SPORTS

Changing of the guard in Canadian men's curling surfaces at the Brier

02/28/2015 06:58 EST | Updated 04/30/2015 05:59 EDT
CALGARY - The Brier has become a young-er man's game.

When Brad Jacobs and his Northern Ontario team won the Canadian men's championship two years ago with an average age of 29, they were considered the fresh faces of the sport.

Now the skip of the reigning Olympic champions looks around Scotiabank Saddledome and marvels at the youth movement in this year's Tim Hortons Brier.

"It's a really young Brier," Jacobs observed.

The average age of the field dropped further in Saturday's opening draw when Prince Edward Island's Adam Casey downed Yukon's Bob Smallwood 7-6 in an extra end in a qualifying game to get into the 12-team main event.

Casey and Ontario's Mark Kean skip teams with an average age of 24.

"We're excited. Youth's good," Casey said. "We're an excitable group, but I think happy with the four guys.

"I don't think we need any more experience to succeed here at this event. We've all learned in the past from our past skips and teams we've played on. I think we're willing to build on what we have."

Casey is skipping P.E.I. for the first time at the national men's championship, but he's appeared in the last three throwing second stones for Brad Gushue of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Gushue, Jacobs and Team Canada's John Morris were 1-0 after the first draw, which was attended by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Gushue scored three in the 10th to beat Saskatchewan's Steve Laycock 7-5, Morris downed Manitoba's Reid Carruthers 6-4 and Jacobs defeated Quebec's Jean-Michel Menard 7-4.

What makes this year's Tim Hortons Brier seem particularly boyish is the absence of the curling's big three.

Since 2005, the field has included at least one, two or all three teams skipped by Manitoba's Jeff Stoughton, Alberta's Kevin Martin and Ontario's Glenn Howard.

Three-time Canadian champion Stoughton announced his retirement this past week at the age of 51. Olympic gold medallist Kevin Martin did the same last year at the age of 47. Former Canadian and world champion Howard, 52, didn't make it past Ontario playdowns.

The oldest skips in the main draw this year are Kevin Koe and Jim Cotter, who are both 40.

The demands on curlers' bodies to play the game at the highest level — which since 1998 has been the Winter Olympics — means the age at which they peak in the sport is dropping.

"The peak age they used to say in curling was 35 and I think that's going down year after year after year," Northern Ontario second E.J. Harden said.

"I think the sport is so demanding in terms of what you have to put in it not just from a mental perspective, but more so from a physical perspective. We're athletes now. We train just like any other athletes. You can't put your body through this day after day after day and still expect to be at your peak in your 40s and into your 50s."

Gushue, 34, says the prime age for leads and seconds is lower because they sweep a lot more than the vice and skip. Skips age more gracefully, he says.

"To me, a front-end player, I think your peak is between 25 and 35," Gushue explained. "I still think for a skip it's 35 to 45 because it's more mental game and it's not as physical. I don't think age is going to hurt you at skip until maybe beyond 45."

Gushue, the 2006 Olympic gold medallist, is skipping his province at the Brier for a 12th time. He says he would continue curling "post-apex" as they say now in scouting if he was still winning big events.

"If I was winning as much as Kevin and Jeff and Glenn did in their 40s, I'd keep playing too," Gushue said.

Harden, 31, says he has no intentions of curling at his current level in 20 years.

"If I am it will be with a (push) stick in a men's league," he said. "It won't be anywhere near a Brier. Hopefully it's potentially watching my son or daughter curling. I will not be sweeping rocks up and down the ice."

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