Joel Krats was a 15-year-old curler with big dreams when he watched Brad Gushue and Team Newfoundland and Labrador deliver a dramatic Brier victory on home ice in 2017.
The St. John's-based team needed an emphatic sweep on its final stone to draw the eight-foot ring for a dramatic 7-6 victory over Kevin Koe that sent Mile One Centre into a tizzy. The win gave Gushue his long-awaited first Brier title and ended the province's half-century drought at the event.
""It was very electric," Krats recalled. "Most of the time you could barely hear yourself think."
Now just over three years later, Krats is getting the chance to play with the province's curling icons.
He's filling in for lead Geoff Walker this week at the Mayflower Curling Club in Halifax as the team makes its first bonspiel appearance of the season.
"Watching them, especially over the last four years, basically go in and win pretty much everything they play, it's pretty crazy to (see)," Krats said. "And then to get the chance to play with them is pretty special."
Krats, who won silver at the Canadian junior men's championship last January, got the call a month ago and jumped at the opportunity. Ryan McNeil Lamswood, his teammate from the nationals, will fill in for Walker at a bonspiel next month.
"We're going to get as much from them as they're going to get from us," Gushue said. "I think it's a great situation. I think they're pretty pumped about it."
Krats, an 18-year-old native of Labrador City, N.L., practised with Gushue, vice Mark Nichols and second Brett Gallant for the first time last week.
"Stepping in for a player like Geoff Walker is not an easy thing to do, especially when the other three guys are expecting that high level of play," Krats said. "I'm just trying to put my best foot forward and make as many shots as I can."
He'll throw first stones for Gushue but is comfortable in any position. Krats plays third on his current team and handled skip duties on the N.L. entry at the 2019 U18 playdowns.
Krats played second on skip Daniel Bruce's provincial team at the 2020 Canadian playdowns. They dropped an 8-6 decision to Manitoba's Jacques Gauthier in the final.
"I just learned what sort of level you have to play at in order to compete with some of the other top teams in Canada," he said.
The Memorial University business student is also tabbed to play at the 2021 world juniors in Beijing. The event is slated to be held at the Water Cube in February as a test event for the 2022 Winter Olympics.
It will be a new-look Canadian entry with Krats and Lamswood teaming up with three players from the Alberta team - Ryan Jacques, Gabriel Dyck and Desmond Young - that finished fourth at nationals.
After shifting dates of the Canadian junior event to later in the season, Curling Canada is sending a squad of high-level age-eligible players to the 2021 worlds for this transition campaign.
Krats said they hoped to practise together a few times before the pandemic but they're now likely to make their team debut in China should the event proceed as scheduled.
"We all know that we're good and we all know that we can compete," Krats said. "So from that standpoint, I think we're OK."
Walker, meanwhile, a new father based in Edmonton, is taking some time off to be at home with family.
Gushue said they wanted to use substitutes from inside the Atlantic bubble and thought local juniors would be a good fit as it would help with their development while providing an energy boost for the team.
"Obviously they're skilled enough that we still feel we're going to be very competitive with them and maybe they can learn something."
Krats impressed his teammates over the practice sessions, with Gushue noting he didn't seem intimidated at all.
"He made a bunch of tick shots. Each one that he makes, we send Geoff a text and let him know his job is on the line," Gushue joked. "He's doing good. Hopefully it translates into this weekend."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 30, 2020.
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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press