EDMONTON — There was a time last summer when Canada skip Brad Gushue didn't know if he'd be able to play in a single game this season.
A left hip/groin injury that first bothered him in the spring was not progressing the way he expected.
"It was a real mental struggle and emotional too," Gushue said. "You didn't know where that light at the end of the tunnel was when I was going to be able to throw again."
Mark Nichols took over as skip for the first few months with substitutes filling in at third. Gushue eventually returned in December and has continued regular physiotherapy, massage work and stretching routines since.
He has been able to manage the injury this season and his team hasn't missed a beat.
Gushue's quest for that elusive Tim Hortons Brier title ended last month and now he's a win away from becoming a world champion.
Gushue, Nichols, second Brett Gallant and lead Geoff Walker have been dominant this week at the Northlands Coliseum. They swept the 11-game round-robin and beat Sweden's Niklas Edin in the Page playoff 1-2 game on Friday.
Canada will play Sweden again in the final Sunday night. Edin advanced with a 6-5 extra-end win over Switzerland's Peter de Cruz in the semifinal.
"We have played a lot of big games as a group," Gushue said Saturday after a half-hour practice session. "I think we know how to handle it a whole lot better now than what we used to."
Gushue and Nichols won a world junior title together in 2001 and took Olympic gold at the Turin Games five years later. The current four-man lineup has been together for three seasons.
The team has managed to stay on top of the rankings despite the unusual first half of the campaign.
Gushue won't need surgery to repair his injury, which is actually the result of a tilted pelvis.
He plans to take two months over the off-season to get the muscles around the pelvis strong enough to hold it in place. Gushue is hopeful that will allow him to play pain-free next season.
In the meantime, he's playing through the pain and has cut back on practice time. Shorter games thanks to blowout wins have also helped minimize his time on the ice.
During the curling motion, some of Gushue's muscles can pull more and his pelvis can tilt or slide. At one point last year, his pelvis dropped two inches.
Now it goes out maybe a half-inch at most.
"It's constantly getting it back in place and trying to just maintain it right now is all we're trying to do," Gushue said. "And get through 24 more hours, to be honest."
Gushue has come a long way from when he was lying on his couch last summer with a heating pad on his hip, using his computer to see how his team was doing on the circuit.
"There really was no timeline," Gushue said. "You'll be ready when you're ready (was the message). I'm still working through it. It was tough."
He finally returned in December and it was a stiff challenge.
"It was an absolute grind," Gushue said. "And I mean it took every bit of mental and physical strength that I had to get through the week. And I needed three weeks after that to recover to prepare for after Christmas.
"It was a long road to get here, no doubt."
Some positives emerged from the situation.
Nichols showed he can lead a team and the front end also grew more confident by handling the adjustment nicely. Gushue is also mentally fresher as his season is only a few months old.
"Obviously for me it made me hungrier and it made me more focused when I came back this year," he said.
That focus was evident at the Brier in St. John's. The team shone over the second half of the round-robin and thrilled the hometown crowd with a victory over 2016 world champ Kevin Koe in the final.
It was Gushue's first national title in 14 career Brier appearances. The monkey was finally off his back.
"To have that gone, there's less stress for sure," Gushue said. "I would imagine over the next 24 hours it's going to be far less stressful than it was in St. John's."
"Far less — emphasize far," he added with a laugh.
Edin, a two-time world champion, also took Olympic bronze in 2014. He's feeling confident ahead of the rematch with the Canadians.
"They have the momentum but also the pressure," Edin said. "So I think if we can stick to the (gameplan) and keep it close for half the game, I think nerves might come into it."
Gushue has a chance to become the first skip since Winnipeg's Kerry Burtnyk to run the table at this event. Burtnyk swept the 10-team field en route to the 1995 title in Brandon, Man.
"A few years ago, I don't think anyone would have mentioned him as the best skip out there," Edin said of Gushue. "But now he's definitely the best skip out there and not missing much at all.
"So I just think that's dedication and hard work paying off at the end."
De Cruz defeated American John Shuster 11-4 in the Page playoff 3-4 game earlier Saturday. The teams will play again for bronze on Sunday.
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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press