The underdog flashed his snarly teeth throughout the opening draw of the Tim Hortons Roar of the Rings on Sunday, but his bark ultimately never proved to be as big as the proverbial bite.
Little-known Jason Gunnlaugson, of Beausejour, Man., talked a good game prior to his clash with No. 1 seed Kevin Martin, and he actually gave the Old Bear one before succumbing 7-5 on the opening night of the Olympic curling trials at Rexall Place.
The 25-year-old poker player even managed to win over some of the fans that were not only behind Martin, but fellow Edmonton rinks Randy Ferbey and Kevin Koe, who all moved to 1-0 after Day 1 of trials.
Martin got a battle out of the Manitoba youngster, and then some.
“I told you they were good, didn’t I?” Martin told the gathered media afterwards.
“Boy, after three or four ends it looked like they weren’t going to miss anything.”
After an opening steal of one put Martin ahead in the first end, Gunnlaugson settled right down and dictated some play. He tied it back up at 1-1 after two and had the nerve to steal a deuce in three as Martin ticked on his draw.
Gunnlaugson immediately motioned to the disappointing crowd of roughly 8,000 with the pump-it-up sign, waving his arms upward, after the thievery.
After allowing one to Gunnlaugson in the sixth, Martin took control with a deuce in seven and a steal of one in eight, but still had to make a draw inside the four-foot with his final stone to secure the win in the 10th.
“After we gave them the deuce in three, Johnny (Morris, his third) came down and said, ‘Listen, let’s just try and have the hammer coming home.’ That was the mindset and we managed to do that,” said a relieved Martin afterward.
“He (Gunnlaugson) just doesn’t play with any fear at all and that’s a scary guy to play. They’re going to win some curling games, for sure. We’re lucky they didn’t win one — tonight.”
What Gunnlaugson did do was win over some of those fans who knew precious little about the upstart.
“We put them to the test, which not everyone is going to do this week,” said Gunnlaugson.
“We executed our game plan to perfection; unfortunately the execution by myself wasn’t as good,” he added of his 73 per cent outing, a full 10 points behind Martin.
“I thought the fans were behind everyone, but it was great to have a few behind us,” Gunnlaugson added of swaying some cheers his way.
The fans also got a kick out of Ferbey’s impressive performance, recording a deuce in the opening end and adding three in each of the third and fifth to down Ontario’s Wayne Middaugh 9-7.
“The first end, Dave (Nedohin) made a couple of absolute perfect shots to set the tone in the game and then we did what we normally do, get a lot of rocks in play,” said Ferbey, who forced Middaugh into one with the hammer in the second and came back with the three to open up a 5-1 advantage.
“You could hear them cheering for the Edmonton teams out there a little bit and you could hear them cheering for Gunner a bit, now and again, too,” added Ferbey of the crowd.
Koe dumped Saskatchewan’s Pat Simmons 8-5 as his Edmonton foursome opened with a three in the first and won comfortably.
“That killed some of the nerves,” Koe admitted of the quick start. “I think we were all a little nervous to get going.”
In the tightest game of the night, Winnipeg’s Jeff Stoughton missed an open draw to the four-foot with his final stone to lose 5-4 to Glenn Howard of Coldwater, Ont.
“A little fortunate, for sure, on that last shot. You give Jeff a bucket of balls and he’ll always make it,” said Howard, who came back from a 4-2 deficit with two in the seventh before a pair of blanked ends.
Then came the critical mistake.
“It was too bad, I just threw it heavy,” said Stoughton. “There’s nothing you can do. I just threw it hard.”
Play resumes Monday with two women’s draws and one men’s draw.
That could have been Saskatoon’s Stefanie Lawton wearing Team Canada gear at the 2006 Olympics — could have been, if a rock or two had rolled with her instead of against her at the trials.
Lawton, now 29, heads into this year’s Canadian Olympic curling trials with memories of a third-place showing in 2005 still fresh. Her rink lost a nail-biting 5-4 decision to eventual Olympian Shannon Kleibrink of Calgary in the event semifinal.
“We were in awe of everything,” recalls Lawton, who opens the trials –dubbed the Tim Hortons Roar of the Rings — Sunday in Edmonton against Kelly Scott of Kelowna, B.C. “We definitely knew we were capable, but we didn’t know what everything was all about. Now, we know we were so close last time, but we also know that just because we got third doesn’t mean we can do that well or better than that. It’s a different competition. At the same time, we know what you need to do to win the competition.”
Lawton has enjoyed plenty of high-flying curling aside from the trials. She skipped Saskatchewan at the 2005 and 2009 Scotties national championship. She earned her way to this year’s trials without having to attend last month’s pre-qualifier.
Lawton, with sister Marliese Kasner at third, Sherri Singler at second and Lana Vey at lead, is seeded fourth for the trials, behind Winnipeg’s Jennifer Jones, Kleibrink and Calgary’s Cheryl Bernard. The eight-team field also includes fifth-seed Crystal Webster of Calgary, along with Krista McCarville of Thunder Bay, Ont., Scott, and Kronau’s Amber Holland.
Lawton and Holland skip the two Saskatchewan women’s teams at the trials. Moose Jaw’s Pat Simmons is in the men’s event.
Lawton, a chartered accountant with Meyers Norris Penny, credits a lengthy work leave with helping her prepare for another shot at the Olympics. She has been off the job for more than a year while getting ready.
“They gave me a leave to go ahead, work hard on the training and go for my dream of curling here and working towards the Olympics,” says Lawton, who is 13th in World Curling Tour earnings this season with $15,000. “I’m grateful for that and it’s made a big difference in my life, in terms of being able to spend more time at the rink and more time with off-ice training and mentally preparing myself.”
Vey is the only player on the team who didn’t play with Lawton at the 2005 trials. Chelsey Bell, the lead on the 2005 squad, now plays lead with Kleibrink.
Despite the excitement of preparing for the trials, the year has been a tragic one for Lawton and sister Kasner. They’re dealing with the grief of losing mother Linda Miller to a brain tumour in late September, following a 10-month battle.
Their mother was a staunch and proud supporter as the girls grew up and Lawton says she’ll carry Linda’s memory into Edmonton.
“My mom has been with me through all my curling, through every part of my life, and I know she wouldn’t miss this,” Lawton says. “I know she’s going to be there watching.”
Holland is third in women’s WCT earnings with $26,200 and Simmons is ninth on the men’s circuit with $29,500.
Holland opens Sunday against top-seed Jennifer Jones, while Simmons takes on Edmonton’s Kevin Koe.