CONCEPTION BAY SOUTH, N.L. — For nearly two decades, Brad Gushue and his teams out of Newfoundland and Labrador have been a source of provincial pride in a place sometimes overlooked in Canada.
The people of Newfoundland and Labrador love curling and their curlers.
This week, the local team of Gushue, Mark Nichols, Brett Gallant and Geoff Walker has been welcomed to every game with a raucous applause from a sold-out crowd at the Grand Slam’s Boost National event.
It’s the team’s first big bonspiel on home soil since they sent the province into a frenzy in winning the 2017 Brier in St. John’s.
But that magical March nearly two years ago was just one stop in a long curling odyssey for Gushue and his teams, who have ignited the fans’ passion and spirit over the years, unrivalled in most parts of the country.
WATCH | Team Gushue: Kings of the Rock
The love affair with Gushue started in 2001 when he followed up a junior national title with the junior world championship. When the team returned home to St. John’s the city held a parade downtown and fans lined the streets to celebrate their hometown heroes.
“I think we all have pride in being from Newfoundland and calling ourselves Newfoundlanders,” Gushue said. “It’s a special place with special people.”
But if they were celebrating on The Rock when then team won the junior titles, it was a whole new level when the team qualified for the 2006 Olympics.
Gushue, Mark Nichols, Russ Howard and Jamie Korab won the right to represent Canada at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy. During the Games it was as if the entire province shut down — every school in the province was closed for the gold-medal game.
Newfoundland and Labrador was living and dying on every Gushue shot during those Olympics.
Howard was a calming influence on the young team, guiding them to the championship. When they broke open the game against Finland, everyone knew the gold medal was coming home to the island.
It was one of those moments people here still talk about today, remembering exactly where they were when Gushue won gold.
And who will ever forget the phone call Gushue made back home to his mother Maureen immediately following the game?
Maureen was unable to make the trip to watch with the rest of the family because she was back in St. John’s battling cancer. When Brad called home on national TV, the two broke down in tears, the emotion of the moment overwhelming for the both of them.
When they returned home there were thousands at the airport awaiting their arrival.
“I always knew that we had a good following and a great fan base. But you know, once we made it to the Olympics and did what we did it kind of took it to another level,” Nichols said.
In the weeks and months that followed their Olympic triumph, the Gushue team was honoured with impromptu shrines and signs around the city. They were given honourary doctorates from Memorial University. They had a highway and streets named after them. They were treated like rock stars.
“I knew my life would change at that moment and wasn’t home very long when I tried to go to a restaurant and couldn’t get in through the door without people coming up to me,” Gushue said.
Brier magic in St. John’s
Despite all the early success, Gushue was still missing that elusive Brier title. He came close many times but was unable to capture the Canadian curling prize.
There were some very low points over the years following the Olympic ecstasy too, including Gushue falling on his face during an event, injuring his hip and wondering if he’d ever curl again.
But everything changed in March of 2017. St. John’s was hosting the Brier and Gushue wanted to put on a show for the hometown crowd in his 14th Brier appearance.
The Mile One Centre in downtown St. John’s was packed to the rafters each night as the local team started slow before getting on a roll.
Gushue faced Kevin Koe in a final to be remembered. It all came down to the last rock in front of a capacity crowd who fell silent as Gushue settled in the hack — he needed to draw a rock into the eight-foot to win it all.
As soon as it left his hand the fans rose to their feet and roared. Nichols ran out of the house at the other end to help sweep. For a moment it looked like the rock wouldn’t make it, but when it settled into the eight-foot for the win the place went wild.
“It was special to do it at home,” Gallant said. “We had a blast that week. Newfoundlanders just love to support their own.”
The party spilled across the street into the Brier Patch. The team brought the tankard to the throng of fans — the trophy crowd-surfed across the room as people danced and drank late into the night.
“Right away I knew just how big Team Gushue was in the province,” said Walker, who is from Alberta. “I had heard all the stories about 2006 and going to the Olympics and shutting down all of the schools. Being a part of it the last eight years has been really wonderful.”
Leaving a legacy
The team followed up their 2017 Brier win with another title last March. They’re now looking to become the first team to win three in a row since the Ferbey Four out of Alberta did it in the early 2000s.
Gushue says he could have never imagined this all unfolding during his years in curling, but he couldn’t be more proud to be representing Newfoundland and Labrador throughout it all.
“I don’t know if it’s us against the world but certainly I think there’s probably a little bit of a chip on our shoulders because we are so secluded in such a small province,” he said.
Now, as the team reloads for the next four-year Olympic cycle, they have a new appreciation for what they mean to the province — curling is so much more than just a game in Newfoundland and Labrador.
“It always seems like Newfoundlanders and Labradorians will want to prove ourselves and stand up to for what we believe in,” Nichols said. “Our fan base is just the best in the world.”
And Gushue hopes his influence will produce more world-class curlers from his home province.
“When I was younger people told me to cool my intentions,” he said. “I don’t want to do that. I want people to strive to to be the best and if I had one legacy, I’d love to see more Canadian and world champions come from Newfoundland.”