Calm, cool Koe leads Alberta to 2016 Brier championship

Alberta Skip Kevin Koe, centre right, celebrates with lead Ben Hebert, right, second Brent Laing, left, and third Marc Kennedy after their win in the final against Newfoundland and Labrador at the Tim Hortons Brier curling championship, Sunday March 13, 2016, in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

It was the seventh end of the 2016 Brier final that ultimately sealed the fates its combatants while perfectly capturing the essence of nine days and nights of curling by what so many called the best Brier field in history.

Cracking a three-spot with a laser shot to pick out a Newfoundland & Labrador stone, Alberta skip Kevin Koe broke open a tight one and sailed on to a win over Brad Gushue, claiming the 87th Canadian men's curling championship by a score of 9-5, in nine ends.

“It’s pretty special anytime you can win a Brier, especially in this field, I mean it was so tough," Koe told TSN moments after the win, his third since 2010. "So many good teams. Hardest one I’ve ever been at.”

Koe wasn't the only one basking in the glow of a third Brier win. Each of his teammates were doing the same. It's just that they'd not done it together before. Lead Ben Hebert and third Marc Kennedy had won twice for Alberta with Kevin Martin as their skip, while second Brent Laing had previously claimed two titles for Ontario while playing with Glenn Howard. All of them brought a top-drawer game to the final, collectively curling 94%, led by Laing's perfect score of 100% on the eighteen stones he threw.

It was fairly fitting that this championship game was characterized by an end such as the seventh, providing a marvellous capper for a superb week of curling, one that saw sensational shooting and heartbreaking misses, crafty strategies and even a playoff game decided by a millimetre or two.

You could call that end "seven the hard way," as the teams engaged in a battle royale for the soul of a game that would crown a champion.

With Alberta leading by a single point, the two rinks kept the first thirteen rocks in play, drawing, tapping and guarding, nerves jangled with each kiss of a stone in what became a granite quarry all around the four-foot. Seven of those thirteen rocks were in or biting that red circle, leading Koe and his teammates to take not one but two timeouts as they discussed, convinced, decided and then discussed, convinced and decided again, just what they needed to do to make the hammer pay off for them. After that long meeting, Koe's first stone seemed to have Gushue in a real bind, with Alberta yellow dominating a complicated scoring area that had more angles and possibilities than a university math final.

Gushue, seeking his first Brier in this, his thirteenth appearance, countered with a sensational bail-out shot, moving three Alberta stones to the perimeter and leaving one of his own red stones as the counter, with Koe's last attempt to come. Koe was equal to the task, picking that Newfoundland & Labrador stone out from behind two of his own rocks, with very little margin for error.

Boom. Koe and his mates counted three, to jump ahead by a score of 7-3 and when the skip made another terrific shot in the ninth - a runback to score two more, Gushue and his teammates gave it up, deciding that a rally from four down was not to be had.

It was that seventh end that tilted the scales, after Gushue and his teammates - Mark Nichols, Brett Gallant and Geoff Walker - had scrambled their way back into it after falling behind by a score of 4-1. Alberta played a ruthlessly efficient first five ends, opening the game with a steal and then another, then forcing Newfoundland & Labrador to a single. In the fourth end they cracked a deuce and then forced Gushue to another single. “I feel like we’ve won every end so far out of the first five,” Koe told TSN at the break, and he was right.

Koe, who booked a 96% for the game, was as sharp as a newly-papered stone, making two superb draws to power those opening steals, while Kennedy chipped in with a nifty double to lead to Alberta's deuce in the fourth.

Credit to Gushue and his mates - who were trying to become the first Newfoundland & Labrador team to win a Brier since 1976 - for forcing Koe into one of his few mistakes on the night, when they gambled on a draw in the sixth end, stealing a point when the Alberta skip missed a runback for two.

They were back in the game and it looked like this Brier - which had pretty much everything, including two father-son tandems playing for one team and an emotional appearance by Craig Savill on Thursday night - just might get a script-like ending. A Gushue win would have had him wearing the maple leaf on his back as a returning champion at next year's Brier, which it just so happens, will be held in St. John's Newfoundland.

Gushue will have to wait to see if he can provide a storybook ending there, instead, because Koe and his teammates had their own story to write.

It was one that saw them come out on top in a pivotal "chapter 7," on the way to a 2016 Brier win.


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