When Brad Gushue settles into the hack with his first rock of this year's Brier, the weight of an entire province will be resting squarely on his shoulders.
For only the second time in history, the men's Canadian curling championship is being held in St. John's, where Gushue was born and raised, and he's one of the favourites to win it.
"It's no secret that my next curling goal is to win a Brier championship," Gushue said in a first-person piece for CBC Sports published in January. "And I can't think of a better place to win than in my hometown."
Only one team from Newfoundland and Labrador has won a Canadian title. That claim belongs to the rink skipped by Jack MacDuff in 1976.
They love curling on the Rock, and Gushue understands how much the Brier means to the people there. He knows the pressure will be turned up.
"I have always been so humbled by and grateful for the overwhelming support we receive from our fans and our province as a whole," Gushue said. "Home crowds generally raise a team up. However, sometimes playing on home ice can serve as a disadvantage."
A Brier title — which also comes with an invitation to the world championship — is one of the few things in curling Gushue hasn't won. The two-time world junior champ and multiple Grand Slam winner is most known for his 2006 Olympic gold medal in Turin, Italy, where he threw fourth rocks and veteran Russ Howard called the shots.
A provincial order was put into place before the gold-medal game, allowing basically the entirety of Newfoundland and Labrador to shut down to watch. Gushue became the first athlete from the province to win an Olympic gold medal.
This year's Brier marks his 14th appearance at the bonspiel. He's come close to winning it before. He's had the best record during the round robin only to lose in the playoffs, and he's made it to the final twice, including last year, only to return home with a silver medal.
It's a Brier title that continues to elude him and haunt him. Now Gushue is trying to exorcise this ghost blocks away from where he grew up playing the sport he loves.
"We will make sure we are ready, but one thing is for certain: I will love every minute of it," he said.
After the fall
It was a fall — a face plant really — during a Grand Slam event in late October 2015 that led to what Gushue called "the toughest 14 months of my curling career."
During the fourth end of a tournament in Truro, N.S., Gushue was calling the line in the rings for his third, Mark Nichols, when he attempted to move out of the way of the rocks. He lost his footing and smashed his face on the ice, opening up a nasty cut.
He was rushed to hospital, stitched up and returned to the game. But the effects of the concussion he suffered lingered long into the season, even as he continued to compete on the Grand Slam circuit and made his second run to the final of the Brier last March in Ottawa.
A frustrating hip/groin injury followed, leading to "eight months of not knowing when I would throw another rock."
Gushue has spent much of the past year getting his body and his game back into form while his teammates — Nichols, Geoff Walker and Brett Gallant — waited for their skip to regain his health.
"Most days it was the mental struggle that was worse than the physical one," Gushue said. "The uncertainty of whether we were rehabbing the right way, waiting patiently for improvement, and wondering if I would be ready to compete in our playdowns for the Brier."
The injury cost Gushue eight events this season before he made his triumphant return to the Grand Slam winner's circle by taking the Canadian Open title in January.
Student becomes teacher
His time away from the game gave Gushue a perspective on life and curling he hadn't previously experienced. He openly admits that, at 36 years old, he's gone from "being the protégé to being a teacher."
"It has been a huge adjustment for me and it seemed to just happen overnight," Gushue said.
"This is one aspect of the game that I have really come to enjoy. I was always someone who asked a lot of questions with the guys I looked up to."
Gushue's rink joins 11 other teams vying for this year's Canadian men's curling championship. Ticket sales have been extraordinary, with most draws expected to be sold out at Mile One Centre in St. John's, where the crowd will be firmly behind the hometown boy.
"It will be difficult to keep the emotions in check," Gushue said.