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Canada cruises to gold in men’s curling

Saturday, February 27th, 2010 | 7:33 pm

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Canwest News Service

Kevin Martin took the step Saturday that he’s waited his whole, brilliant curling career to take — to the top of the Olympic podium.

The 43-year-old Edmontonian, who’s spent eight years dealing with questions about his loss in the 2002 Olympic final, put those questions, finally, to rest at the Vancouver Olympic Centre, skipping Team Canada to a 6-3 victory over Norway’s Thomas Ulsrud in the men’s curling gold-medal game.

It was Canada’s 25th medal of the Olympics, surpassing its Turin total of 24, and making it Canada’s best-ever Winter Olympic performance. Martin, third John Morris, second Marc Kennedy and lead Ben Hebert (the team is rounded out by alternate Adam Enright and coach Jules Owchar) also made Olympic history, becoming the first team since curling was reinstated as a medal sport in 1998 to go unbeaten through the tournament.

Not that there wasn’t some tension during Saturday’s win, which played out in front of a celebrity-laden crowd that included actor Donald Sutherland, International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge, Canadian Olympic men’s hockey coach Mike Babcock and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

It was apparent that Martin, who has brushed off countless questions over the years about falling short in international events (just one victory in seven attempts), had a some extra adrenalin flowing against the fancy-pants Norwegians. Twice, he barked at his teammates after Morris made line-call errors, in the second and fifth ends.

The first one, when Morris was over-eager in his directions to Kennedy and Hebert, causing Martin’s shooter to roll out of the rings on a hit, cost his team a chance to score two. “C’mon guys, jeez, no need to jump on it right away,” said a clearly frustrated Martin. Responded Kennedy: “Well, he (Morris) says hurry right away, it’s not our fault. What do you want us to do? Not sweep?”

Still, Canada was able to take a 3-0 lead through five ends; Martin drew for a single in the second end, then got big misses from Ulsrud in the fourth (a draw to bite the pin was just an inch short) and fifth ends (again, just short on a draw looking at two) to steal singles.

It helped matters that Morris was in the midst of a simply spectacular night. He made a triple takeout in the second end to get the sellout crowd into the game, then followed up with tough double takeouts in the fourth and fifth ends that led directly to the Canadian steals. Norway fought back with a deuce in the sixth, but in the seventh, Martin made a gorgeous freeze to a rock in the four-foot, and Ulsrud’s attempt to remove it with a peel-weight hit fell short, and Martin made the draw to the eight-foot for two to take a 5-2 lead.

An end later, another double-takeout from Morris cleaned house, and when Martin made a light-weight tap to score a point in the ninth to go up 6-3, it was just a matter of time before Canada ran Norway out of rocks. As Morris prepared to peel a guard, fans started singing O Canada and the Canadian players paused to soak it in. Moments later, a Martin takeout ended the game and Canada had its 13th gold medal of the 2010 Olympics.

It was a fascinating matchup; Martin, of course, lost the 2002 gold-medal final in Salt Lake to Norway, then skipped by Pal Trulsen, who was behind the scoreboard on Saturday, serving as Norway’s national coach. And Ulsrud’s vice-skip on Saturday, Torger Nergaard, was the alternate for Ulsrud’s team.

Martin also was playing to give Canada back-to-back Olympic gold medals after Brad Gushue won four years ago in Turin. With the gold/silver medal, Martin becomes just the second male curler to win two Olympic medals; ironically, the first did it just a few hours earlier as Markus Eggler of Switzerland won a bronze medal by beating Niklas Edin of Sweden 5-4. Eggler won the bronze medal playing second for Andreas Schwaller in 2002.

Martin formed this team prior to the 2006-07 season with the expressed intent of playing in Saturday’s gold-medal game. He’d won the Alberta men’s championship a few months earlier with the same team he played with in Salt Lake — third Don Walchuk, second Carter Rycroft and lead Don Bartlett — but had come to the conclusion that he needed a younger team in front of him. Morris, meanwhile, had skipped a successful men’s team based in Calgary — a team that had Kennedy playing second — and seemed to have a bright future after finishing third at the 2005 Olympic Trials in Halifax.

But when Martin called, Morris jumped at the offer. And team spent the next three years preparing for two games: the final at the 2009 Olympic Trials, and the gold-medal game in Vancouver. In between, the half-Edmonton (Martin and Kennedy), half-Calgary outfit won two Tim Hortons Brier championships and the 2008 world championship (it won silver last year, losing the final to Scotland’s David Murdoch), and as special as those victories were, Martin always considered them as tuneups for Vancouver. And it paid off Saturday.

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