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‘Million Dollar Trials’ set to go

It’s been a long time coming, for organizers as well as curlers, but the Tim Hortons Roar of the Rings Olympic trials hits the Rexall Place ice lanes Sunday.

Seven of the men’s teams would be legitimately ranked as tops in the nation. Upstart 25-year-old Jason Gunnlaugson and his team from Beausejour, MB, will take on the role of rank underdog of the first water, starting Sunday at 6 p.m. when it takes on Canadian champion Kevin Martin of Edmonton.

“Hey,” enthuses the longest shot on the board in this event. “It’s just no-lose for us, it’s a great opportunity. And we’re excited.”

Fans will enjoy watching the flamboyant bullet-throwing Gunnlaugson, a throwback to the days of people like Paul Gowsell.

“We’re like a football team coming into the home stadium,” Gunner said Saturday following practice. “Fan energy is great. It doesn’t matter whether it’s positive for you or negative against you, it just makes you want to come out and curl your absolute best, perform as well as you can, and just stick it to them.

“This game, if we get the win, would be the biggest upset in curling and it couldn’t be greater for us to start our week off. And if we don’t win it, well, they’re the favourites and they’re gonna probably beat most of the teams here. It’s not like we lose a lot if we don’t win that game.”

Martin told the Edmonton Sun, “As an athlete, you certainly want that (gold medal) and Olympic Games are so unique. I totally enjoyed the two I’ve been to and, man, would I like to get to a third! But if it doesn’t happen? What’s important to me is training hard and looking in the mirror when you’re done. If you don’t win it’s too bad but I didn’t leave anything in the tank and I couldn’t have done anything different.”

In other openers, Glenn Howard of Coldwater, Ont., the 2007 world champ, faces Jeff Stoughton of Winnipeg, the 1996 world king, while Kevin Koe of Edmonton tangles with Pat Simmons of Davidson, SK., and six-time Brier champion Randy Ferbey of Edmonton plays Wayne Middaugh of Toronto, who prepared for this affair with a week of “golf and spearfishing in the Bahamas”.

“It was a nice way to warm up for this,” chuckled Middaugh. “You want to talk about a workout? Let those guys (fish) pull you around for four or five hours.”

Stoughton warns that the Gunnlaugson darkhorse shouldn’t be taken too lightly.

“Jason grew up with me in a sense because I’m obviously older than him,” said Stoughton. “His uncle, Garry VanDenBerghe, curled with me for 15 years. So Jason grew up around our team. His dad curled with me for a couple of years so Jason spared with us at the club when he was 10-12 years old.

“He used to be a little quieter but he’s so passionate about the game it’s phenomenal. It’s great for the game. He’s going to have a lot of fun this week. I hope they do well.”

Gunner says he has an advantage over his more luminous peers.

“Everybody’s so friendly at the top of this game,” he says. “It’s got to be an unique sport in that way. But we’ve been picking the brains of these guys for years and they’ve been, like, ‘oh, whatever, they’re just kids’ and now they’re going to have to play us.

“Sure all the pressure’s on them. We’re just some kids who are expected to go 0-and-7 or 1-and-6. So we just get to go surprise everybody. Some of these teams have a lot of pressure on them and a lot of expectations. It’s definitely going to be a challenge for them.”