Brad Gushue has won the Newfoundland and Labrador curling title in every season since 2007. Never has the pressure to repeat as provincial champion been greater than this year.
Gushue would love nothing more than to win his first Tim Hortons Brier in his hometown of St. John’s this March. But in order to book a berth in the national championship, he’ll need to win this week’s provincial playdowns at the Bally Haly Country Club.
The top-ranked Gushue will be a heavy favourite in the five-team field when play begins Thursday.
“Even though we’re going to play against some teams that people across the country may have never heard of, they can play, they can compete,” Gushue said. “And if we don’t show up and play or take them for granted, they could beat us.”
Gushue is still not quite in top physical form due to a hip/groin injury that kept him off the ice for the first few months of the season. He returned in early December and reached the semifinals at the National before winning the Canadian Open this month in North Battleford, Sask.
“I felt comfortable really quick,” Gushue said of his latest performance. “Really right from the get-go I felt pretty confident in the ice and how I was throwing it. Then all of the sudden you get more and more confidence and it feels like you’re getting your mojo back.”
Most of the pain has gone away and now Gushue is working on improving his strength. He will also continue his regular physiotherapy and massage therapy sessions.
While it was tough to be away earlier in the season, Gushue said there were some positives to taking some time off.
“Going into the second half of the season, I feel much more energized at this point than I ever have in my career,” he said in a recent interview from St. John’s. “Generally come Christmas time, you’re just anxious to get away from the game and try to recharge the batteries for the second half of the year. Whereas this year, I was itching to get back at it.”
Gushue added that he feels mentally sharper on the ice. He also discovered that he really missed the sport when he was out of action.
“I love the game and it really showed me that I still have the drive to compete,” he said.
Gushue ran the table at last year’s Newfoundland and Labrador Tankard, defeating Colin Thomas 8-1 in the final. Thomas is back again this year in a field rounded out by Adam Boland, Trent Skanes and Paul Harvey.
Gushue won his first of three straight provincial crowns in 2003. He missed the 2006 event after winning the Olympic Trials and went on to win gold for Canada at the Winter Games in Turin, Italy.
He has no plans to change his usual routine for the 2017 edition of the provincial Tankard, which runs through Sunday.
“We still have to show up and play our game or play near our game,” Gushue said. “Really that’s the focus for us. We’ve taken an approach of going out there and trying to play at that 90 per cent rate no matter who we’re playing and if we can get anywhere near that, we should be good.”
St. John’s is hosting the Brier for the first time since 1972. Kevin Koe, who beat Gushue in the final of last year’s Brier in Ottawa, earns a direct entry in the Mar. 2-12 event at the Mile One Centre as the defending champion.
Since the dates for provincial and territorial playdowns are spread out throughout the country, most of the Brier field won’t be finalized until mid-February. Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, Yukon and Nunavut will play in a pre-tournament qualifying round to determine the final berth in the 12-team main draw.
The women’s national championship â€” the Scotties Tournament of Hearts â€” is set for Feb. 16-26 at the Meridian Centre in St. Catharines, Ont.
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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press