On the 2023 Brier
23 Thoughts on a wild, wild Brier
A lot of people enjoyed the bite-size thoughts in my Scotties newsletter, so same format applies here for the Brier. Here’s what I saw this past 9 days:
(photo: Team Gushue)
Before I get into the team-specific stuff, I thought it was notable how much more emotional the Brier seemed this year than in the past little while. Obviously the most storied championship in curling always has emotion behind it, but this year just had a different feeling for some reason. Now obviously that’s led by the very emotional Matt Dunstone (more on that shortly), but with the Harnden bros. storyline, the new teams out there, and the electric crowd in London, it had the feel of a Brier that we haven’t seen for a while. Made for a wonderful experience as a viewer.
We always gotta start with the champs and as I said with Einarson, it’s always so hard to pick the favourite for me because it’s just very hard to repeat as champion, whether that’s once as in this case, or three times in Einarson’s. But Gushue looked the part this week. The word I used on Twitter was ruthless and that’s really how it played out. Even in the moments when they aren’t their best—their start to the week was quite slow, by their own admission—they find ways to win, and there’s a clinical aura around them that makes them so tough to play against. The final was kind of like Team Dunstone’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—young, fiery, full of pizzazz—against Shredder, stoic and unrelenting in the face of the cool new thing.
I think the most emblematic aspect of that clinical nature were some of the comments before and after the Brier about EJ Harnden. Brad was rather candid on Inside Curling and That Curling Show before the Brier about how the team was still trying to come together and was specific about how they were trying to get EJ to throw a particular way. EJ then noted the same thing during the week and after the Brier when he talked about his new team. This is, of course, not uncommon. Most new teams will speak about trying to match their releases/deliveries up. We’ve heard Bottcher talk about it quite a bit, for example. But to me, there was a way Brad spoke about it where it was a clear directive EJ had to change some things if he wanted to play with them. Has to be tough when you’re the one new guy on the team that’s gotta change things around where the other three are already very comfortable. A lot of the other new lineups are all new to each other (or at least to their skip) and so a delivery adjustment is likely to be a bit more “hey, maybe change this thing slightly” and not “all 3 of us throw this one way, and you have to also.”
Particularly notable was EJ’s broom. Eagle-eyed observers would’ve noted he was using a rather large slider piece on the knob of the broom, which he has never used before (or at least certainly wasn’t in any footage from 2022). I’d imagine the slider is there to raise his broom slightly. That’ll square his shoulders a bit better, but it also means that it changes a) how fast he’s sliding with an extra piece of teflon there and b) his positioning on up-weight shots in particular, which is the hardest part to adjust in a delivery usually, as you tend to lean on muscle memory when you’re powering out of the hack that fast. Brad and Mark throw a little more upright than most (and in the case of tuckers, WAY more upright), even on upweight shots, so I’m guessing they wanted EJ to mimic that style to have a more similar line of delivery to them. Credit to EJ for re-arranging his delivery this deep into his career, and credit to Brad for placing the utmost importance on it: it obviously worked. EJ was tied for second among seconds at +5 for the week and was 86, 90, 86 and +2 in the three playoff games.
Speaking on the Harnden brothers, what an added layer to the playoff weekend. I think as someone who is mostly an observer (I know the brothers a little bit but we don’t talk often), I had assumed that the decision to split this season was more of a longevity thing, that they both felt maybe it was time to try new avenues. And maybe that is mostly the case, but the emotion they both showed this weekend made it clear that there was more to it than that. We’ve had a lot of brothers who win on the same side—including those very Harndens—but rare to see a clash of the same clan. Made for a wonderful storyline and also probably throws a little more roses their way. With 2013 and 14 being almost a decade ago, I think we allowed ourselves to let EJ and Ryan slip a little bit when it came to ranking this generation’s players. The fact that on two different teams they both make the Brier final in their first year apart showed that we need to put some more respect on their names (if we weren’t already).
It won’t be any consolation now, but that was a star-making performance this weekend from The Sheriff and the squad. As I said on Twitter, if Curling Canada, the Slams, and whoever else doesn’t try and blow up Matt’s spot now and into next season, they’re doing the game and the fans a complete disservice. I think over the past decade we’ve been lulled by a number of more stoic champions, and Matt smashed through that wall this weekend. We felt every single up and every single down Matt went through, and he’s never afraid to talk you through it after the game either. He speaks his mind, he’s under 30, and he can make shots with the best of them. He’s exactly what the game needs right now and I hope the powers that be do something with it.
One thing that stuck out in Matt’s post-game after the final was he said the main takeaway from the game was that his team is right there. They belong. I joked with him before the season that I was surprised living in Kamloops he didn’t attempt to put together a BC team and win the next 30 provincial championships. But he was always trying to put together a team that was destined for more—Briers, Olympics, and he’s long been an advocate of wearing the Buffalo while doing it. He is absolutely correct that he’s got the squad to do it and it was great to see them pay it off this weekend, so soon into this team’s genesis.
Speaking of this generation’s best players, I certainly hope we don’t lose BJ Neufeld to time. Now, it seems like this Dunstone squad has a big quad ahead of them, but to this point, the on-paper resumé of BJ hasn’t matched his true talent for the game. He curled 88% for the week, which was better than every second (never mind third) other than Brett Gallant, was a +5, and made so many shots that most other curlers can’t. He also provides a grounded centre to Matt that came off particularly this week as a perfect yin/yang. It seems almost criminal he’s only got one national championship to this point.
After the first tournament of the season in Okotoks, I said this about Colton Lott:
One bold prediction: this quad is going to be Colton Lott’s coming out party as a dominant second in the game, similar to Marc Kennedy post-2010 Olympics and Brett Gallant after last season.
Guess it wasn’t that bold of a prediction after all. The guy made more runbacks than God this week.
As for the bronze medallists in Team Bottcher, what an interesting week for them. Great performances across the board. Brendan led skips at a whopping +9, Marc recovered from an unsteady round-robin to finish +5 (leading thirds), Brett led seconds at 89% on the week, and Benny was an astonishing 95% for the week and +6, which for a lead is an incredible number. So what went wrong? The short answer is not a lot. Dunstone and Gushue were very good also, and someone has to lose, but those numbers are a tough way to go down.
That said, I do wonder if the strategy gets tinkered with a little bit in the offseason. They played with notably less rocks in play than Brad or Matt, and it didn’t end up being a huge issue, but I think it cost them in the 1/2 game particularly. To my eye, that was the only game of the week where Team Dunstone looked a little off (percentages bear that out too—it was Matt and BJ’s lowest game of the week), and Bottcher seemed content to keep it close rather than try to put the pressure on. Stats don’t mean everything, but Marc outcurled BJ by 16%, Brendan outcurled Matt by 8%, and Team Bottcher curled 93% as a whole. You don’t lose an awful lot of games curling 93% as a team and I wonder if that game specifically acts as a catalyst to toy around with a few more rocks in play moving forward.
I guess it’s to do with the last offseason, but people have been happy to bury Team Bottcher all year long despite them being pretty damn good from what I’ve seen. They had the one bad Slam, they lost the Alberta final, but overall, I think the team looks pretty close to as good on the ice as they do on paper. There has been some notable over-communication and I think that’s just part and parcel of forming a new squad and putting it all together, especially with 5 guys (including coach Paul Webster) who think the game at such a high level and want to get everything exactly just so. Once things settle in as we approach next season, I think this team gets even sharper and I think there’s no doubt for me they win a Brier this quad.
A drinking game you could’ve played this Brier if you wanted to end up in a coma: take a shot every time Team Bottcher said “a little low” or Brendan said “very good”.
Team McEwen. Boy, did they ever add to the emotion this year too, my goodness. What a story. They seemed like a team that might not even make it to playdowns, needing a gutsy last-gasp qualifier to get through regionals, changed a team member, and then for all intents and purposes, looked at the Brier like you’d expect a “Team McEwen” to look. Mike has spoken a lot over the last bit about how some of the joy of the game was lost for him this season and over the past couple years with some off-ice stuff, and so it was just lovely to see him get that energy back in real-time. And of course, you write off two of the best players of this generation in Ryan Fry and Brent Laing at your own peril.
No word of a lie, after I finished Thought 14, I moved over to Twitter for a second and saw that Ryan Fry announced he’s stepping away from the game. Thought 15 was going to be dedicated to whether or not this team is staying together, and I guess the universe gave us our answer. Quick word on Fry: he’s always been good, but in that 2013-14 run, he was the best curler on the planet. Took Team Jacobs to another level. The game will miss him. Wonder if Brent Laing is next…
If Lainger is next, then that poses the big question: where does Mike go? You gotta think he’d avoid Manitoba at all costs at this point (you got the Big 2 in Dunstone/Carruthers there with the chance Reid gets even better next season by adding a big name, plus Gunner probably cooks up something, plus Calvert/Wiebe/whoever else) so where does he parachute in? Horgan was the first name that leapt to my mind but I think the fit there with Darren ended up very positively so I wonder if they just find a way to make that work and add a local lead. Is there a potential Epping/McEwen tandem in the offing? John did tell me on Way Inside that he’d consider moving down to third for the right skip…
Speaking of Horgan, let’s get there next. I’ll be honest, it was a better week for them than I expected. They were down to their last life in Northern Ontario playdowns—a field not exactly filled with household names—and had a very weird middle part of the season where they couldn’t get the lineup together and had some poor results. Something obviously clicked, and I think adding Mike Harris to steer the ship and the jazz from Colin Hodgson’s retirement and wanting a good send-off for him got everything moving in the right direction.
I noted in my Brantford piece that speaking to Darren there, he felt like some of the struggle was that he had to call the game due to his injury but it was only meant to be temporary and so him and Tanner never really got on the same page at the start of the season. He said at some point him and Tanner had a great chat and Tanner said, “look, you’re the skip. Take over the team and let’s do this.” It gave Darren the mental freedom (and probably Tanner too) to truly lead the team and they were so solid the rest of the way. Tanner looks like a real player and lots of people are saying that, but to that I also say: don’t sleep on Jake. He led all seconds at +6 for the week, and is about to play in 3 national championships (Brier, Mixed Doubles, USports) over 4 weeks. That doesn’t happen by accident.
Can’t think of a better way for Colin Hodgson to go out than throwing 100% in his final game. Made a lot of sacrifices for the career he had. Moved provinces, moved positions, did what he could to make it work as an elite curler and became one of the best to ever do it. And the key for me is that he also gave so much of his time to so many along the way. It’s not always easy to make your mark on the game as a front end player, but one way you can do it is with a dedication not only to the sport, but to its growth and its health. Colin always had an eye on that and the game will miss that part more than his shotmaking and his haircuts. Definitely won’t miss his haircuts.
Kevin Koe, what do you even say? 2 losses and you’re out doesn’t seem right and people following along on Twitter were scrambling through the cobwebbed corners of the internet to find the last time that even happened. Just a brutal way to go down. That said, Kevin didn’t seem his usual “Brier Kevin” self. They still eked out a lot of wins, but it was evident it wasn’t quite there this week from him. His last 3 games he curled 65, 75, and 79%, numbers we just aren’t used to seeing from one of the GOATs. Sometimes the week isn’t your week and going down with two losses is probably an indication of that.
That said, a fine debut for the young man Tyler Tardi. One of the only curlers to crack one of the elite lineups this season, lots of eyes were on him this week to see how he’d do and he responded tied for thirds in percentage with BJ Neufeld at 88% and scooping up a Second All-Star Team award for his efforts. Good way to prove that he’s earned the right to be in that upper echelon, even if he spent a lot of his off-ice time this week learning the digits of Pi for some reason.
Speaking of that Pi learning, I have to give a shout out to Curling Canada’s socials team this week (and at the Scotties) for the tremendous work on the content side of things. Led by Danielle Inglis, those quick little videos are just such great content and a fun little insight for the fans into the players’ heads. The throwback photo stuff, the little questions as the players come off the ice, it’s all gold. I love anything personality-driven and the game needs all of it that we can get. Make the curlers the stars!
For the final thought, here’s a set of very quick thoughts on a few of the other teams:
-Someone on Twitter remarked Felix Asselin should’ve gotten to be a part of the Team Sturmay timeout in the 10th End against McEwen and I agree. One of the more baffling calls I’ve ever seen. I said after Brantford I think this Quebec team has some good Brier runs in them and they almost went on one this year.
-I wonder if Team Sturmay goes with the 5-man lineup again next season. I’ve spoken very glowingly of JD Lind in this newsletter, but the team had a lot of success when he was away and his Team Japan schedule is so daunting that I wonder if he is happy leaving with the Brier appearance and they’re happy to be a more consistent unit next season.
-I was a little surprised Reid decided to pick up a lead and not a third for the Brier. I know that he got comfortable with Connor in the house at Manitoba provincials and Derek can absolutely make all the shots at third, but bringing in Robbie (who is a great lead, no issues there) put Connor and Derek in not only new positions, but new positions UP the lineup, which is so hard to do.
-They were close, but I do wonder if the Jacobs partnership becomes permanent now, with Brad skipping, for next season. It seems Reid/Derek/Connor are set, so who they get to plug that hole will be a fascinating offseason topic and we’ll get a few more Slams with Brad there to see if that comes together.
-Shotmaker I was most impressed with this week that I wasn’t super familiar with before: Matthew Manuel. I think he will be a problem in Nova Scotia for a long time to come.
-Nunavut getting their first win: it’s good.
Alright. Whew. We did it. What a week!!! Thanks so much for reading as always, and you can follow me on Twitter for more curling stuff at @cullenoncurling. And if you love the newsletter, you can hit subscribe up top and you’ll get it delivered to your email inbox every time I write it.