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Defending champ Gushue headlines 18-team field as bubble play resumes with Brier

Brad Gushue won his first Canadian men's curling championship in a sold-out hometown venue that erupted in joy after his game-winning throw.

Brad Gushue won his first Canadian men's curling championship in a sold-out hometown venue that erupted in joy after his game-winning throw.

The three-time champion will try to win another Tim Hortons Brier title in an arena setting that will be the complete opposite. 

Play begins Friday night in a spectator-free Markin MacPhail Centre as elite men's domestic curling returns after a long absence due to the pandemic. 

The Scotties Tournament of Hearts provided a successful kickoff to a run of six straight bonspiels at Canada Olympic Park. Now the Brier takes centre stage as 18 teams — many of them competing for the first time in months — square off for the right to hoist the Tankard.  

"It's going to be interesting and really I have no idea what to expect," Gushue said. "I think once we get through the first weekend, you'll probably settle in and know the level (everyone) is at and then you just kind of accept it and battle it out."

The preliminary round will continue through March 11. The top eight teams will qualify for the two-day championship round.

The top three teams will advance the playoffs on March 14. The second- and third-place teams will meet in an afternoon semifinal with the winner to face the first-place side in the evening final.

It has been four years since Gushue won his first Brier in front of a euphoric crowd in St. John's, N.L. He beat Alberta's Brendan Bottcher last year in Kingston, Ont. 

The Canada skip is listed as an early 2.35-to-1 favourite to repeat by online sports book Coolbet Canada, just ahead of Northern Ontario's Brad Jacobs, wild-card entry Kevin Koe and Bottcher.

"I think the fact that there have been so few games and the practice time hasn't been there for a lot of teams, it's a bit of a crapshoot to be honest," Gushue said. "I think this could go a lot of different ways than what it would if we had all had our regular run-up to the Brier." 

Like many rinks at the recent Scotties Tournament of Hearts, most Brier teams were invited by their respective associations to play after the cancellation of annual playdowns due to the pandemic. 

"I think we'll probably be as patient as we can because I think everybody is going to make some mistakes," Gushue said. "It's the teams that don't compound those mistakes that are going to be successful."

There is no play-in game this year. 

Ontario's Glenn Howard, Koe's Alberta-based team and Mike McEwen's rink from Manitoba are the wild-card entries.  

Koe will attempt to win a record fifth Brier title as a skip, a mark he shares with Ernie Richardson, Randy Ferbey and Kevin Martin.

Koe is a headliner in Pool B along with Gushue, Ontario's John Epping and Saskatchewan's Matt Dunstone, who finished third last year in Kingston.

They're joined by Quebec's Mike Fournier, Greg Smith of Newfoundland and Labrador, P.E.I.'s Eddie MacKenzie, Nunavut's Peter Mackey and Jamie Murphy's Nova Scotia team that will be skipped by Scott McDonald.

Bottcher, McEwen and Howard are in Pool A along with Jacobs, Manitoba's Jason Gunnlaugson, B.C.'s Steve Laycock, New Brunswick's James Grattan, Greg Skauge of the Northwest Territories and Yukon's Dustin Mikkelsen. 

The Brier winner will represent Canada at the April 2-11 world men's curling championship in the Calgary bubble.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 3, 2021. 

Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.

Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press