Brier rookie riding wings of butterflies

STEVE GREEN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:47 PM ET

LONDON, Ont. -- If the old hands such as Glenn Howard and Kevin Martin get excited and a bit nervous on the eve of a Canadian men's curling championship, try to imagine what François Gagné's gut was putting him through Friday.

The skip of the Quebec rink will make his debut Saturday when the 2011 Tim Hortons Brier finally begins at the John Labatt Centre.

He's one of three first-time Brier skips, but by the time Saturday's opening ceremony and the Hot Shots skills competition are done, he'll be ready to face Shawn Adams of Nova Scotia in the 2:30 p.m. first draw.

"We're just trying to enjoy the moment," he said of teammates Robert Desjardins, Christian Bouchard and Philippe Ménard after their practice session Friday. "Being my first Brier, it's like a dream come true.

"I've been working for this for 20 years. I think we should be ready tomorrow; we're going to have butterflies, sure, but as soon as we get on the ice, we'll be able to concentrate on what we need to do."

Gagné admitted that his is a relative unknown rink -- Desjardins and Bouchard are also in their first Brier while Ménard, brother of 2006 Brier champion Jean-Michel Ménard, is in his third -- but he said that could work in their favour.

"We are an underdog; I know people were looking for Jean-Michel to come back," he said of the man he beat in the Quebec final. "I've been playing these guys for a couple of years now and we have the tools to beat them. As an underdog, I don't know if they know we have the tools."

If Gagné can be considered a relative pup, Howard and Martin are the wizened lead dogs. Yet some things haven't changed since they made their Brier debuts in 1986 and 1991, respectively.

"I'm probably as excited now as I was then and maybe a little extra excited because this one's in Ontario," Howard said. "We're going to have a lot of people pulling for us and, personally, that's going to give me a little bit of an adrenalin rush. Plus our track record in Ontario is pretty good, so we'll put our laurels on that."

But surviving at the top -- and staying hungry -- for so long takes more than just individual talent.

"The main ingredient is to surround yourself with good people," Howard said. "I've been able to do that my whole career and the three guys in front of me now (Richard Hart, Brent Laing and Craig Savill) are so unbelievably good curlers they make it really easy for me. They help me stay motivated -- I have no problem getting out of bed to throw.

"But it is amazing the longevity of us older guys. These are names -- all kinds of Brier champions, world champions, gold medallists and silver medallists -- that aren't going to be here in a few years."

Martin is gunning for a record fifth Brier title as a skip, but there's a lesser-known mark he already holds and can extend this week -- the longest span between first and most recent championships. It stands at 18 after his debut win in 1991 and his past crown in 2009.

"That's why we all have the same hairstyles," he said, kidding with a couple of reporters as hair-challenged as he. "It's safe to say some things have changed. Back then, it was really just a blur. It's still always tough to wait for that first game, but we're probably a little more organized these days."

He does remember one thing vividly from that 1991 Brier triumph in Hamilton.

"I remember coming off the ice expecting the first question to be, 'How does it feel to win your first Brier?' but what I got was, 'How does it feel to be representing your country at the Olympics?' " he said, referring to the Albertville Games where curling was still a demonstration sport. "I didn't know that was how they figured out who was going to be the Olympic rep."

And, like Howard, Martin said having the right mix of teammates goes a long way.

"Getting youth and energy on the team, like I did when I brought on Carter (Raycroft), and the same with the guys I have now (John Morris, Marc Kennedy and Ben Hebert)," Martin said. "The key is not to get complacent. If you get old and complacent, you don't last."

With one of the best Brier fields in recent years, complacency is not an option, for rookies and veterans alike.

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