Glenn Howard, Brad Gushue, Kevin Koe. With names like that in this year's Brier field, you'd expect the rest of the pack to believe they might just be battling each other for the one playoff spot that would remain once the big three have claimed theirs.
That may or may not be the case and 11 round robin games over 6 days (with, maybe, a tiebreaker or two thrown in for good measure) will tell that tale.
Among those big three names, you could argue that two of them, as accomplished as they are, have a little something to prove.
Koe would be the one to leave out of that scenario, at least for now. He won the Brier in Halifax, in 2010, beating Howard by a point in an extra end when he calmly, coolly drew the button to win the title by inches. That made him the first rookie skip to win it all since 1992. He makes his second Brier appearance this year. At this point, he doesn't have any sort of millstone around his neck, having won the only Brier he's played in so far.
It's both Newfoundland/Labrador's Gushue and Ontario's Howard who may just feel that, despite their illustrious careers, they haven't scaled the top of the mountain often enough.
In total, they've made 14 Brier appearances as Skips. They have one championship between them. That's Howard's. And he defeated Gushue to get it, in 2007.
Howard's Brier history is dotted with the disappointment of finishing second 4 times in the last 6 years. A few of those losses have been agonizingly close, like the loss to Koe. Along with Vice Richard Hart, Second Brent Laing and Lead Craig Savill the team's round robin record over that time accrued to an eye-popping 57 and 9. But with title game losses to Quebec's Jean-Michel Menard, Alberta's Kevin Martin, Koe, as well as last year to Manitoba's Jeff Stoughton, those nearly flawless weeks leading up to the playoffs have been relegated, by some, to "yeah, but..." status.
"It definitely frustrates me to a degree," said Howard, over the phone, as he and his teammates waited to board their plane to Saskatoon. "You don't like coming second."
As for the notion that some feel he still has something to prove, Howard tries to let it roll off his back the best he can.
"I don't love the fact that it's brought up to me, because you're basing it on one game. Unfortunately, it's a big game. Don't get me wrong, winning the final is massive. But they can't base our accomplishments on one game. Just look at how consistent we've been over those 6 or 7 years. For sure it frustrates you a little bit because I don't think it's fair, but people are always entitled to their opinion."
For Gushue, the chase for the men's curling holy grail continues to be mired in the desert. So far, the Olympic Gold Medal Champion from the 2006 Torino Games has been shut out. He's never won the Brier, despite being in the tournament 9 out of the last 10 years. Had he not qualified to go to the Olympics in 2006, this would likely be his 10th straight appearance.
While his round robin record is not as impressive as Howard's (he's racked up a fine record of 64 and 35), Gushue has been, forever it seems, a Brier champion in waiting. No doubt he'd like to remove any ammunition his naysayers have by grabbing the big trophy this time around.
Those naysayers like to point out that Gushue won his Olympic gold with esteemed curling legend Russ Howard on his team and that Howard made all the difference in the world. Others argued that Gushue could have gotten the job done anyway and that Vice Mark Nichols was the real difference. Either way, Gushue will have to get it done without either of them in 2012. Howard, of course, is in the TSN booth and Nichols, a teammate of Gushue's for every Brier disappointment, retired from the game after last year's event.
Front ender Ryan Fry moves into the Vice spot, with newcomers Adam Casey and Geoff Walker taking up the Second and Lead positions, respectively. Gushue's roster has been in what seems like a continual state of flux, with this year's edition of his team constituting the 6th change of line up in the last 8 Brier years.
Howard, by contrast, has seen his line up stay as consistent as its play. Until this year, of course. When Hart decided at the end of last season that he was, like Nichols, stepping away from the game, the Howard rink plunked in none other than Wayne Middaugh, who skipped Ontario the the national title in 1998.
Missing the playoffs for either of these teams (as well as Koe's) would be considered disastrous. However just making the playoffs will not likely seem nearly enough.