What started out as a few beers amongst friends on a warm, lazy Friday night in August led to a provincial men’s curling championship five months later and a trip to the Brier for Greg Smith’s curling team from St. John’s.
“We came together in August,” said Smith, shortly after winning the provincial men’s curling Tankard, and the all-Newfoundland championship Sunday at Re/Max Centre in St. John’s, “which I think was the latest any team in this (Tankard) field, if not the country, was formed.
“It pretty much went like this. Andrew called and told me top drop over for a few drinks. Matt was there and we got talking about curling, that maybe we should put together a team for this season.
“The next day, we called Ian, and he agreed. And here we are.”
On Sunday afternoon, Smith, Matthew Hunt, Andrew Taylor, Ian Withycombe and coach Joe Murphy celebrated a 9-6 win over Andrew Symonds, also from the Re/Max Centre, which punched the Smith rink’s ticket to the Tim Hortons Brier Mar 3-11 in Regina, Sask.
That means for the first time in 11 years, someone other than Brad Gushue will be wearing Newfoundland and Labrador’s colours as the Brier skip.
Not that Gushue and his team of Mark Nichols, Brett Gallant and Geoff Walker won’t be in Regina. Team Gushue enters the 2018 Brier as Team Canada, having won the event last spring in St. John’s.
And it was for that reason this year’s Tankard took on greater meaning, and why nine teams curled for the Purple Hearts last week. With no Gushue juggernaut in the way, a shot at curling in the Brier was up for grabs.
And no team played better than Smith and Co., which sailed through the round-robin 8-0. The only fly in the ointment came Saturday night when Symonds thumped Smith 9-4 in the first championship game.
Because Smith had gone through the round-robin undefeated, he had to be beaten twice for the championship, thus forcing Sunday’s who-shall rematch with Symonds.
“I don’t know if this has even sunk in yet,” Smith said of the Tankard win. “I mean, every kid grows up dreaming about playing in their Brier.”
Sunday’s game was, for all intents and purposes, over early as Symonds, Mark Healy, Dave Noftall and Keith Jewer allowed a steal of two in the first end, and then amazingly gave up another steal of three in the second.
“Not quite game over,” Smith said, “but yeah … kinda.
“There’s no doubt that took any kind of pressure off us. We played two perfectly executed ends, exactly the way we wanted. We wanted to leave them with shots that were so difficult, and that’s how it played out.
“Even though we gave up two in the third, to be up three with hammer was a great situation to be in.”
Symonds forced the second game with a well-played game Saturday night, one that saw the veteran baseball player with Shamrocks and the St. John’s Capitals steal three points of his own in the fifth end, for a 7-2 lead.
“If nothing else,” said Smith, “we knew after that game we had to change a few things. They’re a phenomenal hitting team, so we knew we had to make their shots more difficult.
“And we reminded ourselves to maintain our focus on the process, and not the outcome.”
Smith, at 21, is the youngest of the four (Withycombe is 22, Taylor is 25 and Hunt is 26), just a year removed from junior curling.
A St. John’s native, he skipped a couple of Stephenville-based teams to the 2015 and 2016 provincial junior championships, with a loss to Greg Blyde last season ending hopes for a three-peat.
While most Brier-bound teams have a fair amount of experience on the World Curling Tour, Smith’s team enters Regina having only competed in the Dave Jones Alexander Keith’s bonspiel in Halifax in late October, and the Bally Haly Cashspiel in November.
“And don’t ask us what our records were,” Smith chuckles. “Not good.
“I know we don’t have a lot of experience, but I don’t think that matters. We’ll go into the Brier with the exact same mindset we had at the Tankard, thinking no further ahead than one game, one end and one rock at a time.”
Symonds reached the final with a 6-4 win over Adam Boland’s St. John’s rink, the reigning U Sports Canadian university champions.
Gushue had his say at Manitoba curling championship
Brad Gushue was at the provincial men’s curling championship over the weekend, checking out prospective opponents for the 2018 Brier next month in Regina.
However, Gushue wasn’t at the Re/Max Centre in St. John’s, where teams were battling to take over the role he and his teams have held for the last 11 years — as Tankard winners and Newfoundland and Labrador Brier representatives.
Gushue was in Winkler, Man., site of the Manitoba’s men’s championship and he was behind the mic, making his debut as a Sportsnet commentator for the televised event.