Heading into the Scotties two weeks ago, it did not appear that, realistically, there was a playoff spot up for grabs for any newcomers. The four favourites heading in - Canada, British Columbia, Manitoba and eventual champion Ontario - did as was expected and secured those positions.
The 2013 Tim Hortons Brier, getting underway this weekend at Edmonton's Rexall Place is similarly configured, with a notable exception. Instead of a big four amongst the twelve challengers, there's a big three. Which means if it all goes according to plan, the final playoff spot is open to a team lurking just below the contenders. Coincidentally, that is a group of three as well.
Nothing new to see here. The top contenders for the 2013 title are: Defending champion Glenn Howard of Ontario, Alberta's Kevin Martin and Manitoba's Jeff Stoughton.
Howard's foursome of Wayne Middaugh, Brent Laing and Craig Savill has not had as dominating a year as they had in 2011-12. That would be tough to do. The 2012 World Champions are back as Howard skips in his eighth straight Brier, but they come in after having to gather themselves at the Ontario championship where they knocked off contender Joe Frans twice in the playoffs. Howard says that's good enough for him. "What I’ve really liked, at the end of our provincials we played two of the best games we did the entire year. If we got in (to The Brier) playing poor to average, I’d definitely be concerned. We definitely are not doing that. We’re playing well.”
Martin will be the hometown favourite, playing in an Edmonton Brier for the first time in his legendary career. If he, John Morris, Marc Kennedy and Ben Hebert win it all, Martin will become the first skip to direct five Brier championship teams. The skipper missed a few weeks in the middle of the season when he needed surgery for a hernia, but came back refreshed and if not good as new, close to it. “I don’t think things have felt as good as they do now in, I don’t know how long, maybe four or five years," said Martin, of his general curling health. This team is rolling, going undefeated at the Alberta championship, including an incredibly hard-fought and entertaining 5-4 win in the final, over Kevin Koe.
Stoughton has a chance to match Martin's four Brier wins as skip. His team's victory at the Manitoba championships was as gritty as they come, with both vice Jon Mead and lead Mark Nichols being felled by the flu on the final weekend. Along with second Reid Carruthers, they dug in and took out Mike McEwen's outstanding team in the semi's, then bounced Sean Grassie in the final. "It was a great team effort to grind it out and find that energy and will to win," said Stoughton. Not only did they win Manitoba, just a few weeks before that they beat some of the best teams on the planet to take top spot in The National, a Grand Slam of Curling tour event in Port Hawkesbury, Nova Scotia.
Another group of three, consisting of Quebec's Jean-Michel Menard, Northern Ontario's Brad Jacobs and Newfoundland and Labrador's Brad Gushue.
Menard is the only one in the field not named Howard, Martin or Stoughton to have won a Brier as skip, which he did in 2006. Skipping in his fifth nationals, Menard now has his brother, Philippe (lead) and his father Robert (coach) along for the challenge. Getting off to a good start would be immensely helpful as Quebec faces both Alberta and Manitoba in its first four games. "Teams like that, usually the more they get used to the ice the better they perform," said Menard." If I’m to be an underdog, I’d rather play them early.”
Jacobs comes in with the weight of his own expectations. Last year's appearance was not what he was looking for as the team struggled to a 5 and 6 record and a fifth place showing. The line-up is altered this year, with former Gushue vice Ryan Fry stepping in to play third. They've played well and are sixth in the CTRS standings (Canadian Team Ranking System). The only teams ahead of them on that list and taking part at The Brier are skipped by guys named - you guessed it - Howard, Stoughton and Martin. "They could definitely be there at the end, for sure," said Martin.
Gushue is only 32 yet is skipping in his tenth Brier. In his last nine appearances, including this one, he's had at least one new player on his team each time. With Fry in Northern Ontario, Gushue now has 23 year old Brett Gallant at vice. Gallant actually started the year at second, then switched places with Adam Casey, in December. “We seem to have turned the corner a little bit since we made the line up change," said Gushue, who believes his team can build momentum as the week goes on. “I’m a big believer in that if you get into a do or die game it really levels out the field and if it’s one game we can beat every one of them in that situation.”
THE LONG SHOTS
The remaining six teams fall into this category. Not likely to make a play for a playoff spot are The Territories' Jamie Koe, British Columbia's Andrew Bilesky, Saskatchewan's Brock Virtue, New Brunswick's James Grattan, Nova Scotia's Paul Flemming and Prince Edward Island's Eddie MacKenzie.
Virtue and Bilesky are the two you'd pick to surprise and challenge Menard, Gushue and Jacobs, in the very unlikely event that there is a surprise. They each performed very well at provincials and their days may come but they need more seasoning and that's what this Brier will be about for them. Koe had a magnificent run last year and actually nabbed a playoff spot and knocked off Howard in the round-robin but don't expect lightning to strike a second time. Grattan is ranked 56th in the CTRS standings, Flemming 64th and MacKenzie 82nd.
Obviously, none of the top three have anything left to prove. Yet they keep on proving it anyway. There are virtually no weaknesses on the Ontario, Alberta and Manitoba teams. They each have command over every type of shot you could possibly need, have exceptional front ends that can judge and drag a rock for miles and have made a habit out of winning. Realistically, there will be just one playoff spot up for grabs and almost certainly will go to one of Quebec, Northern Ontario or Newfoundland and Labrador.
No matter which of the big three you leave out of a prediction for a final match-up, they could make you look like a fool. Having said that, both Stoughton and Martin are hotter than Howard coming into this Brier and I'll put my money on them meeting in the final, with Martin making history and winning his record-setting fifth.
Preview stories on these skips can be found by clicking on the names below: