@CurlingZone at the Brier by Gerry Geurts
The Tim Hortons Brier returns to Saskatoon for 2012, and this year presents us with a very intriguing field with two obvious favourites: Alberta’s Kevin Koe, and Ontario’s Glenn Howard. These teams, along with four others, could reach the playoffs and make some noise on the weekend.
Howard is 1-4 in the last 6 years in Brier finals, add an upset loss to Stoughton in the 2009 semifinals, and an overall 3-7 record in Brier Finals when including his games with brother Russ and you wonder how this stains his reputation on an elite team.
"Choker" is such a dirty word in sports, a title no one wants to be called. I wouldn’t assign that to Howard now, but in his early days as skip they did lose some big draws they shouldn’t have: two provincial finals after being a strong favourite (2004 to Mike Harris, 2005 to Wayne Middaugh) and nearly giving away a big lead when he finally won his first Ontario Tankard in 2006, again to Middaugh.
Jump to the 2006 Brier final, Howard as the class of the field only losing just one game in the round-robin, to give up a couple very bad early ends spotting Jean-Michel Menard with 4 stolen points to single-handedly hand over the game to the upstart Quebec team. If there was ever a definition of choking, I believe this would be it.
But in 2007, things changed for Howard. The last minute change prior to the final forcing Steve Bice into the lineup after Brent Laing left due to the birth of his child, likely forced Howard and team to focus more on the moment at hand, thus dispensing Middaugh again. After the win, the team walked into the Brier and dominated the field, losing only one round-robin game to Martin before slipping in the Page 1v2 game to Brad Gushue. Howard rebounded with a semifinal win over Jeff Stoughton and then took advantage of some youthful impatience to claim the Hamilton Brier trophy.
Howard went off to Worlds and posts one of the most dominant performances by a Canadian team, only losing a meaningless game to USA’s Todd Birr late in the Round-Robin and claiming World Championship Gold.
Since this win though, Howard has struggled in finals, but I have a hard time considering that he has “choked”. Choking implies being the favourite and outside of the 2010 Brier final against Kevin Koe, where Blake MacDonald stood on his head in the final to win the championship game, you can’t say Howard has ever been the favourite.
In 2008 in Winnipeg, Martin dominated the week, the beginning of the Fit to Curl revolution was evident in the team of John Morris, Marc Kennedy and Ben Hebert, who defeated Howard three times to claim the title. Howard came out of the three-four game, defeating Simmons to get to the final, but held the hammer to start the game, and used it effectively to win.
2009 in Calgary, Martin was the host province favourite, and cruised through the week, starting every game with the hammer and going undefeated. Howard lost a tight Page 1v2 game to Martin, and then struggled in the semifinal, losing to Jeff Stoughton.
In 2011 in London, Stoughton was the week’s best team, reaching the final and holding the hammer and best record. Howard had to defeat his arch-rival Martin in the Page 3v4 game and then Gushue in the Semifinal to get an opportunity at Stoughton. Problem was, only 1 team has ever won the Brier coming from the three-four game (Koe in 2010) and the effort required made him the strong underdog.
This is the year for Howard, and while it may seem like Kevin Koe could do it again to him, I don’t hold a lot of merit in the reasons why. Howard has had yet another dominant season, while Koe has struggled to find consistency with his squad. Howard is sitting second on the CTRS and Order of Merit, winning two Grand Slam titles and reaching the Semifinals in the other, while Koe sits sixth overall on the CTRS without a Tour victory to his name.
Howard holds a dominant advantage over Koe, a 14-4 record over the Alberta skip since he stepped back into the house again in 2006, including a 5-1 record this season. Howard’s confidence playing Koe is night and day different when compared to the other Wild Rose rock legend. If anyone has a right to feel snake-bitten, it’s Koe who has also lost three Grand Slam finals to Howard, and five Grand Slam finals overall. In addition to his 2010 Brier title, Koe has the 2008 Canada Cup title to his credit as well.
The other factors I considered to come to this pick is the big-game experience of Wayne Middaugh at Third Stone and the change of dynamic this brings to the Team Howard lineup, and the game that will really matter will be Thursday evening, which should go a long way in identifying who will win this Brier. Winner here gets the hammer in the Page 1v2 game and likely in the final as well.
I’ll pick Howard to win this one, and carry the all important hammer (and favourite tag) into the playoffs, and the Middaugh/Simmons matchup will be all the difference this time for Howard to prevail. Lock it in.
Finalist: Kevin Koe, Alberta
The question remains, can Kevin Koe get to the final? Outside of the other challengers, none have a lot of success against Koe, and you know he’ll place high during the week. Give Koe the hammer against everyone else, and they’re tough to beat.
Playoff Bound: Rob Fowler, Manitoba
My third pick will go to Manitoba’s Rob Fowler, a hugely underrated team who wins a lot of games. Overshadowed by Jeff Stoughton and Mike McEwen, Fowler holds his own in the Grand Slams, rarely missing the playoffs. He has Howard’s number to an extent as well, and I predict Fowler will jump ahead of the “other four” with a win over Howard in the Round-Robin.
Fourth Place: Brad Gushue, Newfoundland & Labrador
A strong team and they’re likely the only of the “other four” I can see winning the whole event. Gushue has big game experience and put his team on his shoulders last year and got them into the Page 1v2 game. After a switch in November, the young front end of Adam Casey and Geoff Walker have gelled and the results on the season show this team is always dangerous.
Northern Ontario’s Brad Jacobs and British Columbia’s Jim Cotter are again on the brink. Jacobs has been playing well, I just wonder if they play these big teams enough to be able to beat them when it counts. Jim Cotter and his team of Kevin Folk, Tyrel Griffith and Rick Sawatsky finished the year strong, reaching the semifinals in the most recent Grand Slam event, and they’ll be a team to watch this week.
Shooting for .500
Quebec's Robert Desjardins has been in contention in Quebec, losing several finals before breaking through at third with Francois Gagne last season. “Bob” has stepped back into the skipping shoes and finished the job this season and will be a team to be careful with here.
The Rest of the Field:
I’ll rank the rest of the teams together, I can’t see more than 4 wins out of any of them, unless one decides to go and beat all the other teams down here. Ice conditions are not what any of these teams are used to, and several surprises from normally strong representatives make predicting success a difficult proposition for these teams.
Team Saskatchewan and Scott Manners is a great feel-good story, but I hope the home crowd doesn’t boo them late in the week when they’re trying to scratch out a few extra wins. Bruce Korte would have likely been able to get into the .500 group, but missed two makeable shots to give Manners the opportunity to be the Cinderella darlings. On a side-note, when Saskatchewan is hosting the Brier, I’m not sure putting their provincials into a club facility is the best way to send a well-prepared team who might win the first Brier for Saskatchewan since 1982.
Jamie Koe and his Territories squad just don’t play enough down south, he put a great run together with three friends and ran to the final in the Red Deer Classic, but I’m afraid he’s showing up to the party lacking a lot of ammunition to work with.
Nova Scotia’s Jamie Murphy, PEI’s Mike Gaudet and New Brunswick’s Terry Odishaw were all minor surprises out of their provinces, but again it’s going to be a struggle for these teams.