissively. “I’m not even close,” he calls over his shoulder, as he continues down the hall.
“I thought a goat was getting killed,” says teammate Philippe Ménard, remembering the first time he ever heard Crête shiver the timbers of a curling rink. “A sacrifice to the gods, you know what I mean?”
I do. Because I have been in the same building as Crête when he lets it fly. It’s beautiful.
Hard to describe, really, but Ménard’s goat sacrifice comparison seems apt. I’ve never been in the luggage compartment of a passenger jet on take-off but I assume Crête could still be heard if he were back at the terminal urging that jet to take flight. I’ve heard him at what I believe to be his apex. The example below is not quite that, but it gives you a sense of what that neighbourhood is like, even from the other side of the building.
— Don Landry (@donlandrymedia) March 8, 2017
I turn to one of the all-time greats in the art of curling sheet volume for a little context; TSN analyst Russ Howard, the Wayne Gretzky of directional bellowing and the standard by which all others must be measured. Howard, I’m sure, could knock over scoreboards at the far end of the ice with his yelling. His eyes widen when I bring up Martin Crête.
“Pretty good chance the brushers know it’s time to sweep,” Howard laughs, before going on to explain why Crête can have a seat at his hollerin’ hall of fame table: “The longevity of the yell, obviously the octave range is very impressive and he’s done it for a long time.”
“That’s all the criteria to be a great screamer.”
Could Howard stand up to Martin Crête in a one-on-one battle? “I think in my prime I could give him a go,” the master says. “I had a voice therapist teach me how to do it from the socks.”
Crête is doing it from his socks, too. Or perhaps from a level below his feet, summoning the powers of all of the demons playing bongos in Satan’s conga band, amplified through a pulsating earth’s crust.
— Don Landry (@donlandrymedia) March 8, 2017
For Crête, it’s all business and natural, effusive energy being channelled into the moment. Asked if he ever hears an approving crowd’s collective “ooooh” when he is reaching the heights, he replies: “No, I’m focused on the shot and trying to make it.”
Then, Martin Crête says something amazing. Inconceivable.
“I’ve got a fifth gear. There’s another gear.”
There’s a what now? You can be louder?
He laughs and nods. “When I played juniors I was louder than I am today.”
“Oh, okay,” I reply. “So it’s not that you can be louder, it’s that you’re not quite what you were in junior, is all.”
He shakes his head. “No, I have not lost some steam. I just try to be a little bit less loud than I was when I was playing juniors.”
Incredible. The man is holding back. Probably for our safety.
I’m having a hard time imagining what another level up from Crête’s already staggering vocal Mount Everest could possibly be. I turn to Philippe Ménard.
“Oh yeah, I’ve heard it a few times,” he says, his tone sounding an awful lot like an old warrior recounting a terrible battle on some smoky plain, many years ago.
I ask what the fifth gear sounds like.
“The apocalypse,” Ménard replies. “The ground starts vibrating.”
“I’m hoping that we’re going to get to the point where that extra gear kicks in and you can hear it.”
Yikes, I think. I might not want to be a part of that.
“When Martin plays, everybody should spot the nearest emergency exit,” cracks a smirking Ménard. “Just to make sure, if something happens, you know where to go.”
I point out to Ménard that at Mile One Centre, an emergency exit might not be the best place to be, necessarily. Because there is a sign at one exit, right next to a steep rock face with a sign that reads: “Exit At Own Risk Due To Falling Debris.” Do we really want to tempt the fates?
I needn’t worry. Crête says he’s keeping it under wraps.
“I’m not gonna go to the fifth gear,” he laughs.
I feel safer. Yet, something inside me wants to know what Martin Crête’s fifth gear can do.
If Quebec makes The Brier final and it comes down to a last stone shot by Jean-Michel Ménard, we may just find out what the loudest man in Newfoundland can really do.
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