Brad Gushue's road back to competition has already been a longer one than he would have liked. Now, it seems possible the skip of the world's No. 1-ranked men's curling team could be sidelined until January as he continues to rehab a tricky set of muscles in his left hip and groin area.
“I’m feeling better about my situation," says Gushue, with guarded optimism. "Better than I was last week, anyway.”
While his teammates take on the field at this week's Grand Slam of Curling Tour Challenge in Cranbrook, B.C., Gushue will remain on the east coast continuing his dry-land rehab program, with an eye to maybe getting on the ice this weekend for a few practice slides.
Those practice slides were supposed to come last weekend, but Gushue postponed them another week, not wanting to chance a slip-up that might set him back. Things just were not quite right yet.
“Structurally, everything’s good," he says of the complicated mass of muscle, bone and cartilage that's been bedevilling him for some eight months now. "Right now, it’s just re-training the muscles to work again and to work properly.”
An appearance at an upcoming Olympic qualifier (The Canada Cup, in Brandon, Man.) is hanging in the balance as an already frustrated Gushue grows more and more eager to get back on the ice. Although missing the game terribly, he is determined not to rush back into action too soon for a number of reasons: He wants to be sure he is healthy for the long term, his team is playing well without him and perhaps most importantly, he is bound and bent that he will be ready for the Brier, which next March will be held in his home province of Newfoundland & Labrador for the first time since 1972.
“I wanna be a hundred per cent for that. That’s priority number one," says Gushue.
That's understandable given the enormity of the prospect of having a Brier back on The Rock, Gushue being one of the dogged proponents to help land the bid.
There has been good news, even if there have been setbacks. Not so long ago, Gushue says, he couldn't even sleep through a full night, involuntary movements in slumber setting off his pain sensors and jarring him awake. Now, at least, he is at the point where most of his everyday motions are just fine, except for the little twinge he feels when he tries to mimic a kick from the hack on a sliding machine at physio. That, of course, is a very important consideration since a steady and pain-free delivery is the end goal for the 36-year old Olympic Champion (2006).
“I’m not in pain, which I was for the better part of five or six months, Gushue says. "So, I’m excited about that and, mentally, I feel good being able to get a good night’s sleep and knowing that I don’t have to watch every little move, so I don’t get that shot of pain.”
That shot of pain is something Gushue first noticed as the curling season was drawing to a close last April. He tried to treat the symptoms when that happened and kept trying to do that through part of the summer, too. At some point it became fairly obvious that it might be better to deal with the root cause and that's when he found out his pelvis had become mis-aligned, leading to hip and groin issues caused by a whole bunch of muscle problems.
“There were certain muscles around that area that weren’t working anymore,” he says, pointing out that he needed two weeks just to re-align the pelvis, something that had to be accomplished before the hip and groin muscle troubles could even begin to be addressed. “It was to the point where I had a couple of muscles that, literally, were shut off. Just teaching them to fire again was a couple of weeks (more) frustration.”
Original expectations saw Gushue missing perhaps the first three or four events of the season but with his absence from this week's Tour Challenge that has now stretched to seven. It might well go to eight, as Gushue tags his prospects of playing in the Canada Cup as a toss-up. “I think it’s fifty-fifty to be honest,” he says, listing a number of necessary benchmarks before he can greenlight an appearance in competition.
“There’s a lot of things we have to take into consideration," he says. "Number one, am I able to play? If I am able to play, am I able to get my game into good enough shape where I feel like I can do a better job than a spare? Then, the other aspect - even if I get to that point - is am I strong enough to take the load of two games a day for three, four days in a row?”
With his left leg shrunken due to inactivity, Gushue would need to fast-track some muscle building if he is to play at the Canada Cup. If he gets on ice this weekend as planned and can push things a bit in the following two weeks, he just might give it a go in Brandon. If not, "we have a pretty good spare lined up.”
Lining up spares is something Gushue and his teammates - Mark Nichols, Brett Gallant and Geoff Walker - have done since the beginning of the season. Adam Spencer is filling in this week as he did in October when the team won the Stu Sells Toronto Tankard. Charley Thomas and Pat Simmons have also filled the void, but Gushue isn't saying who'll step in if he can't go to Brandon.
After a sensational 2015-16 season, where Gushue and his mates won three Grand Slams, finishing second at two others and earning silver at the Brier, the team finds itself in an enviable position when it comes to Olympic qualifying. While a win at the Canada Cup would be nice - and it's entirely possible they could win without Gushue - a spot in next year's Olympic trials might already be salted away. One berth is earned by the team that leads the Canadian Team Ranking System standings over a two season period. Team Gushue finished second to Team Kevin Koe last season (Koe's team has already earned an Olympic trials spot) and is once again near the top of the standings, this year, even without Gushue in the line-up.
“I feel like they want me back,” says Gushue, although midway through the sentence his voice starts to rise so it finishes in the form of a question. He laughs. “But they’re playing so well that they may not.”
They do want him back, of course. Gushue, however, is happy that a good season, so far, affords him the luxury of taking his time in order to be ready.
“I don’t feel like I have to rush back at seventy or eighty per cent," he says. "I feel like I can wait ’til it’s really close to a hundred per cent because they’ve earned enough points and they’ve been playing pretty good without me.”
Still, there is a great impatience. Gushue is not used to being a spectator and even returned to finish a game last season after he'd taken a nasty fall on the ice and been shuttled to hospital or stitches. “I’ve been playing on tour for, what, eighteen years now? Since I was eighteen years old. I never missed a game due to injury, in my career, up until this point.”
“I feel like when I get back I’m gonna be pretty hungry to get going because I certainly don’t like sittin’ and watchin’. I certainly miss it. Which is a good sign that I’ve still got the drive to go out there and compete.”
It hasn't been easy being sidelined. Gushue was with his teammates, in Toronto, for a good portion of the Stu Sells Tankard, even trying a practice slide on the ice that week. It didn't go so well and the skip ended up leaving before the final, admitting that he was having an emotionally bad day, being unable to play. He was with his team, again, at the Masters two weeks ago and is eager to really join them in competition but not willing to sacrifice the strides he's made in rehab to make it happen sooner rather than later.
“I have to look a little bit longer term with this injury," he says. "To jump back in for a week wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense if I’m gonna be right back at square one.”
“I think I could play, right now, with how I feel but it would be under some pain and discomfort and it could impact the long term outlook of the year and maybe even my career.”
If all goes well with a planned on-ice excursion this weekend, we may see him start his season on Nov. 30th. If not, we may not see Brad Gushue until the new year.