Stars give Brier a field of dreams

CanWest News Service
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CALGARY - Greatest Brier field ever?
Not so fast, says Kevin Martin.
The defending champ from Edmonton, who opens defence of his Tim Hortons Brier title Saturday with a showdown against Russ Howard of New Brunswick, has been to 10 Canadian men's curling championships, and readily admits the field for the 2009 renewal of curling's biggest event is certainly No. 2 on the all-time list.
But No. 1?
"This is a great one, but I can't say that," said Martin. "In 1995 (at Halifax), we had (Rick) Folk out of B.C., we're out of Alberta, (Brad) Heidt with Mark Dacey throwing third out of Saskatchewan, (Kerry) Burtnyk out of Manitoba, (Al) Hackner out of Northern Ontario and (Ed) Werenich out of Ontario. That was awful good. This is No. 2; I'm sorry, I hate to say that, but that was amazing. I was the younger guy, and those guys were the Gretzkys. Holy smokes, it was great. I couldn't wait to get in the dressing-room, sitting between Werenich and Folk. It doesn't get better than that."
But Martin will get plenty of arguments heading into Saturday's first round-robin draw of 17 that will whittle a 12-team field down to four playoff hopefuls by Thursday night.
Six former national champions. Four former world champions. An Olympic champion (two, if you consider Brad Gushue and Russ Howard are skipping different teams here). And hardly a soft touch to be found, considering there's a total of 199 Purple Hearts here, spread throughout all 12 teams, ranging from a high of 25 on New Brunswick and Ontario, down to five (including this year's) on Saskatchewan.
"It's dangerous for us," said Howard, who'll be skipping in his 14th Brier. "I normally came to a Brier, when I was in Ontario, with Glenn at vice, Wayne Middaugh at second, and you had three or four wins in the bank, at least mentally, before you got off the airplane. Now? We're ranked ninth or 10th all of a sudden, and I'm used to being one or two. It's a sick feeling. Even the guys who might be ranked lower than we are, they can beat you easy."
Every Brier field has a few teams that mark down certain matchups as wins in their mind even before throwing a rock. That's a dicier proposition this year.
"There are games that you consider must-wins, probably three or four here. And that's a low number," said 2007 Brier and world champ Glenn Howard. "The last three Briers we've been in, there were probably six or seven. Now, maybe three or four. But I look at all 11 games as must-wins. You don't want to lose to anybody."
Well, sure, best-case scenario, but that will be an accomplishment for the ages if it gets done at Pengrowth Saddledome this week (Martin did it last year in Winnipeg, but in a shallower talent pool).
"When you play in a Brier without the depth of this one, you really have a lot of pressure in the games you're supposed to win," said Newfoundland skip Brad Gushue. "If you let one of those slip, it puts you behind the 8-ball. Here, this week, any team can beat just about anybody, and if you do let one slip, there's a chance another team will do the same thing."
"I really believe this is the one year when you can't take anyone lightly," added Glenn Howard. "There's not a weak squad here. We just have to play our game; if we play average, we're not going to win. If we play well, I like our chances."
For the record, Russ Howard doesn't agree with Martin's assessment. In his mind, the 2009 field tops them all.
"Some of them had more legendary names - and not that there aren't legendary names here, but some of them are only partway through their careers - but I think the depth of field here is the best ever, for sure," he said. "And not just the top four with Glenn, Martin, Stoughton and Gushue, but you have Brier winners after that with Dacey and (Quebec's Jean-Michel) Menard and myself. And then you have (B.C.'s Sean) Geall, (the Territories' Jamie) Koe, (Northern Ontario's Mike) Jakubo - average fans might not recognize them, but they're great players.
"So where do you fit in a win?"

Organizations: Martin's

Geographic location: Ontario, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan Northern Ontario CALGARY Edmonton Alberta Manitoba Winnipeg Quebec

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