Skip's Maverick Style Stirs Canadian Curling

PINEROLO, Italy — Nearly everything Brad Gushue has done these last two months has been dissected, debated and second-guessed.

Where is he right now? What exactly is he thinking? How is he getting ready for the big competition?

It might not matter to a good portion of the world, billions of people who don't care about the sport of curling, who wouldn't know a biter from a double takeout, but Gushue is skip of the Canadian Olympic team — rink, actually — and, as such, he carries the weight of history cinched around his neck.

Curling is an essential Canadian pastime, this odd game that involves a player sliding across the ice on one knee, letting loose a polished granite stone as a pair of teammates sweep like mad with brooms — "Hurry hard! Hurry hard!" — clearing the way toward a circular target.

Though the Canadians did not invent curling — that dubious credit goes to Scotland, circa 16th century — they call it their own and have excelled in international play for as long as anyone can remember. The problem is, in the eight years since curling became part of the Olympics, the Canadian men have yet to bring home gold.

They have a new contender in Gushue, a boyish 25-year-old who led his young rink from out of nowhere to win the Olympic trials — which were, by the way, sponsored by a chain of doughnut shops.

After this upset victory, the Canadian media have questioned his decisions on topics such as lineup, preparation and strategy. Fans have asked: Are we sending the right team to Turin?

Gushue responds in a manner as bristling as his haircut.

"We've read the papers, seen the reports," he says. "All of that is, for lack of a better way to describe it, a pile of crap."

Then he takes a breath and acknowledges that his approach to the sport can be unconventional. With the start of curling preliminaries this week, he insists there is a method to the madness.

"We've tried different things, we're willing to experiment," he says. "We know people are watching."

By various estimates, Canadians account for about 60% of the world's 1.5 million curlers and claim that no one can match them for depth of talent. But several nations can field at least one four-man rink capable of curling with Canada's best.

So Gushue and his guys, although expected to win a medal, will have to wrestle the gold away from the likes of Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and Britain, whose rink, of course, is Scottish.

"Those other countries are good, and curling can be a slippery sport," says Russ Howard, who throws second stone for Canada.

Much of the commotion surrounding the Canadian team focuses on Howard, a 50-year-old veteran with two world championships on his resume.

In December, shortly before the trials, Gushue abruptly added him to an otherwise 20-something lineup. Howard calls it "a senior citizen and some young guys, some fun-loving Newfoundlanders."

Going a step further, Gushue also relinquished much of his authority to his older teammate, asking Howard to act as co-skip, calling shots, determining when to throw for the button, when to knock an opponent's stone away or lay up as a guard.

It was an unusual move and one that critics figured would disrupt team chemistry. A veteran rival, Jeff Stoughton, declared that Gushue's rink had "no chance" at the trials.

But in a sport that bills itself as "chess on ice," competitors thinking three and four shots ahead, Team Gushue had a reputation for physical talent hindered by a lack of experience, especially on the international scene. Howard added instant wisdom.

"Russ has been around," Gushue says.

The reconfigured lineup swept through the trials, defeating none other than Stoughton in the finals. Amid calls for a revamping of the selection process, Stoughton said, "I've been proven wrong."

With the Games less than two months away, everyone expected Gushue to stand pat while preparing for Turin.

That's not his style. In two recent competitions, he continued to tinker, trying different tactics.

As a result, his rink failed to make the playoffs in both events, leading to much consternation in the press.

The Calgary Herald wrote, "Panic buttons are being pushed all over Canada." The Winnipeg Free Press called Gushue a question mark, saying, "The question is: Is the Kid From the Rock a fluke or for real?"

Gushue says he suffered a letdown after the trials, coupled with a case of looking too far ahead.

In a sport where even the best rinks miss on 20% of their throws — the trick being to miss at the least costly moments — he considered the month before Turin a perfect time to experiment.

"We've lost some games that we probably shouldn't have lost," he says. "But we've gotten better as a team."

Let the media worry about whether the kid's a fluke. Let the fans fret over Canada's historic Olympic frustration.

With Gushue's rink defeating Germany at the start of round-robin play on Monday, the young skip says: "There are only four people who need to believe: the people out on the ice."