ST. JOHN’S, N.L. â€” Hockey isn’t the only winter sport close to Bob Cole’s heart.
Cole was an elite curler before his hockey broadcasting career took off in the 1970s. He represented Newfoundland at the national men’s curling championship on two occasions and played a role in helping St. John’s land the 2017 edition of the Tim Hortons Brier.
St. John’s skip Brad Gushue was also involved in the city’s successful bid to land the event. He got some help from Cole, a longtime friend, who lent his voice to some promotional material.
Cole always kept an eye on the sport even after he stepped back from competitive curling. When the NHL lockout wiped out the 2004-05 season, Cole would often head over to the local curling club and watch Gushue, then coming into his own as an elite skip.
“He’d sit down and eat peanuts and watch me practise,” Gushue recalled in a recent interview. “I’d come off the ice and he’d ask me when I’d be down the next day. I’d tell him and we did that for about as long as the lockout went on to be honest. We became good friends.
“He’s in and out of the curling club, he hasn’t curled in a long, long time. But he does follow it. I’ve gotten calls from him at the Brier after a big game or a big loss, kind of out of nowhere. He offers just that little bit of advice, which I certainly appreciate. Any time you get a call from him and hear his voice, it’s kind of neat. Even though I’ve known him for many, many years, it’s still kind of cool.”
Cole, who represented Newfoundland at the 1971 Brier in Quebec City and again four years later in Fredericton, was impressed by Gushue’s ability from the start.
“You could almost tell immediately,” Cole said from St. John’s. “You had a curler here that’s going to be as good as it gets. The finest delivery you’d want to see.”
Gushue would eventually blossom into one of the top curlers in the game. His glowing resume includes an Olympic title, two world junior titles, 13 provincial crowns and several Grand Slam and cashspiel victories.
“You didn’t have to be an expert to tell that this boy has something,” Cole recalled.
At the time, Gushue was throwing about 100 rocks a day at practice.
“It was neat the first day when he sat in behind the glass and he waited until I came in,” Gushue said. “We sat down and had a drink and started that routine … (it was) for definitely a lengthy period of time â€” most of the lockout. Then obviously he went back to work and that was (it). We’ve kept in touch ever since then and whenever we’re at the same event, we always make time to have a chat.
“I get the odd call from him, usually around Brier time. Whether we have a good game or a bad game, he’ll give me a shout.”
Gushue’s breakout performance came at the Turin Olympics in 2006. Cole was also in Italy for his hockey broadcast work at the Games and on his off-day, went to nearby Pinerolo to watch Gushue’s rink in action.
He also took in the medal ceremony after the team won gold.
“There were thousands of people out in front of this stage,” Gushue said. “We go up on stage and we look out and we could see one guy just jumping up and down and waving his arms. The closer we looked, he had a CBC jacket on and here it was Bob. So in a crowd of let’s say 5,000 people, we could see him jumping and screaming. That was kind of neat.
“So he took the time out of his schedule because he was doing the hockey games to come down in a throng of thousands of people and watch us get the medals.”
Gushue was hampered by a groin/hip problem earlier this season but is back in form now. He’ll be looking to become the first Newfoundland and Labrador skip to win the Brier since Jack MacDuff’s victory in 1976 in Regina.
Gushue, 36, came close to picking up that elusive national title last year in Ottawa, but ended up dropping a 9-5 decision to Alberta’s Kevin Koe.
“I don’t understand how they lose a game when they lose,” Cole said. “Something strange happens somewhere along the way. They’re that good. You’d pick them as a favourite without even seeing the other teams. You have to. He’s committed and he’s a great curler, no doubt about it.
“The four of them are great. They work well together.”
Mark Nichols handled skip duties when Gushue was out earlier in the season. Nichols has since returned to the third position on a foursome that includes second Brett Gallant and lead Geoff Walker.
Round-robin play begins Saturday at Mile One Centre. The four-team qualifying round starts Thursday night.
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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press