Only two teams to take part in Newfoundland and Labrador men's curling championship

Eh Game
Brad Gushue, Mark Nichols, Brett Gallant and Geoff Walker with the 2014 Canadian Open trophy. (Anil Mungal/Sportsnet)
Brad Gushue, Mark Nichols, Brett Gallant and Geoff Walker with the 2014 Canadian Open trophy. (Anil Mungal/Sportsnet)

What if they threw a provincial curling championship and no one showed up?

It's not quite the case in Newfoundland and Labrador, but it's close.

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The province's 2015 champion will be crowned this week and it will be one of only two teams that will be the winners.

Two teams. Two. As in one more than one.

With such a scarcity of entries, one has to wonder why that is the case. Is curling dying in Newfoundland and Labrador? Not necessarily.

Turns out there are two major reasons for it and one of them is that Brad Gushue is just too damn good. The other is location, location, location.

The 2015 Newfoundland and Labrador Tankard is being held in Labrador City, a mining town with a population of about 9,300 on the edge of Labrador, along the Quebec border. Labrador City is some 2,100 kilometres away from St. John's, by car. It's a three and a half hour flight. Now, not all possible competing teams would have come from the St. John's area, but suffice to say, it is not easy to get to Labrador City.

Only one team will actually make the trek to Labrador City and that is Team Brad Gushue, one of the hottest men's teams on the planet, with two Grand Slam wins on the season and ranked third in the world behind only Manitoba's Team Mike McEwen and Northern Ontario's Team Brad Jacobs..

The other team - the Gary Wensman rink - is a member of the host club in Labrador City.

Since they are the only other team entered in the provincial playdowns, Gushue's team will play a best of five series against them, with the winner going to the Brier, in March.

Gushue's none too pleased about this, either, telling the Calgary Herald's Jeff MacKinnon:

“It’s extremely disappointing, but it’s more disappointing that our association actually decided to host the provincials up there with the cost. That team (Team Wensman) would not have played the provincials if it was anywhere else but Labrador City.”

Why the province's association decided to hold the championship in such a remote town might be a head-scratcher for most.

Newfoundland and Labrador Curling Association president Gary Oke offered this explanation to the St. John's Telegram:

“We’re caught between a rock and a hard place. They (the Carol Curling Club in Labrador City) want to host as a member club and they sort of demanded to host, so we had to give them something.”

It's true that a province's regulating curling body does have an accepted mandate to spread the  yearly event around, offering top-notch curling to places that might not otherwise have access to it. However, given the response - the balking by so many teams to pay the thousands of dollars necessary to participate in Labrador City - it's a fairly sure bet that the Newfoundland and Labrador Curling Association is having second thoughts about this year's site.

Mind you, as Gushue maintains, the association should have seen this coming. According to his recollection, when provincials were last held in Labrador City, three years ago, 5 or 6 teams showed up.

“It was quite evident at that time that it was no longer a good idea to have the provincials up there anymore and they turned around and did it this year, which is really mind blowing,” Gushue told Mackinnon.

There is another factor at play here and it has to do with Gushue himself.

As mentioned, his team is soaring this season and looks even more untouchable than it has in the past. With the re-addition of Mark Nichols to the squad, Gushue - along with teammates Brett Gallant and Geoff Walker - are a house afire. With wins at The Masters and The Canadian Open, as well as a January victory at the Perth Masters, in Scotland, they are seen as the runaway best team in the province. Why would anyone want to spend thousands of dollars just to have their team wasted by the front-runner?

“You’ve got to weigh your cost versus the likelihood of success,” veteran curler Ken Peddigrew told the Telegram's Kenn Oliver. “With Team Gushue in the mix, it makes it incredibly unlikely that you’re going to win.”

Gushue hasn't lost a game at provincials since 2010. He's won 11 provincial tankards in 11 tries. The only time a Gushue team didn't win at provincials in that time was in 2006, when Peddigrew claimed the title. Gushue didn't take part in that set of playdowns, instead winning a gold medal at the Olympics, in Torino.

Said Oke, of Gushue, to the Telegram: 

“You can’t blame Brad for doing what he does and doing it very well. He’s one of the best in the world."

“But how many times can you beat your head against the wall?"

For his part, Gushue is frosted that his team has to fork over thousands to head to Labrador City in order to defend their title.

“But we want to do well in the Grand Slams and we want to win the Brier. That’s what this team is formed to do. If it costs that much money, we’re willing to do it. It’s kind of the sacrifice you have to make," he told the Herald.

Mind you, Gushue's team is in a whole lot better position to outlay the expense money than most. With a solid set of sponsors in place, his team has won over $83,0000.00 on tour this season.

Spending a small portion of that in order to secure another Brier berth - the odds of the Wensman rink beating Gushue would be STEEP - seems like a wholly acceptable expenditure. After all, with all his career successes, Gushue still has one thing on his to-do list; Win a Brier. 2015 may be his best shot at it since his team lost the final to Glenn Howard in 2007.

Speaking of the Brier, you would expect that whatever objections Gushue has over the handling of this year's Tankard, he'll not create a huge amount of friction with Oke and the executive. That's because they need each other, as their collective wish to have a Brier in St. John's is revving up.

In the end, having just two teams taking part in a province's curling championship is embarrassing, no doubt. If the competition were being held in St. John's - or somewhere driveable - one would assume that a few more teams would take part, if only to get some high-quality competition in.

As it is, the 2015 Newfoundland and Labrador Tankard will see a rather lonely piping in of the competitors.

Two teams.

Because of two things. One: Labrador City is just too far away. Two: Brad Gushue is just too damn good.

 

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