A Tim Hortons Brier without Kevin Martin?

The guy who won the last two Briers, his last 26 Brier matches, with unbeaten records unheard of at the legendary event since, well, the last time they played it at the Halifax Metro Centre? The guy who mined gold and won 11 straight at the Vancouver Olympics last month and 34 of his last 39 games at the international level and a world title two years ago?  Now that you mention it, yes. Kevin Martin, to say nothing of his peerless combination of John Morris, Marc Kennedy and Ben Hebert, will be the missing links at the 2010 Brier when the rock’n and the roll’n on ice starts today. But, it says here, the Brier at this Halifax icehouse, presented by Monsanto, will rock and roll on regardless, and without an asterisk attached to the name of the winner. Everybody, in every sport, in every life, is replaceable, you understand. Leave us check with last year’s Brier runnerup, who also will be representing Manitoba for a record eighth time at Halifax. “Oh yeah,” Jeff Stoughton was telling Jim Bender of the Winnipeg Sun a while back. “It’s great that he (Martin) is not there, we don’t have to worry about him.” Right. But, Stoughton added, “You know, Kevin Koe’s team (Alberta) is awesome. They play us tough every time we play them, so they’re going to be a top-four team just like we’re a top-four team.” And that may or may not more or less settle that issue. The top four at the Brier advance beyond the preliminary round robin to the playoffs and a glance at this field results in four teams sticking out above all others, strictly on the basis of experience and past history. But strange things can transpire at Briers. You may recall the last one that was played immediately following the Olympic Games. It was staged in Regina, and the winner was Jean-Michel Menard of Quebec. T’was, in fact, only the second time in the 81-year history of this fabled fracas that a team from Quebec had won the national men’s rock concert. The Olympic gold medallist that year wasn’t on hand for the Brier, either. But Martin was there. And Stoughton. And Glenn Howard. Five skips from the current field, in fact. Hence, this Brier will be no different from most of the last 81. There’ll be stories galore and spectacular shots galore and maybe, just maybe, nobody will decide to run away with it as Martin ran away during the last couple. Or even like Randy Ferbey ran away the last time the show visited the Metro Centre. If a runaway happens, of course, the best bets to achieve it will be Stoughton or Howard. Or maybe Brad Gushue, the 2006 gold medallist who won nine of 10 at the Metro Centre to qualify for the Games in the company of people like Stoughton, Howard, Martin, Ferbey, John Morris, et al. Koe, with his Edmonton team, figures to round out the top four as far as crystal-ball gazers are concerned. Strangely, the 35-year-old Koe, a petroleum industry land man who resides in Grande Prairie, will be skipping in his first Brier. His third, Blake MacDonald, played second back in 1999. His second, Carter Rycroft, played with Martin in 2000 and 2006, that last post-Olympic affair. Lead Nolan Thiessen is a Brier rookie. So why should Koe, the 2000 Mixed Nationals champ, be rated top-four? He plays with the big guys on tour and in all the so-called Slams, that’s why. He was one of the top-four qualifiers for the December Olympic trials and held his own in that affair, finishing fourth behind Martin, Howard and Stoughton but not without one helluva fight. One other thing. Koe plays out of the Saville Sports Centre, the same icehouse inhabited by Martin and Ferbey. The three of them have been knocking heads in Alberta playdowns for years.  In Alberta provincials last month, Ferbey couldn’t beat Koe in three altercations. Just like Ferbey couldn’t beat Martin the past two seasons. Which is to suggest, Koe is not to be discounted. The Stoughton, Howard and Gushue lineups, of course, involve no strangers. Stoughton won Briers in 1996 (three straight against Martin, you may recall) and 1999. Howard won a couple with brother Russ in the dark ages, then dominated the 2007 show at Hamilton. Gushue, on the other hand, is 0-for-6 at the Brier. His best shot was in ’07 when he lost the final to Howard. He and Koe, however, represent the young guard. Howard is 47. Stoughton is 46. They’re a part of the old codgership in this field of combatants. Howard is another who’ll be just as happy that Kevin Martin is a Brier spectator.  The Ontario team of Richard Hart, Brent Laing and Craig Savill hasn’t handled Martin’s the past two years at the Brier and suffered a devastating setback in the Olympic trials, to boot. “We’re not over that (defeat) yet,” Howard said last month following his provincial victory. The remaining eight provincial champs all promise to be the sort of teams capable of making it difficult for some, including each other, if not capable of the kind of consistency required to crank up a winning streak at the Brier. Repeaters include 32-year-old Jamie Koe of Yellowknife, brother and former teammate of Alberta’s Koe, who’ll provide this Brier with its second brother-vs-brother teehead skirmish in as many years (Thursday morning), and 52-year-old Rod MacDonald, the P.E.I. car dealer, who’s in for the fourth time in six years and takes over sole honours as the oldest skip at the Brier. Other returnees include New Brunswick’s James Grattan, back again directing another New Brunswick contender after rejoining Russ Howard at third last year. Grattan is making his eighth appearance, fourth as a skip, and is still trying to improve on his Brier skipping debut in 1997 when he finished third behind Martin and Vic Peters. The Darrell McKee-Bruce Korte combine from Saskatoon reared its head above the stubble last month to outlast defender Joel Jordison and four-time champ Pat Simmons in Saskatchewan. McKee, 46, played third for Bruce Korte in one previous Brier while Korte will be playing third after two shots on Brier teeheads. Last-rock shooter Brad Jacobs of Sault Ste. Marie is back for his third Brier in four years at the tender age of 24, directing third E.J. Harnden, second Ryan Harnden and lead Caleb Flaxey. Jacobs threw last rocks for veteran Al Harnden in 2007 at Hamilton. Harnden is Jacobs’s uncle. The other Harndens and Flaxey played with Eric Harnden Sr., in 2008 with Jacobs along for the ride as fifth player. “We’re all related, we have two brothers and a cousin here,” says Jacobs. “There’s a lot of family love.” The field is rounded out by three rookie Brier skips — fuzzy-cheeked 25-year-old Ian Fitzner-LeBlanc of Halifax who outlasted big guns like Mark Dacey and Shawn Adams and, if nothing else, will be long on support from the home crowd, 30-year-old former national junior runner-up Jeff Richard of Kelowna, B.C., and unheralded 46-year-old Serge Reid from Quebec’s Saguenay region.