Dunstone, Gushue, Bottcher and McEwen go Tankard hunting as final four set at Brier
It’s down to the final weekend at the Tim Hortons Brier.
Another marathon to the top of the Canadian curling mountain is about to reach its climax as only four of the 18 teams that began their journey last Friday at Budweiser Gardens in London, Ont., still have a chance to win it all.
Matt Dunstone and his undefeated rink from Manitoba, the defending Canadian men’s curling champions led by Brad Gushue and Brendan Bottcher’s super-team, otherwise known as Wild Card 1, are the top three teams on the Canadian Team Ranking System, so it only seems fitting they’ll get the opportunity to battle for the Tankard this weekend in the page playoffs.
Of course, we can’t forget about Mike McEwen and his Ontario foursome, ranked 12th in Canada, who find themselves in the midst of a truly remarkable turnaround, considering where they were just a few months ago.
What a few days of the best in men’s curling we have in store on TSN.
First came the page-seeding round Friday night which saw Canada hammer Ontario, 9-3, and Manitoba edge Wild Card 1, 5-3, thanks to a game-winning pistol from their sharp-shooting skip.
You can catch Team Bottcher take on Team McEwen Saturday afternoon in the page playoff 3 vs. 4-game at 1pm ET/10am PT on TSN 1/3 and streaming on TSN.ca or the TSN App. In the evening, Team Dunstone battles Team Gushue in the 1 vs. 2-contest at 7pm ET/4pm PT on TSN1 and streaming on TSN.ca or the TSN App.
Let’s take a closer look at the teams remaining and the storylines heading into crunch time at the national championship.
Manitoba (Team Matt Dunstone)
Manitoba’s Team Matt Dunstone is the No. 1-ranked rink in Canada and is currently leading the way at the Tim Hortons Brier.
The first-year foursome – featuring Dunstone, third B.J. Neufeld, second Colton Lott and lead Ryan Harnden – are the only team yet to lose this week, posting a perfect 8-0 in the round robin.
They punched their ticket to Saturday's 1 vs. 2-game after beating Wild Card 1's Team Bottcher, 5-3, Friday in the page-seeding game thanks to a pistol through the port by their skip with the last throw of the contest.
"Oh man, this team has been waiting for that moment all year," Dunstone told the media after the win. "We haven't really had a moment where we had a shot to win a game like that. Obviously a big moment."
They'll take on Team Gushue in that contest, which will also feature a battle between brothers and former longtime teammates in E.J. and Ryan Harnden.
"The Harnden brothers get to bash it out in the 1-2 game. Pretty excited for that. We've only got to play them once this year, surprisingly, so it's going to be an interesting game," said Dunstone.
In the round robin, Manitoba handled playoff teams in Alberta and Northern Ontario with relative ease and are shooting a tournament-best 88 per cent.
Dunstone, shooting 87 per cent, and Neufeld, throwing 90 per cent, were named first-team All-Stars in their respective positions on Friday.
The skipper says his team is playing some of the best curling of their season thanks in part to the quality of the playing surface made by icemaker Greg Ewasko.
“We’re stringing together a lot of good ends. The ice is amazing. It’s easy to make shots when you got Greg doing the ice. He’s the best in the business,” Dunstone told the media on Thursday.
Dunstone may be one of the youngest skips in the field – especially among the top contenders – but at 27 the Kamloops, B.C., resident and native of Winnipeg has plenty of experience in crunch time at nationals. The two-time Canadian junior champion won bronze medals at the 2020 and 2021 Briers, losing in the semifinals to Gushue and Bottcher, respectively.
“That’s what we play for,” remarked Dunstone, who is wearing the Buffalo at the Brier for the first time in his career.
“It’s amazing. It’s everything you sacrifice. Family life at home, friends, all that sort of stuff. I mean, it makes it all worth it. Obviously, it didn’t go my way [in the past], but the more you put yourself in those positions, no doubt this entire group is going to be super comfortable if we do end up at that point.”
Neufeld won his lone Brier Tankard in 2019 with Team Koe while Harnden captured the Canadian championship as a member of Team Brad Jacobs in 2013, followed by Olympic gold in 2014.
Manitoba last won the Tim Hortons Brier in 2011 when Jeff Stoughton accomplished the feat. The location of that year’s bonspiel? London.
Is it meant to be for Team Dunstone in 2023?
Canada (Team Brad Gushue)
The defending champions have returned to the playoffs at the Canadian men’s curling championship, this time with a full four-person lineup.
Hours before the page-seeding game at last year's Brier in Lethbridge, Alta., Team Gushue learned that their All-Star third Mark Nichols had tested positive for COVID-19 and was done for the tournament. Despite playing with just three players – Gushue, Brett Gallant and Geoff Walker – the team from The Rock did the improbable and won three consecutive playoff games to hoist the Tankard for the fourth time since 2017.
In London, Gushue has been dealing with lower-body discomfort, but as a whole, the team is healthy and ready to defend their title, this time with E.J. Harnden on the squad.
With Canada's rout of Ontario's Team McEwen Friday night in the page-seeding round, Team Gushue aren't back on the ice until Saturday night when they take on Team Dunstone in the 1 vs. 2-game.
"The bigger the break, the better for me," Gushue said after beating Ontario.
Canada has lost one game at Budweiser Gardens, a 6-4 decision to Team McEwen last Saturday. They had a handful of close games throughout the round robin, but have been sharp as of late, shooting a collective 93 per cent and 95 per cent in their last two games round robin games.
“I think we’ve built all week. We started off really slow, but the last day and a half I’ve felt like this is probably the best we’ve played all year,” Gushue told the media following an 8-3 win over Yukon on Thursday.
Gushue and company have played strong defence recently as well, allowing their opponents to just three points in each of their last four games.
If Gushue can get to the top of the podium again come Sunday, he would stand alone as the only skip with five career Brier titles, passing Ernie Richardson, Randy Ferbey, Kevin Martin and Kevin Koe.
The 42-year-old, who is making his 20th appearance at the Canadian championship, has won a record 170 games at the Brier over a record 244 games.
All that experience can’t hurt when the tension ramps up a few notches at playoff time, but it’s not necessarily an advantage, says the veteran skip, given his opponents have been here once or twice as well.
“I wouldn’t put too much weight in it because those guys have played some really big games,” Gushue told the media. “They’re not going to be scared by that moment when you get out there on the only sheet.”
Even after all those high-pressure moments, Gushue says these types of games will never lose their excitement.
“These games all start to matter. That’s when you get a little bit of nerves. It’s something as you get older in your career, you struggle to get because you’ve played so many games,” said Gushue. “Certainly, I’ve had it over the last couple of games. The excitement to go out there and throw and I think that’s translated into some pretty good curling.”
Much like Team Kerri Einarson at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts, Team Gushue may still be the team to beat in London as the defending champions.
Wild Card 1 (Team Brendan Bottcher)
Curling’s “super-team” have found their form at the Tim Hortons Brier.
It has taken some time this season for the new-look rink of Bottcher, third Marc Kennedy, second Brett Gallant and lead Ben Hebert to get where they are today, but they seem to be peaking at the right time.
“The recipe for us was getting down to work and practising hard. We’ve met up a whole bunch of times in Calgary and Edmonton. Coach Paul Webster has kept us on track, and we’ve been busting our ass to keep getting better, improve our communication and find who Team Bottcher is,” Kennedy told TSN.ca earlier this week. “That’s what this whole first year has been about and this is our first really big major event together, so we’re still learning a lot. We do have the long-term focus in mind here.”
Team Bottcher finished second in Pool B with a 7-1 record before controlling play in their page qualifier against Northern Ontario’s Team Tanner Horgan, winning 8-5 Friday afternoon at Budweiser Gardens.
They came up short in the page-seeding round, dropping a close 5-3 decision to Manitoba, meaning they'll take on Ontario in the 3 vs. 4-page playoff.
"In all honesty, I think we played our best two games of the week today," Bottcher said Friday night. "So, that's a lot of good momentum and I'm feeling good about tomorrow."
The front-end duo of Hebert and Gallant, who shot 95 per cent and 90 per cent respectively this week, were named first-team All-Stars on Friday as well.
Bottcher’s crew out of the Glencoe Curling Club in Calgary is the most decorated team on paper in this year’s field with a combined 12 Brier Tankards, five world championships and three Olympic medals.
“I still think we have another gear,” said the skip. “To win one of these you got to play real well on the weekend and we’re trending in the right direction. I’m feeling really good about it.”
Team Bottcher was built with the intention of capturing gold in Italy three years from now at the 2026 Winter Olympics. Will London be the first stepping stone?
Ontario (Team Mike McEwen)
Ontario Mike McEwen
What a story the 2022-23 curling campaign has been for Mike McEwen.
The 42-year-old Winnipeg native, who had spent his two-decade long career playing out of Manitoba, jumped over to Ontario this season when an opportunity to skip a new team, featuring third Ryan Fry, second Brent Laing and lead Jonathan Beuk, presented itself.
The early returns were not promising for Team McEwen, eventually leading to the departure of Beuk in mid-January just days before the Ontario Tankard.
Joey Hart came on board as the new lead, as did his father and Ontario curling legend, Richard, who serves as the team’s coach.
Somehow the rink out of the Royal Canadian Curling Club in Toronto found a spark at provincials to win the Tankard and punch their ticket to London as the hometown team.
Here in London, Team McEwen won a tense clash against Wild Card 3’s Team Karsten Sturmay Thursday night to finish 6-2 and avoid a tiebreaker, setting up a date with Alberta’s Team Kevin Koe in the page qualifier on Friday.
The game against Alberta was one of the best contests of the week with the two sides trading three-spots in back-to-back ends and scoring five combined deuces. Ontario took their first lead of the game on its very last throw, scoring a pair with a double takeout in the 10th, winning 9-8 to send them to the page-seeding round against Canada’s Team Gushue.
“That was one for the ages. I have not been in a game quite like that in some time,” McEwen told the media after the win.
“That was kind of a special playoff game. There’s always great playoff games, but that ranks up there, I think, as one of the most entertaining I’ve ever been apart of.”
McEwen, who shot 89 per cent in the win, hasn’t been to the page playoffs at the Brier since 2017.
The electric crowd at Budweiser Gardens roared after McEwen’s game-winner on Friday, a sign they’ve fully accepted the Winnipegger as one of their own this week.
“This is my eighth Brier and I got to say every Ontario Brier I’ve played in has been tremendous whether I’ve [been on] a Manitoba or Wild Card team, but it’s even better when I’m wearing the Black and Red in this situation. The crowd has been so supportive,” he said.
It didn't go McEwen's way in the page-seeding round later Friday, however, as Ontario fell to Team Gushue, 9-3. They'll need to beat Team Bottcher in the 3 vs. 4-game on Saturday to keep their Tankard hopes alive.
"I'm pretty sure I've never heard anybody win the Brier on Friday, so we're playing tomorrow," McEwen said after the loss. "I think we can just shake this off. Short term memory. We'll have conditions we're a little more used to tomorrow afternoon."
McEwen pondered if he still had what it took to win at this level during the team’s early-season struggles, but says he regained his confidence thanks to Fry’s belief in him.
“Ryan was always in my corner. He was unwavering and it just feels good to have that belief again,” McEwen said of his vice on Friday.
Ontario hasn’t won the Brier since Glenn Howard’s run in 2012.
Does McEwen and company have enough left in the tank to continue their remarkable turnaround?