Road To The Olympic Games

Curling·The Brier

The good doctor hopes he has cure for Northern Ontario's playoff ills

If there's anyone at this year's Brier who knows high pressure situations it's Northern Ontario's Dr. Lee Toner.

Alternate Lee Toner is used to pressure as an emergency room physician

Dr. Lee Toner is an alternate this year on Brad Jacobs' team. (Devin Heroux/CBC Sports)

BRANDON, Man. — If there's anyone at this year's Brier who knows high pressure situations it's Dr. Lee Toner.

It's literally a matter of life and death whenever the Sudbury emergency physician goes to work. 

"The stuff I do at work is very taxing and curling can be taxing too, but it's certainly a different kind of outcome when you're dealing with someone's life versus a curling game," Toner said. 

On any given day Toner has to deal with people suffering strokes and chest pains, lacerations and broken bones. Every trauma imaginable.  

"Whatever comes through the door you have to be ready for it," he said. 

This week Toner is stepping out of the emergency room and onto the pebbled ice as the alternate for Northern Ontario's Team Jacobs. It's his fourth trip to the Brier with the team.

"I'm the handyman I guess and trying to contribute any way I can. Getting groceries, getting snacks ready, matching rocks at night. Running after contact lens," Toner said. 

Dr. Lee Toner, right, an alternate on Brad Jacobs' Northern Ontario team, watches the action on Thursday. (Devin Heroux/CBC)

It's a far cry from his day-to-day life. And in a lot of ways Toner is trying to bring a perspective to Jacobs team that may have been lost on them in the past. 

"It all applies to running a trauma and applies to a difficult situation in a curling game."

The sport of curling has offered the doctor an escape from a job that no doubt takes a toll. 

Brad Jacobs and his Northern Ontario team are hoping this year they can parlay their early tournament success into another Brier championship. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)
"I think for me it's helpful to have another passion other than medicine to prevent burn out. I think that's one of the things curling has done for me. A lot of my colleagues suffer from that," Toner said.

"I think it's a really nice distraction from every day life because when it comes down to it's about the journeys you take in life. That's what you'll remember."

Now Toner is helping to create some memories for Team Jacobs in Brandon.

They've been here before. Brad Jacobs and his Northern Ontario team have had great success in the round-robin portion of the Brier over the past number of years. So far at this year's tournament the team has dominated the competition, winning its first eight games without having to throw a last rock. 

Since they won their first and only national championship in 2013, Team Jacobs has gone a combined 48-7 in the preliminary rounds.

Then for whatever reason they've fallen apart when they get to the playoffs. 

Jacobs has been candid this week about their lack of mental focus in the past. They seem to lose perspective and grounding when they need it the most. That's why this year they've loaded up their coaching ranks with people who can help them remain calm and centred amidst the curling storm. 

WATCH | Alberta stays perfect:

Scott McDonald and team Ontario took down Brad Jacobs and Northern Ontario 7-6 in 11ends to see Northern Ontario's record drop to 8-1 at the Brier. 1:02

It's why they've brought on Dr. Toner to be their alternate. They also have Adam Kingsbury too. He spent the last number of seasons with Rachel Homan's team. Kingsbury is all about focusing on what happens to athletes in pressure situations. 

Dr. Toner lives it every day in the emergency room — performing under pressure — and he's Jacobs' roommate for the Brier. 

"He does deal with life and death every day and if there's anybody who has a great perspective on things it's him. He's a calming influence on our team," Jacobs said. 

The two have spent a lot of time lately getting to know each other.

"I said this earlier to him in the week but ever since I first met him and played together in 2007 I had these preconceived notions of Lee that he was this prim and proper, nerdy doctor," Jacobs said. "And he's not at all. He's super cool and has a great sense of humour."

For Toner, it's been a rewarding journey watching Jacobs and his team evolve and grow on and off the ice.

"They've always been great with the physical game but it's nice to see them take the mental performance to a new level as well," Toner said. 

Defending champion Brad Gushue's Team Canada is 8-1 after Thursday's play. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Jacobs asked for adversity after his eight consecutive wins to open the Brier, now he's getting it. The team lost to Ontario Thursday in an extra end night to drop their record to 8-1. They're tied for second with Canada's Brad Gushue — the two teams play each other Friday afternoon. 

Alberta is still undefeated and leading the way after Kevin Koe guided his team to a victory over Manitoba on Thursday night. 

WATCH | Ontario hands Jacobs first loss

Kevin Koe scored three with the final stone to escape with a 7-6 victory for Alberta over Wild Card at the Brier. 0:35

The wild-card team skipped by Brendan Bottcher is right behind those three teams at 7-2 after a convincing win over BC.  Ontario is staying alive at the Brier with a 6-3 record. Manitoba, Saskatchewan and B.C. have been eliminated.

But for Jacobs, this is the pivotal point of the Brier they haven't been able to push past for the last four years — these crucial games down the stretch have been their demise. Now they're trying to reverse a trend the team has fallen victim to in the past, excelling early in the bonspiel only to crumple under the pressure of the big games.

"We welcome any setbacks, challenges or adversity this week. We hope they come our way. When you face adversity it means your learning and growing," Jacobs said. "We welcome the challenge. In my mind right now, we can't fail."

It's nowhere near panic time yet for Jacobs, but Toner is there to jump in should the pressure and stress become too much. 

"The high pressure situations apply to sport as much as it does to high pressure in medicine," he said.

"The crisis resource management. Reminding yourself to take a few breaths. Slow down your cadence and speech. Bring your volume down. It makes the room a little quieter and the volume is part to the excitement sometimes."

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