02/25/2015 01:07 EST | Updated 04/27/2015 05:59 EDT

Canadian men's curling championship in Calgary features a Battle of Alberta

CALGARY - Two skips from the host city with history between them is a unique storyline of this year's Canadian men's curling championship in Calgary.

The 14-team field also features nine of the 12 Canadian curlers who won gold medals at the last three Olympic Games.

A new Team Canada and a pre-tournament qualifier for some provinces and territories constitute radical change for an 88-year-old championship.

The main draw of the 2015 Tim Hortons Brier opens Saturday at the Scotiabank Saddledome, but games start Thursday with the Yukon, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia having to play off to get in.

In terms of hype, it couldn't get much better for the Calgary host committee with two locals skipping teams —John Morris with the first Team Canada entry at the Brier and Kevin Koe calling the shots for Alberta.

The Brier's first Battle of Alberta is Tuesday evening in a round-robin game with potentially more instalments to follow should the teams meet in the playoffs. Both teams are among the tournament favourites alongside Northern Ontario's Brad Jacobs, who claimed Olympic gold in Sochi just over a year ago.

Morris and Koe have looked across the Glencoe Club to see the other throwing stones a few times.

The two Alberta entries are intertwined in multiple ways. Morris now holds the broom for the team that Koe skipped to a Canadian title last year.

"I think people will make a big deal of it," Koe said. "It is the first Brier with Team Canada. It probably doesn't get more (of) a unique situation than (that) with the switch-around in teams. That's probably good for the Brier. Two local teams.

"If you're a curling fan, I think you know both of our teams."

Their backstory starts with Koe, Pat Simmons, Carter Rycroft and Nolan Thiessen winning last year's Brier in Kamloops, B.C. After finishing fourth at the world championship, Koe announced he was leaving them to form a new team with Marc Kennedy, Brett Laing and Ben Hebert.

Curling teams routinely change personnel at the end of a season in an attempt to find winning chemistry. But what made Koe's move a bombshell was that the 2015 Brier would have a defending champion return as Team Canada for the first time.

Koe effectively abdicated wearing the Maple Leaf in his hometown and his teammates were left to find a new skip. Enter John Morris who won Olympic gold in 2010 playing third with Kennedy, Hebert and skip Kevin Martin.

Morris curled out of Ontario early in his career, but the 37-year-old firefighter has lived in the Calgary area for the last decade. In another Koe-related twist, Morris skipped the B.C. team that lost last year's Brier final to Koe.

Within days of announcing last April he would take the 2014-'15 curling season off, Morris was recruited to skip Koe's former team and suddenly thrust into the position of poster boy for the Brier in Calgary.

"This is what gets me going, sort of really gets my blood pumping, not only going to the Brier but having it at the Saddledome in your home province," said Morris. "The fire is back and I'm looking forward to getting at it. I can't wait for that first draw."

Meanwhile, Koe earned his berth in the Brier the traditional way by winning the Alberta championship with his new team.

"I knew there was a chance I could get back to the Brier by winning the province for sure," said Koe, who works for an oil company. "Even if we hadn't won provincials, it obviously would have been a big disappointment for our team, but I wouldn't have looked back and regretted my decision.

"I never looked at it as I needed to justify it. For me personally, it was just time for a change."

Morris, Kennedy and Hebert join Jacobs and teammates Ryan Fry, E.J. Harnden and Ryan Harnden, as well as Newfoundland and Labrador skip Brad Gushue and third Mark Nichols in the Olympic gold contingent at this year's Brier.

Gushue and Nichols, who won Olympic gold at the Turin Games in 2006, reunited this year after a few seasons apart and have won two of three Grand Slams played this season.

The top four teams advance to the Page Playoff. The winner of the March 8 final will represent Canada at the March 28-April 5 world championship in Halifax.

In an effort to make the Canadian championships true national tournaments, the Canadian Curling Association altered the format so every province and territory has the chance to participate.

Also, in order to have the women's and men's championships mirror each other, a Team Canada was incorporated into the Brier and a Northern Ontario entry added to the Scotties Tournament of Hearts. To manage the additional teams, a play-in tournament was introduced at both events this year.

"You add the Team Canada who every year is going to be one of your top teams or one of your favourites, that just changes the whole dynamic," Koe said.

"The Brier's changed a lot. Some years you might get a weaker field, but you look at this year, just about everyone who should have got there, got there.

"This year I think it's maybe the toughest Brier I've ever been in in terms of what the field looks like going in."


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