Brier preview: Ferbey throws for fifth title

It's somewhat fitting that Alberta skip Randy Ferbey will be setting up shop this week in newly re-crowned Hearts champ Colleen Jones' backyard in Halifax.

Like Jones, he shoots for a record fifth national title at the Nokia Brier beginning Saturday.

It won't be easy. There are plenty of challengers in the field with their own lofty credentials. B.C.'s Pat Ryan and New Brunswick's Russ Howard are both former champs, and veteran curlers such as Quebec's popular Guy Hemmings and local favourite Mark Dacey both have played in Brier finals.

CBC curling analyst Mike Harris says nearly two-thirds of the field have a legitimate shot to survive the round robin.

"This field's pretty deep," Harris says. "There's seven or eight teams that can contend for the playoffs, so everybody will have to play well throughout the week."

According to Harris, the headliners are Alberta, B.C. and New Brunswick. Four others will likely scrap for that last spot: Quebec, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and his dark horse, Newfoundland.

Here's a look at each of the competitors:

Alberta Skip: Randy Ferbey

As well as trying for a record fifth Brier win, Ferby and his crew -- the Edmonton Avonair Curling Club team of David Nedohin, Scott Pfeifer and Marcel Rocque -- are going for their third Brier in a row. The reigning world champions are playing well and lead the professional tour's money list.

Harris: "They are the clear favourites, a la Colleen Jones during the Hearts. They're a step ahead of everybody else. I believe they'll be first after the round robin. The playoffs are a whole new ballgame."

Playoffs? Count on it.

British Columbia Skip: Pat Ryan

The three-time Brier champion (1988, 1989, 1994) and two-time world champion makes his 10th appearance, and he's primed for another run. If he wins, Ryan will tie Ferbey, his former third during his Alberta years, as a four-time winner along with Saskatchewan's Ernie Arnold and Garnet (Sam) Richardson.

Harris: "Pat has a new third (Bob Ursel) and their team is much improved because of adding him. I have them ranked in the top three of the field."

Playoffs? A great bet.

Manitoba Skip: John Bubbs

John Bubbs is back after an 18-year absence from the Brier, and he could be the most tanned and most relaxed player in Halifax this week. After winning the Manitoba playdowns, Bubbs jetted off to a pre-planned Caribbean cruise that he had to cut short for the Brier. He needed U.S. government permission to leave the cruise ship early.

Of course, this week will be no vacation for Bubbs if he has designs on the playoffs. More than any other provincial winner, Bubbs likely benefitted from not having to compete against some of the heavyweights who are sticking to the professional circuit. But he can't hide in Halifax, and in fact, plays two former world champions -- Ferbey and Howard -- in his first weekend. He'll be hard pressed to claim Manitoba's 27th title.

Harris: "They have tons of experience, but whether they have the talent up front to contend in this field remains to be seen. I'll be surprised if they do, however." As for Manitoba's front-loaded schedule, Harris said: "There are two ways to look at that: If you can win at least one of those, you're way ahead of the game. But on the other hand, it's a longshot."

Playoffs? A long shot.

New Brunswick Skip: Russ Howard

Howard will join B.C.'s Bernie Sparkes as the record holder for most Brier appearances, with 12. He already has won the most games (93). The two-time Brier champion, who appeared eight times as Ontario skip, will try to bring New Brunswick its first title.

Harris: "This team is very good to keep coming out of New Brunswick year after year. I look for them to at least match last year's result, when they lost in the semis to John Morris."

Playoffs? A great bet.

Newfoundland and Labrador Skip: Brad Gushue

It's the first Brier experience for the 2001 Canadian and world junior champion. Like PEI's Suzanne Gaudet at the Hearts, Gushue is an assured competitor and will have a shot to win some big games.

Harris: "Brad's maybe a dark horse to make the playoffs, but he's going to have to play his best all the time. He's got the talent, but the question is can he handle the pressure of the Brier?

"It's sort of the Gaudet story of the Brier. She sailed through the round robin but got beat squarely by two veteran teams in the playoffs. But since the Brier field is much more competitive this year, it will be hard for Brad to match that kind of success."

Playoffs? An outside chance.

Nova Scotia Skip: Mark Dacey

Dacey is making his third Brier appearance, and Halifax audiences may remember him as the third for Saskatchewan in the 1995 finals. He's also the reigning Canadian mixed champion.

Harris: "Mark's one of those teams that could make the playoffs because they have a lot going for them. Nova Scotia is one of the more competitive provinces in the Maritimes, and of course he'll have the hometown thing going for him in Halifax. In fact, the last time he was in a final was in Halifax, so he has plenty of good vibes in that building."

Playoffs? A contender.

Northern Ontario Skip: Scott Henderson

Henderson makes his third appearance and his first as skip.

Harris: "Another good team that can beat anybody, but for them to win consistently through the week will be tough. Six wins would be a great result for them."

Playoffs? Not likely.

Ontario Skip: Bryan Cochrane

Cochrane will leave a lasting impression in his first Brier appearance, if only for the fact that he will likely be using a whistle to communicate with teammates because of a throat disorder. A chronic growth on his vocal cord requires laser surgery every six to eight months.

Harris: "Cochrane played phenomenally well at provincials. It's the best I've ever seen him play. But they'll likely end up middle of the pack at around 5-6. Cochrane is capable of beating anybody, but I'd be surprised if he contended for the playoffs."

Playoffs? Unlikely.

PEI Skip: Robert Campbell

Robert Campbell is no stranger to the Brier; this will be his seventh showing. The rest of his crew -- Kevin Champion, Phil Gorveatt and Mike Dillon -- will be making their Brier debuts.

Mike Harris: "Robert's bringing a new team to the Brier this year, and I doubt they'll make the playoffs with the depth of this field. He always seems to be just on the verge of breaking through but never quite makes it, and I don't expect him to this year."

Playoffs? Unlikely.

Quebec Skip: Guy Hemmings

Curling's showman loves the Brier so much he eschewed the pro circuit for a shot to play there. It's his fourth time here, with two runner-up showings, in 1998 and 1999. Mike Harris: "Of course, everybody in the buiding is going to be loving Guy this week. I'd say he's one of four teams vying for the final spot, but for him to go all the way in this field will be difficult.

"He's streaky. You never know which Guy is going to show up, but he's certainly in his environment at the Brier."

Playoffs? A top contender.

Saskatchewan Skip: Doug Harcourt

Harcourt's crew returns for a third go-round and are still trying to break through. But Harris says they should not be underestimated.

Harris: "They've gone into their last two appearances with high expectations and haven't made it to the playoff yet. But I still would expect them to challenge again for playoff position. They're a good team."

Playoffs? In the hunt.

Yukon/Northwest Territories Skip: Chad Cowan

Cowan also played in 2000, but once again, not much is expected from the team from the territories.

Harris: "He's going to be hard-pressed again to make the playoffs with the depth of this field. He'd do well to win four games during the tournament."

Playoffs? No.