When Quebec curling champion Jean-Michel Menard makes his return to The Brier this weekend, his trip will be much more a family affair than it has been in the past.
Menard's lead will be his little brother, Philippe. The coach will be their father, Robert.
Jean-Michel has skipped for his province in four previous Briers, but never once has he had his father along as coach, nor his brother along as part of the team.
"When the two brothers decided to play together we thought we might as well ask 'daddy' if he wants to join the team," explained Menard with a good laugh.
The Menard family reunion has been a smash hit so far, with Philippe providing solid play and dad chiming in with his thoughts on what's going right and what's going wrong at the appropriate times. It's a combination that's led back to nationals after three years in the curling wilderness that had Menard, the 2006 Brier champion, feeling some doubt.
“You always wonder if you’ll ever get back and finally we were able to make it through this year," he said.
Get back, he has, with an emphatic week at the Quebec provincials, where the team - including second Eric Sylvain and vice Martin Crete - waltzed to an 8 and 1 round robin record and then outlasted Philippe Lemay by a 7-6 count in the final.
In a family of such strong curling conviction, it could appear curious that father and two sons hadn't banded together before, what with both lads being prodigious brick tossers and the patriarch a longtime coach of high regard. Jean-Michel explains the simple reasons behind the late marshaling of the Menard men.
"There’s ten years difference between us," Menard said of his brother Philippe. "When I finished junior he was just beginning curling.”
By the time Philippe was old enough to play with the men, Menard already had an established team.
As for father, Robert?
“The timing never was good for him to coach our team," explained Jean Michel, pointing out that he'd been recruited by a high performance coaching outfit as a junior, and then had moved to Quebec City while his father remained in Northern Quebec. The distance between the two meant a curling relationship wasn't terribly feasible. They did work together, albeit briefly, years ago.
“He coached me half a year. 1996. Which was my last year of junior. He picked up the slack in the second half of that year and he helped us win the provincial honours that year. Besides that he had never coached me.”
Now that's all changed and Robert has a very specific role with the Quebec champions. While the strategic counseling will largely come from Quebec's alternate Pierre Charette - “He’s probably one of the best strategists in the whole world” says Menard - Robert will provide the team with a psychological boost from time to time.
“My dad’s strength is the mental side of the game," explained Jean-Michel. "He’s never been a really competitive curler. So, in terms of strategy, he’ll let us do whatever we want. His strength is to get us prepared properly for a game and to have the right mindset when we get on the ice so we can perform at a great level.”
Adjustments from father usually come during the fifth end break of a game. “At provincials, we called a few timeouts and he never even got off his chair" Menard said, the last few words of the sentence almost completely camouflaged by laughter.
“Sometimes when he was seeing things that maybe weren’t optimal, psychologically, he would try and give us some hints, like ‘watch this’ or ‘watch that’ or ‘your tempo is faster than it is usually,’ or ‘you’re nervous.’ He just tried to make us reflect on how we usually perform well and what’s our (usual) routine compared to what it is at the present time when we’re playing.”
“I think he basically learned ‘on the street’ how to become a sports psychologist," Menard chuckled. "He’s got street smarts in psychology.”
While Robert did not coach Jean-Michel much while growing up, brother Philippe did get extensive tutoring from him as a junior. When lead Jean Gagnon left the team after the 2009 Brier it seemed pretty natural that the younger Menard would join the team at some point. But that was not before Philippe gained his own Brier experience, having played lead for Francois Gagne in 2011. The skip has been impressed by Philippe.
“Quite frankly, it’s been very good," he said of his younger brother's performance. “He’s a great team player. He does what he has to do. He’s a great asset for our team."
Could another Quebec Brier championship be in the offing?
“I would rank ourselves in the top six," Menard replied when asked if he shouldn't be grouped in with the likes of past champions Jeff Stoughton, Kevin Martin and Glenn Howard at the top of the table. All three of those skips were present when Menard won his title in 2006.
The key, he believes, will be getting off to a good start. By the time Draw Six is over on Monday afternoon, Menard will have met two of the best.
“We’ve got two of the contenders (Martin and Stoughton) in our first four games. I think that’s a good thing. Teams like that, usually the more they get used to the ice the better they perform. If I’m to be an underdog, I’d rather play them early," he said.
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