Adam Boland: Canadian Champion. Those four words have been a big dream of mine since I first stepped on curling ice at age nine, but always seemed out of reach. Just as young hockey players grew up pretending to score a goal to win the Stanley Cup, I grew up at the Gander Curling Club throwing rocks pretending to win a National Curling Title. Never did I think the day would come where the pretending would stop and the rock I was about to throw would be to win a real Canadian Championship.
Going into this curling season, I knew it was going to be a special one. St. John’s was hosting the Brier for the first time since 1972 and the city was buzzing. If there is one thing Newfoundlander’s are known for, it’s getting behind their own and watching them succeed. Brad Gushue’s team was a constant presence in the news in the time leading up to the Brier, resulting in an increase in the popularity of the sport in the province for the 2016-2017 season. Our team piggy-backed off this spark of interest and channeled it into our own practices and games. All the extra popularity and media attention surrounding curling gave us that extra drive to succeed in our goals for the season.
Our dream season began in early December when we won the qualifications to represent MUN at the AUS championships in February. This achievement has been a major obstacle for me personally, as a snowstorm prevented my team from attending this tournament in 2015, and an extra end loss in the qualifications in 2016 ended our dream of representing MUN sooner than we would have liked. I’ve attended the Canada Winter Games and two Canadian Junior Championships, but the playdowns to represent my university this past year may have been the most nervous I’ve been for any tournament. This was the last year in school for three of us on the team, so we knew this was the last chance to succeed on the university circuit as a unit. Knowing we had earned the right this year to advance to the AUS Championships, we put in more work than we had ever done previously. There were late Friday night and early weekend morning practices, a lot of sacrifices had to be made and we all had to have the same mindset to get where we wanted to go.
During the last weekend in January, the Newfoundland & Labrador Tankard was held at the Bally Haly Curling Club. This tournament would decide which team would represent NL at the Brier as the hometown team. Everyone in the curling club knew which team would achieve this once in a lifetime opportunity. It was a given that Team Gushue was going to be the face of the St. John’s Brier, their pictures were already plastered on billboards all over the city. However, this didn’t stop us from entering the tournament, looking to gain valuable experience. Our goal for the week was to make the final, this way we would have the opportunity to play Team Gushue twice. Even though we ended up losing both games to the eventual World Champions, we gained so much knowledge just watching them interact during a game. After the final, Mark Nichols congratulated us on a great week of curling and told us we had what it took to succeed at the University level. Those words stuck with us for the next few weeks as we prepared for the AUS Championships.
In a field of seven teams with the top three qualifying for the U Sports Nationals, the AUS championships this year was not your usual tournament. As much as each team wanted to win the whole thing, finishing top three was almost as big a deal as bringing home the banner. Having already played several of the teams that would be representing their universities, we had a good idea of how tough this tournament had the potential to be. We were prepared though, and knew that if we played to our potential all week we would be in a good position to put ourselves through to Nationals. We clicked early, and found ourselves sitting at 6-0 at the conclusion of round robin play. At this point, we didn’t want to put too much pressure on ourselves or begin to overthink the magnitude of the games. After an extremely stressful semi-final win against UPEI, we had secured ourselves a spot at nationals and still had a very real chance at winning Memorial’s first official Varsity AUS Curling Banner. After a pep talk from Coach Gary Ryan and a warning to “Please don’t ever put [him] through another game like that,” we were ready to go. We played our best game of the week and with that, landed ourselves a 10-5 win over defending champions Dalhousie and a gold medal at the AUS championships. We were over the moon. The disappointment of failing to reach this tournament so far in my university career made winning the whole thing even more special. We celebrated this victory for a few days, but the preparations for the nationals began soon after. We knew we couldn’t let up if we wanted to see more success later in the season.
We departed St. John’s for Thunder Bay on the evening of March 17th fresh off the high of watching Team Gushue capture the Brier Tankard in dramatic fashion. Even though we didn’t get much practice time over the course of the Brier, I fully believe the best preparation we could have received was watching our clubmates finally win this elusive championship. It’s not very often our small province can call themselves national champions in curling, and we were beyond motivated to bring a second Canadian title back to the rock in just a matter of days.
Just as we did a month earlier in the AUS championships, we clicked early at the Nationals. We won our opener against UPEI and followed with two solid wins against perennial powerhouses Wilfred Laurier and University of Alberta. These two schools have their own curling programs and always seem to be in the mix for the gold medal each year, so for us to have two good games against them early in the tournament provided us with a lot of confidence moving forward. By the end of the third day of competition, we found ourselves at 5-0 and had secured first place going into the playoffs. We had two final games against Dalhousie and Queens before the playoffs began, with both teams fighting for their tournament life. A loss for each team would all but knock them out of medal contention. A loss for us wouldn’t change our positioning in the standings, but we didn’t want to lose any momentum we had going for us so far. We came out flat against Dalhousie and trailed 5-1 at the fifth end break. A quick team chat got our minds focused once again and we played a great second half to come from behind and steal a win from our Atlantic rivals. We were obviously happy to get the win and keep our streak going, but we knew we couldn’t start this way again if we wanted to call ourselves champions at the end of the week. A solid game against Queens to end off the round robin gave ourselves a win and a 7-0 record to end round robin play. This was a great accomplishment and something we were proud of at the time, but starting the semi-finals the next day meant that every team’s record was back to 0-0; one loss now and that gold medal dream was history.
Full disclosure; I didn’t get much sleep the night before the playoffs. My mind was running wild about the possibilities of what could happen the next day. When morning came, I definitely felt the lack of sleep but the excitement quickly took over thinking about what was in store for us that day. During the semi-final game against University of Regina, I felt as if I was letting my team down. I wasn’t playing near as well as I felt I could, while the guys in front of me were playing amazing. Credit to them, the ending to our story in Thunder Bay would be quite different if they hadn’t played as well as they did and continued to support me when my confidence was low. We crawled back from an early deficit, and with a count of two in the tenth end we took the game 8-7 and booked a spot in the National final. We were ecstatic. We were one game away from our goal and the dream conclusion to our curling season.
Before the gold medal game against University of Alberta we were feeling confident. We had prepared all year for this and we wanted it more than anything. The game was being streamed online and we knew all of our family and friends would be watching and cheering us on. I channelled the excitement from Team Gushue’s Brier win ten days earlier, and I was determined to feel the same elation of being called a Canadian champion that day in Thunder Bay. The first five ends of the gold medal game were very even. Both teams were playing tentatively to get the nerves out and at the break University of Alberta held a 2-1 lead over us. One last pep talk from Coach Gary and we were ready to finish the game off strong. We scored three in the sixth end to take a 4-2 lead. It was at that point we felt the momentum shifting our way, but we needed to keep ourselves collected and our heads in the game. A force of one in the seventh and we were up 4-3 with hammer. With only three ends to go we could feel the game in our grasps.
The best end of the week for us could not have came at a better time. When U of A’s last rock in the eighth end came to a rest, I had a partially open hit to score a massive four points. My heart began to pound. This was the moment I had practiced for my whole life. All those pretend rocks I’ve thrown to win a Canadian title quickly became my reality. I tried to block out all the other distractions and only focus on this rock. My slide was a little shaky, but the rock felt good coming out of my hand. Seconds later, the sound of granite on granite meant the opposition’s rock had been removed from the house and we had scored four. I almost couldn’t believe it. An 8-3 lead with two ends to go – we couldn’t have asked for a better situation. We managed to keep our emotions in check long enough to get through the ninth end, and with another force of one, Alberta conceded the game. We were officially Canadian Champions. All of our hard work had paid off and the feeling was like nothing I’ve ever felt before. I ran to my phone as soon as I got off the ice and called home. To this day I still can’t remember what I said; it’s as if I was on autopilot. I was in shock, completely speechless. Our phones began to flood with messages of congratulations. These messages came from close family and friends as well as a very special phone call from the premier of Newfoundland & Labrador himself. That moment was the proudest I have ever been to call myself a Memorial Seahawk and a Newfoundlander.
Two months later, I sometimes still have trouble believing what happened this past curling season. From going undefeated on the university circuit and capturing a Canadian title, to watching Team Gushue win the Brier on home ice – this season was full of storybook endings. It still feels very surreal. Curling in this province is on the rise. This season proved that even though we may not have the numbers other provinces do, we can compete with them. I am so excited to see what the future holds for Newfoundland & Labrador in this amazing sport.
By: Adam Boland