Team Brad Gushue of St. John's celebrate after capturing the Masters Grand Slam of Curling title (Photo: Anil Mungal).

Gushue-Nichols reunion pays off at the Masters

November 3, 2014, 11:42 AM

SELKIRK, Man. — St. John’s skip Brad Gushue had been knocking on the door of opportunity at the Grand Slam of Curling series last season but just couldn’t find a way to break through.

The Canadian Open final last November saw Gushue fall to Kevin Koe after the Calgary skip made an incredible final shot that had to ricochet right to the button to win 5-4. Gushue also finished runner-up at the National final in March to Glenn Howard as the Penetanguishene, Ont., rink held the hammer coming home and drew for shot rock with the last stone for a 7-6 victory.

Gushue did more than just knock this time around; he kicked the door down completely en route to winning the Masters Grand Slam of Curling men’s title — and $23,500 in prize money — with an 8-6 win over Winnipeg’s Mike McEwen in Sunday’s final.

Key to Gushue’s stunning performance in the tournament was the return of third Mark Nichols to the rink during the off-season. Amid the frenzy of curling roster changes during the summer was Nichols moving back to Newfoundland after playing on the front-end with Winnipeg’s Jeff Stoughton for a couple years. It didn’t take long for Gushue to make the announcement, issuing a press release a day after the season-ending Players’ Championship tournament in April. Nichols’ addition saw Brett Gallant shift over to third while Geoff Walker resumed his lead position.

“It’s great,” Gushue said about their reunion. “Mark and I have been through the ups and downs of our careers playing along together.”

Gushue and Nichols played back-end together from 1999 to 2011 and along the way the duo won the 2001 Canadian junior title, a National Grand Slam of Curling championship in 2010 and — who could forget — Olympic gold at the 2006 Torino Games.

It was Nichols who capitalized on Team Finland’s mistakes with a raise triple takeout during the sixth end of the Torino final that helped Gushue score six points and secure Canada’s first gold medal in men’s curling with a 10-4 win.

Gushue knows what to expect with Nichols and their years together have helped build up a level of confidence among the two, something that is key in a mentally-draining sport such as curling.

“When I ask him for advice I know the answers are coming from experience,” Gushue said. “No disrespect to the other guys that I’ve played with over the last three years but they’re still kind of learning the game whereas Mark and I have been through it and — not saying we know the game in and out — but we have the experience to backup what our answers are going to be. It allows me to lean on him a little bit more and I know his answers are coming from experience.”

Team Gushue entered the Masters — the first stop on the Grand Slam of Curling series this season — and found themselves in the so-called “Pool of Death” during the round robin facing local favourite Stoughton; reigning world champion Thomas Ulsrud from Norway; six-time Masters champion Glenn Howard, of Penetanguishene, Ont.; and Toronto’s John Epping, a two-time Grand Slam winner. Gushue’s team dropped their opener to Stoughton but caught fire defeating the other three to top their pool and qualify.

“We looked at our pool coming into this event and there were no easy games. Usually when that’s the case, you’re the easy game,” Gushue said with a laugh after finishing the round robin.

The team avenged the loss to Stoughton in the quarter-finals and had to grind out another win over Epping in the semis. Gushue missed a chance to ice the game in the eighth, giving up a steal of one to tie, but he didn’t make the same mistake again and punched his spot in the final with a single in the extra end to win 6-5.

“We’ve been scrapping out games,” Gushue said after the win. “I wouldn’t say we’ve been dominant. I think we’re playing strategical games. We’re making some key shots just a little bit more timing than anything to be honest with you. It hasn’t been dominant but it’s been successful.”

Nichols admitted after the tournament that the team was still adjusting to their new lineup until they found their groove.

“It was probably a combination of everyone getting used to each other and the same thing in our first game against Jeff,” Nichols said. “But we got things rolling and things seemed to be getting better and better as the week went on and we just managed to put some shots together and win.”

Gushue ran into the red-hot McEwen rink in the final, a team that entered the Masters winning four titles in four straight tournaments and a mind-boggling 28-1 win-loss record to start the season. McEwen also finished 3-1 in the round robin to qualify and cruised through the quarters and semis with a 9-3 win over Saskatoon’s Steve Laycock, followed by a 7-2 win in just five ends over Sochi Olympics gold medallist Brad Jacobs, from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.

Team Gushue led 6-2 in the final thanks to a score of four in the fifth but saw their lead evaporate in the very next end with McEwen nailing an incredible double raise in-out double to score four of his own.

“We made a couple bad ones and left Mike a Hail Mary and he made it,” Nichols said. “Credit to the guys because we just shook it off and said, ‘We’re still tied up with hammer, two ends left to win a Slam.’ A lot of teams, I don’t want to say crumble but they take that pretty bad.”

Gushue’s team rebounded to score a deuce in the seventh. Unlike his previous two Grand Slam final appearances, the skip was able to breath easier handing over the hammer coming home with a two-point cushion. McEwen ran out of rocks in the eighth and the teams shook hands.

“If Mark and I execute our shots in the sixth end, it’s probably a little bit of a different situation,” Gushue said. “I missed a come-around and a draw so sometimes it’s hard to blame strategy on missed shots.”

“It’s a good win, very happy,” Gushue added with a smile. “It’s going to be a much shorter flight than if we had let that one slide.”