03/01/2015 12:11 EST | Updated 04/30/2015 05:59 EDT

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

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

Casey and Ontario's Mark Kean skip the youngest teams in the field 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, Kean, Team Canada's John Morris, B.C.'s John Cotter and New Brunswick's Jeremy Mallais all opened 1-0 on Saturday with Saskatchewan's Steven Laycock at 1-1.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper attended both draws Saturday.

After securing his place in the main draw, Casey lost 8-7 to Kean to sit tied at 0-1 with Alberta's Kevin Koe, Quebec's Jean-Michel Menard and Jamie Koe of Northwest Territories. Manitoba's Reid Carruthers started with a pair of losses.

Kean admitted feeling nervous during his first game because the Saturday night crowd was vocal. He was thankful he opened against the other young team in the field.

"You don't want to start off against Brad Jacobs or one of the top guys right off the bat," the Ontario skip said. "It's nice to get your feet under you, make some shots. That was huge for us."

B.C.'s Cotter edged Alberta's Kevin Koe 8-7 in an extra end, Saskatchewan's Laycock defeated Manitoba 7-4, New Brunswick's Mallais got by Northwest Territories 6-5 in the evening draw.

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 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."

Manitoba lead Colin Hodgson won the Ford Hot Shots competition and a two-year lease on a truck prior to the opening draw.