Which giant will be victorious at the upcoming Tim Hortons Brier? Or can an upset winner emerge to buck conventional wisdom in Edmonton?
Alberta's Kevin Martin, Glenn Howard of Ontario, and Manitoba's Jeff Stoughton have skipped a combined nine Brier winners and five world champions.
Were it not an event marked by geographic representation, the likes of past winner Kevin Koe and Mike McEwen could challenge the Big Three's hold on the Brier, but they didn't survive their respective provincial championships.
Big 3 showdowns
- Martin-Stoughton: Draw 2, Saturday March 2, 8:30 PM ET
- Howard-Stoughton: Draw 5, Sunday March 5, 8:30 PM ET
- Martin-Howard: Draw 17, Friday March 8, 9:30 PM ET
The matchup between Martin and Stoughton is the first game for both skips. Howard and Stoughon meet in the third game for each, while the Martin-Howard showdown is their 11th and final game of the round robin.
Quebec's Jean-Michel Ménard famously did come out on top in a 2006 Brier that included Martin, Howard and Stoughton, avenging two earlier losses in the tournament to the Ontarian in the final. But half of Ménard's team has changed from what he admits was a lightning-in-a-bottle roll, and he's tempering expectations this time after failing to reach the Brier the past three years.
Most curling observers believe it's long odds to expect any winner other than one of the aforementioned trio (see sidebar), including former Olympic silver medallist Mike Harris, who says the head-to-head matchups between the favourites will be crucial.
"The leader after the round robin will have a big advantage with last rock in the first end in the playoffs," Harris said. "Every game has heightened importance between these three teams as a result."
It would be tempting to see this Brier as the last of a particular era. The next one, in Kamloops, B.C., takes place after the 2014 Sochi Games. By that time, Stoughton will have joined Howard as an over-50 curler, and Martin will be nearly 48.
But conditioning is better than it has ever been in the sport, and the top teams enjoy advantages based on their history of top performances.
"The top five to seven teams in the world have a major advantage over the rest of the teams in so many ways, and that gap is getting wider, and not being closed in at all by the younger teams," said Harris.
The Big 3
The script is written perfectly for Martin. He can win a Brier in his hometown for the first time. And, oh yeah, in the process become the first man ever to win the Brier five times.
"The last time they were in Rexall Centre they had the biggest week of their lives, capturing the 2009 Olympic trials," Harris said of Martin's rink.
Martin seems as close to a lock for the playoff as there is, but can he get to the top again? He hasn't won the Brier since 2009, and his last major championship was nearly two years ago at the Players'.
By the time this tournament is over, defending champ Howard will be just a handful short of 200 career games at the Brier. It's his 15th appearance, dating back to 1986 when he was a member of brother Russ's rink.
Howard is quite happy to be in Edmonton, having won a Brier (1986) and world championship (2007) in the city. But he may have gotten a wee bit complacent at the provincial playdowns. Winning the tournament eight times in a row might do that.
"They lost three games in the round robin during the Ontario provincials, which is very unusual for them, and in the final were not as precise as I have seen them in the past couple of seasons," said Harris. "Their experience and talent will get them into the playoffs in Edmonton, but they will need to raise their level of play a little to defend their title."
About all that has eluded Howard in his career is an Olympic appearance. He'll have a chance to remedy that situation in December in Winnipeg.
If you're inclined to opt for the hottest of the trio, Stoughton would probably be the pick. In recent months Stoughton's won the Canada Cup and the National, before losing just one game en route to his 10th provincial title.
"The addition of Mark Nichols at lead certainly hasn't hurt the team, and many would say has improved it slightly," said Harris.
Nichols, a 2006 Olympic gold medal winner with Brad Gushue, replaced Steve Gould.
They might be giants
Menard, as mentioned, is a former champion. The Quebec skip went 10-4 overall and won a pair of squeakers to finish as 2006 champion, but that was the last time he won a playoff match at the Brier.
It will be his seventh Brier appearance, but for the first time his rink includes lead Philippe Ménard, his younger brother by 10 years. Philippe has actually been to the Brier more recently than his brother, as a member of François Gagné's rink in 2011.
"This team just does not play as much as the big guys, and this can lead to inconsistency," said Harris. "As Jean-Michel goes, so does this team, in my opinion."
Popular Yellowknife skip Jamie Koe became the first from the Territories to make it to the playoffs last year at the Brier, although he went 0-2 there. Still, it was an impressive achievement given their travel demands and relative lack of top-flight competition compared to some of the top teams.
Harris said everything has to go well for Koe to match last year's showing here, in his seventh Brier.
"This team is able to beat anybody, but I do not anticipate a repeat of 2012," Harris said. "I said the same last year, however, and he will be trying to prove me wrong [again]."
Brad Jacobs of Northern Ontario may very well be the strongest candidate to break the triumvirate in this, his sixth appearance at the Brier in the last seven years.
"Brad Jacobs's is without a doubt the most improved team in the country over the past six months," said Harris.
The Sault Ste. Marie native lost in the final to Howard in December at the Canadian Open, and is 21-14 at the last three Briers, including a bronze medal performance in 2010.
There has been one major change to his rink since the last Brier — the inclusion of third Ryan Fry, who has previously played for Stoughton and, more recently, Gushue.
"Ryan's consistency has given [Jacobs] more opportunity to beat the big teams," Harris added. "This team is waiting for that big breakthrough, and I see that they truly believe they belong with the elite teams in the country."
Gushue would love a gold in his 10th Brier appearance to go along with the silver and bronze he's already accumulated, but it's a longshot.
"Brad has an ability to beat the teams he is supposed to beat, but can struggle against the big guns," said Harris.
Indeed, the 2006 Olympic champ has finished fifth on three occasions in World Curling Tour events this season.
The rink has seen a shuffling of positions since last year's national championship, and with Fry gone, former Canadian junior champ Brett Gallant has been enlisted.
Gushue's meetings with Quebec and Northern Ontario will be critical with respect to earning a playoff berth. Even better would be an upset over one of the Big Three during the round robin.
There's also a one-time Gushue teammate on Saskatchewan, Chris Schille. Second Schille is the "old man" at 30 on a rink that includes two players who were fairly recent Canadian junior champion skips — Brock Virtue, also this team's skip, and third Braeden Moskowy.
There's only one official hometown team at the Brier, but this first-time entrant is half and half, with both Virtue and Schille originally from Alberta.
Virtue's young but not intimidated — he went 2-1 against Martin at the 2012 Boston Pizza Cup, Alberta's championship.
To get to his first Brier, he avenged a Page Playoff loss to Bruce Korte in the provincial playdowns, but his team has fared poorly on the cash tour this year.
Harris doesn't expect youth to be served in this instance.
"If they get rolling early, momentum might carry them to a [better than] .500 record, but they will need to be at their very best all week just to compete," he said.
You can call British Columbia the "Even Steven" province when it comes to recent Briers. In the past 10 years — represented by nine different skips — the round robin record was 55-55. B.C. hasn't made it to the final since Greg McAulay won in 2000, and that trend is quite likely going to continue.
First-time Brier entrant Andrew Bilesky of New Westminster is up for B.C. this time around, leading a rink not much older collectively than Virtue's.
Bilesky and crew should be in playoff mode already, after grinding their way to the provincial title by avenging earlier defeats to Sean Geall and Brent Pierce.
But not much is expected from the province, as the first weekend includes a daunting schedule of games against Howard, Jacobs and Martin.
Harris points out that Nova Scotia's Paul Flemming was part of the runner-up team the last time the Brier was held at Rexall in 2005 (Alberta's Randy Ferby beat Shawn Adams in that final).
But Flemming will be in tough this time around, as what on paper appear to be winnable games for him occur later in the round robins slate.
James Grattan was skip when New Brunswick finished third in 1997, but in his last four outings at the Brier as a skip he's gone just 14-30.
Eddie Mackenzie of Prince Edward Island will have something to prove in making his return to the event after going 1-11 in London, Ont., two years ago.
The final of the Brier takes place March 10 at Rexall Place.
The winner will have an opportunity to make it four world championships in a row for Canada, with the event to be held in Victoria from March 30 to April 7. The eventual Brier champ should get a boost from being in familiar surroundings, as Canadian rinks are 4-1 on home ice at the worlds this century.