Nunavut's Jake Higgs guides his team to territory's first-ever win at Brier

LONDON, Ont. — Kevin Koe, Reid Carruthers and Matt Dunstone were the headliners entering the Saturday afternoon draw at the Tim Hortons Brier.

Nunavut skip Jake Higgs ended up stealing the show.

Higgs guided his team to a 7-4 victory over Newfoundland and Labrador's Nathan Young for the territory's first-ever win at the Canadian men's curling championship.

"I have been a competitive curler for a long time," Higgs said. "I got to go to the Olympics as a coach but this (win) in front of this crowd today, it was the best moment of my curling life."

Nunavut entered play with an all-time record of 0-38 at the Brier since making its debut in 2018.

Playing on Sheet A by the side boards at Budweiser Gardens, the spectators gave the players a standing ovation after the historic win. Higgs raised his broom in the air and the crowd roared its approval.

"You have to experience it to understand what it felt like," Higgs said. "It was incredible."

Higgs stole a single in the ninth end when Young was heavy with a draw. The 47-year-old team import made a hit and roll in the 10th that sat buried and Young's tricky double-takeout attempt didn't work out.

The announced crowd of 4,858 included many friends and family members from the five-player Nunavut side.

"So many people I know from across Ontario and Canada were out there watching and cheering for us," Higgs said. "It felt really genuine and it felt awesome."

Higgs lives in Strathroy, Ont., about a half-hour drive from London. Three of his four teammates also have southern Ontario roots.

Second Brady St. Louis, an Iqaluit native, lives in nearby St. Marys, Ont. Lead Christian Smitheram was born in Oakville, Ont., and calls Iqaluit home.

Fifth Terry Lichty, a native of Guelph, Ont., also lives in the Nunavut capital. Third Sheldon Wettig was born in Iqaluit and resides in Brandon, Man.

"I'm still floating up somewhere else," Smitheram said after the memorable win. "It's surreal and so great to be here."

Higgs was 0-7 in his previous Brier appearance in 2020. He has made four career appearances at the Canadian mixed playdowns and coached the American mixed doubles team at the 2018 Winter Olympics.

After shaking hands, the Nunavut squad took pictures by the scoreboard featuring the historic result before celebrating with supporters in the stands.

"You just try to keep breathing," Higgs said of the final few ends. "I was nervous out there. You just try and say, 'You know what, just make all the shots you can and let the chips fall where they may.'

"Today we made more shots. It was awesome."

Nunavut played in a pre-tournament qualification draw at the Brier in 2016 and '17.

The territory went 0-3 in both years before getting a main draw berth in 2018. Qualification games are not considered official results by Curling Canada.

On Saturday, curlers on the other three sheets would occasionally check in on the Sheet A action. The loudest cheers of the day were for the Nunavut side.

"You can tell how much it means to them," said Nova Scotia third Luke Saunders. "It's so good for the nation that this is just so well represented. Everybody feels present.

"I think that this win really secures that. Happy to be out there for it."

It was the Nunavut team's first competitive game since winning the territorial playdowns in Iqaluit last December.

"I think it'll do nothing but help curling up there," Higgs said. "They've got a good junior program going up there and they're starting to get more involvement.

"A win like this, maybe it (gets) a few more people out to the rink. I think it'll be great."

Nunavut also had a main draw spot in the Canadian women's championship starting in 2018. The territory earned its first Scotties Tournament of Hearts win the following year.

In other games Saturday, Dunstone led his Manitoba side to a 9-3 victory over Saskatchewan's Kelly Knapp.

Koe's Alberta team held off Nova Scotia's Matthew Manuel 5-4 and Northern Ontario's Tanner Horgan posted a 6-4 win over Carruthers and his Wild Card 2 rink.

In the night draw, Brendan Bottcher's Wild Card 1 side picked up a 10-3 win over Karsten Sturmay's Wild Card 3 rink, and Ontario's Mike McEwen topped Canada's Brad Gushue 6-4.

Quebec's Felix Asselin beat Yukon's Thomas Scoffin 8-2 and Prince Edward Island's Tyler Smith needed an extra end to complete a 9-8 win over New Brunswick's Scott Jones.

The competition shifts to a three-draw daily schedule starting Sunday. Round-robin play continues through Thursday and the final is scheduled for March 12.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 4, 2023.

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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press