Brier in the Bubble: Defending champion Gushue beats Epping in opening draw

·3 min read

CALGARY — Some of the top men's curling teams in the country returned to the ice after a long absence Friday as the Tim Hortons Brier kicked off in a bubble setting at the Markin MacPhail Centre.

The opening draw of the 10-day competition came on the heels of a successful Canadian women's curling championship, the first of seven events to be played in the Canada Olympic Park hub.

Defending champion Brad Gushue picked up where he left off a year ago when he raised the Brier tankard in Kingston, Ont. The veteran skip from St. John's, N.L., defeated Ontario's John Epping 6-2.

In other Draw 1 games, Saskatchewan's Matt Dunstone dumped Nunavut's Peter Mackey 10-2, Wild Card Two's Kevin Koe beat Nova Scotia's Scott McDonald 7-4 and Quebec's Michael Fournier edged Greg Smith of Newfoundland and Labrador 7-6.

The members of the Gushue rink last curled together as a foursome a year ago. The team won a couple bonspiels in Halifax last fall without Alberta-based lead Geoff Walker, who remained out west.

There were few signs of rust in the preliminary-round opener. The team threw at a 91 per cent clip and Gushue was perfect at 100 per cent.

Canada second Brett Gallant made a brilliant triple takeout in the second end and jokingly waved to the cardboard cutouts stationed throughout the spectator-free arena.

The teams blanked the first three ends as they got a feel for playing on arena ice again. Epping was heavy on a hit-and-roll attempt in the fourth end that set up a Gushue draw for two.

Ontario settled for a single in the fifth before a Gushue hit and roll set up another deuce in the sixth end. The teams shook hands after a Canada single in the ninth end.

For most teams, it was their first competitive game action in several months. A handful of tour events were played last fall before the pandemic forced the cancellation or postponement of most competitions.

Some provincial and territorial teams were able to play down in recent weeks, but most rinks were invited by their respective associations when championships were cancelled due to the pandemic.

Two more wild-card entries were added this year, boosting the field to 18 teams.

Players are staying in a hotel across the road from the WinSport Arena and are being tested for COVID-19 on a regular basis. Coaches and team alternates wore masks on the end benches.

Electronic hog-line sensors on the stone handles were not used for the second straight event due to equipment delays as a result of the pandemic. The honour system was in effect.

Three draws were scheduled for Saturday. Preliminary-round play continues through Thursday night.

The top four teams in each pool will advance to the two-day championship pool starting March 12. The top three teams will move on to the playoffs on March 14.

The second- and third-place teams will meet in an afternoon semifinal with the winner to play the first-place team for the championship.

The Brier winner will earn $100,000 of the $300,000 total purse, return as Team Canada at the 2022 Brier in Lethbridge, Alta., and earn a berth in the Olympic Trials in November at Saskatoon.

The champions will also represent Canada at the April 2-11 world men's curling championship in the Calgary bubble.

Kerri Einarson won the Scotties Tournament of Hearts last weekend. She'll represent Canada at the April 30-May 9 women's world curling championship, which was added to the bubble calendar Friday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 5, 2021.

Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.

The Canadian Press