If the first seven days at the Tim Hortons Brier was a marathon, then the next two days will be a sprint.
Eighteen teams entered the curling bubble in Calgary last week and they’ve been whittled down to the elite eight which will compete in the championship round of the Canadian men’s curling championship.
It all starts Friday when Kevin Koe takes on Brendan Bottcher at 2:30pm et/11:30am pt on TSN 1/3 and streaming on TSN.ca, the TSN App and TSN Direct.
The top four teams in each pool will carry their records over and will play four more games against teams in the opposing pool.
With no page playoff this year, only the top three teams will make the playoffs. The top-ranked team after championship pool play will get a bye into Sunday’s championship contest while the second and third-seeded teams will battle in the semifinals earlier in the day.
Like last month’s Scotties Tournament of Hearts, entering championship pool play with three losses probably means you need to win out to have a chance to play on Sunday. It’s a tough task, but it can be done as proven by Alberta’s Laura Walker, who ran the table to get into a tiebreaker against Jennifer Jones. She won the game and reached the Scotties playoffs for the first time in her career.
Let’s take a closer look at the Brier’s championship pool and which teams are in the best position.
Wild Card 2 (Team Kevin Koe)
The Pool B winners are in good position to capture one of the three playoff spots thanks to their strong round-robin record.
Kevin Koe led his Calgary-based rink to wins in each of their first six games before dropping their first against Ontario’s John Epping on Wednesday night. They struggled early against Quebec, but turned things around in the second half to clinch the top spot.
“We’re in a good position going in. I like where we’re at,” said lead Ben Hebert on Thursday. “[We’re at] 7-1 and we control our own destiny to still claim the top spot if we run the table. That’s a good place to be, but we’re going to have to pick up our game at bit.
“We’ve been playing pretty good, but a few misses out of me and John, not setting us up early enough. We need to get on the same page and make it a little easier on BJ and Kev. If we do that, we’re going to be real tough to beat.”
After a brief hiatus, John Morris is back at the Brier this year, throwing second rocks and holding the broom for Koe. In fact, the two were teammates back in the early 2000s when Koe played vice for Morris.
If the 46-year-old Koe can find his way to the top of the podium Sunday night, he would be the only skip with five Brier Tankards to his name.
Wild Card 3 (Team Glenn Howard)
The story of this year’s Brier has been 53-year-old Wayne Middaugh.
Middaugh didn’t even know he’d be competing at this year’s Canadian championship until last month when a snowmobile accident resulted in multiple broken ribs for former teammate and long-time buddy Glenn Howard.
Howard couldn’t play so Middaugh got the call.
It’s a remarkable feat that Middaugh, a three-time world champion, is able to play at all given that he has a titanium rod in his leg after breaking 11 bones during a horrific skiing accident in 2016.
Due to COVID-19 protocols, curlers at Markin MacPhail Centre have had plenty of time to rest and relax between games, simply because they don’t have the various responsibilities of a normal Brier. Middaugh credits that factor as one of the reasons why he’s been able to stay sharp all week.
“There’s nothing that can replace being mentally fresh,” said Middaugh on Thursday.
The veteran has been pure vintage inside the bubble, regularly shooting in the high 80s and making numerous highlight reel game-winners. He’s gotten plenty of help from the sweeping due of David Mathers and Tim March while vice Scott Howard is playing some of the best curling of his life in Calgary.
Everything has clicked this week for Team Howard, beating perennial contenders in Brad Jacobs and Mike McEwen en route to a first-place finish in Pool A. They've won their last five games coming into the championship pool.
The skip says he isn’t feeling much pressure as an underdog this week compared to his heyday.
"Expectations weren't super high," Middaugh said. "We knew we could make a lot of shots. We weren't sure if we could run with the big guys, it turns out if we play really well (we can)."
Howard has been alongside his team for the entire ride as well and has used his coaching experience with Scotland’s Eve Muirhead to help where he can, said Middaugh.
“Our coach has been outstanding at getting us prepared for every game and every team,” said Middaugh. “He’s done all the things an awesome coach should do.”
It won’t get any easier in the championship round with matchups against Koe, Brad Gushue, John Epping and Matt Dunstone.
Canada (Team Brad Gushue)
The defending champs had a difficult schedule over their first four games, but took care of business in the second half of the preliminary round and are on a four-game winning streak coming into the championship pool.
“I think we have been getting better as the week has gone on,” skip Brad Gushue said. “We’re starting to feel more comfortable and more confident in our rock placement which is key for us.”
Gushue, 40, has had two perfect games this week and has shot 95 per cent or better in each of his last three games.
A fourth Brier title in five years would only add to Team Gushue’s legacy as one of the greatest rinks of all-time. It would also allow Gushue to join the ranks of Koe, Randy Ferbey, Kevin Martin and Ernie Richardson as the only skips to win the Brier four times.
Alberta (Team Brendan Bottcher)
Edmonton’s Brendan Bottcher is in familiar territory at the Canadian championship.
For the fourth straight year, the 29-year-old has led his rink out of the Saville Community Sports Centre into a good position to make the playoffs.
"It's a long week," Bottcher said. "It started out OK, I think we're gaining some momentum here and I hope we can take that through into the last couple days."
Alberta’s round robin finale against British Columbia was delayed nearly an hour due to ice repairs, but they were able to get back on track when play resumed to avoid the dreaded third loss. Bottcher made a beautiful game winning takeout with the last throw of the game to pick up the victory.
Bottcher’s rink became the first in history to lose three straight Brier finals when they fell to Gushue in Kingston last year.
Will they get over the hump in the curling bubble?
Saskatchewan (Team Matt Dunstone)
For the second straight year, 25-year-old Matt Dunstone and his rink are in a good position heading into the championship pool.
"We just accomplished step one of three ultimately," Dunstone said. "So it doesn't change. The arena, the rocks, everything stays the same come tomorrow."
Last year in Kingston, Ont., Team Dunstone had a 6-1 record after round-robin play and ended up with the bronze medal, the best result for the prairie province since 2015.
Whatever happens over the next couple days, Dunstone says his team is just grateful they get to curl at all.
“We’re out here trying to enjoy this as much as possible because we haven’t had curling in a year. To come back and not only play, but play on the biggest stage,” he said. “This is about as good as it gets and that’s our perspective going into this. Win or lose that’s not going to change, but obviously we’re going to go out there, compete our asses off and play well.”
Ontario (Team John Epping)
Toronto’s Team John Epping kicked off the Brier last Friday night with a 6-2 loss to Gushue and the defending champs.
They’ve turned things around since and have been one of the better squads inside the bubble, highlighted by a win over previously undefeated Team Koe.
Their skipper is getting hot at the right time as well, shooting 91 per cent or better in the last two games.
Epping lost to Brad Jacobs in the second playoff tiebreaker at last year’s Brier.
In The Mix
Northern Ontario (Team Brad Jacobs)
For the second straight year, Brad Jacobs and his Sault Ste. Marie rink will likely have to run the table in the championship pool to have a shot at the playoffs.
A tough 8-6 defeat to Wayne Middaugh in their round-robin finale gave them their third loss of the week.
They had three losses in round-robin play last year as well and still needed to win a pair of tiebreakers to make the page playoff after putting up a 4-0 record in the championship round.
If Team Jacobs was able to do it once, there’s a good chance they can find a way to do it again.
The 35-year-old Jacobs has made the playoffs in each of his six appearances at the Brier since winning his first and only Tankard in 2013.
Manitoba (Team Jason Gunnlaugson)
After winning their first five games, Manitoba’s Team Jason Gunnlaugson dropped their final three round-robin games and will be in for an uphill battle in the championship round.
They lost games to Middaugh and British Columbia’s Jim Cotter on Thursday after attempting difficult shots with their last throws.
In his first Brier appearance, last year in Kingston, Gunnlaugson held a 5-2 pool play record before losing all four games in the championship round.
Gunnlaugson faces Koe, Gushue, Epping and Dunstone on the schedule over the next couple days.