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Host Saskatchewan survives early test at Brier, Gushue opens title defence with a win

REGINA — Host Saskatchewan eked out a tense win and defending champion Brad Gushue won a game that included an unpleasant interaction with a spectator to open the Canadian men's curling championship Friday.
Saskatchewan skip Mike McEwen celebrates after defeating Prince Edward Island 7-6 during the Brier, in Regina, on Friday, March 1, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

REGINA — Host Saskatchewan eked out a tense win and defending champion Brad Gushue won a game that included an unpleasant interaction with a spectator to open the Canadian men's curling championship Friday.

Saskatchewan's Mike McEwen fought off a persistent Prince Edward Island team skipped by Tyler Smith to win 7-6, while Gushue prevailed 7-4 over Nova Scotia's Matthew Manuel.

In other Montana's Brier games, Aaron Sluchinski doubled Kevin Koe 8-4 in a battle of Alberta, and Northwest Territories' Jamie Koe opened with a 7-4 victory over Quebec's Julien Tremblay.

Before Gushue threw his final stone of the ninth end, the skip and his second E.J. Harnden complained to officials about comments by a spectator situated in the first row of seats outside their ice sheet.

Umpires asked the man to leave. He and his companion did so.

"There was a gentleman that was down by the ice," Gushue explained. "He was there for quite some time, but in the ninth end he got a little more aggressive than he had been.

"E.J. asked him to kind of keep it down and then they kind of got into it and it was time to get him removed. There was probably one too many (beers) in his system.

"I've had people chirping me when they're up in the stands and I think that's all well and good, but when you're that close and you're leaning over the boards it's kind of like 'come on, give us a break, go sit down.'"

The last Saskatchewan team to win a Brier was Rick Folk's in 1980.

McEwen, Colton Flasch and brothers Kevin and Daniel Marsh out of Saskatoon's Nutana Curling Club passed an early test against P.E.I. at the Brandt Centre.

"They pushed us really hard and early," McEwen said. "When you make a big shot, you could tell the crowd was really into it. It's the best feeling in the world. I could get addicted to that all week."

McEwen has skipped host provinces Manitoba (2019) and Ontario (2023) in his eight previous Brier appearances. 

Flasch has played in six and the Marsh siblings two. They're seasoned competitors, but McEwen's teammates are also representing the host province for the first time in their careers.

"There was so much more energy than the other two Briers I've been in," said Kevin Marsh. "Not that to say that the other two weren't fantastic and well-run, but this is next level. Probably about 10 times.

"We've just got to work with that all week and embrace it, because it's really fun."

Sluchinski took enough advantage of Koe's early struggles with draw weight to prevail in his foursome's Brier debut, although the skip felt he let his opponent back into the game.

"Pretty big relief because my guys played so good," Sluchinski said. "I was kind of a donkey out there, but I was able to make just enough shots to seal the win. I needed to put it away a little bit better.

"It was awesome to go out there and play in front of our fans, and first Brier win feels good."

Sluchinski extended his win streak over four-time Brier champion Koe to three in a row. Sluchinski beat Koe in both a playoff game and the final of the Alberta's men's championship.

Pool play resumes Saturday afternoon at Regina's Brandt Centre.

The top three teams in each pool of nine advance to a six-team playoff, from which the four Page playoff teams will be determined.

Tiebreaker games have been eliminated from the format to fall in line with world championships and Olympic Games.

Head-to-head results are the first tiebreaker, followed by cumulative scores in the draw-the-button that precedes each game. 

The winner on March 10 represents Canada at the men's world championship March 30 to April 7 in Schaffhausen, Switzerland and returns to the 2025 Montana's Brier in Penticton, B.C.

The victor also claims the first berth in the 2025 Olympic trials pending a top-six result at the world championship.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 1, 2024.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press