Northern Ontario finally back on top

When I first arrived here a couple of years ago, one of the very first columns I wrote was about the continuing debate over whether there should be a Northern Ontario rink competing at the Tim Hortons Brier.
At that time, there was a lot of noise about having the defending champs return as Team Canada and making Northern Ontario vie against other teams in Ontario for a berth—just as they currently do for the Scotties.
Thankfully, common sense prevailed—and the best men’s curling team in the country now belongs to the north after Sault Ste. Marie’s Brad Jacobs earned the Brier title Sunday night with an 11-4 win over Manitoba’s Jeff Stoughton.
And to be honest, I’m still in shock.
It’s not so much the fact that Jacobs won over the likes of Stoughton, Alberta’s Kevin Martin, and Ontario’s Glenn Howard because the young rink is very talented and has been knocking on the door for the last couple of years.
It’s more along the lines of the fact that my home province actually has won the Brier for the first time in my lifetime.
I sadly wasn’t around for Al Hackner’s two title in the 1980s, and I was only two years old when Al Harnden made a surprising run to the playoffs at the 1990 Brier in Sault Ste. Marie.
But for as long as I could remember, Northern Ontario always was an also-ran when it came to the national championship, and it looked as though they wouldn’t appear in the playoffs or be a threat to compete for quite a long time.
It was around the time of the 2010 Brier that the Team Canada rumblings were at their strongest since defending champ Kevin Martin couldn’t play in the Alberta playdowns due to being at the Olympics in Vancouver while Northern Ontario seemingly was just a short time away from the chopping block.
But that was when Jacobs burst onto the scene in a big way, surprising everyone with a third-place finish that year.
After missing the playoffs the next two years, the Jacobs rink made a big addition over the summer by bringing in former Brad Gushue and Jeff Stoughton team member Ryan Fry to play at third.
With his experience, and the muscular brothers of Ryan and E.J. Harnden now playing up front, the team had their best year ever on the World Curling Tour and then started the Brier with a 4-0 record.
But even when things went poorly, such as when they got blown out by Ontario in mid-week, the team didn’t get down like they would have in the past and they turned in an amazing showing in the playoffs.
What blows me away the most, though, is the fact that the best men’s curling team in Canada comes from my hometown of Sault Ste. Marie.
Having hung around the Soo Curlers for years, I’ve had a chance to see Jacobs and the Harndens move up from the high school and junior ranks and onto the national stage.
I can’t wait to see what the future holds for the guys, especially at the world championships in Victoria, B.C. starting on Easter weekend.