Vernon's Jim Cotter opens the Tim Hortons Brier Saturday in Ottawa.

Vernon's Jim Cotter opens the Tim Hortons Brier Saturday in Ottawa.

Cotter faces tough Brier batch

Vernon curler Jim Cotter faces perhaps the finest field ever when the 87th annual Tim Hortons Brier starts Saturday in Ottawa.

Sixteen previous winners with 30 titles in total. Thirteen former world champions. Nine Olympic gold medalists. A remarkable 304 Purple Hearts (provincial championships) combined.

The field at the 87th annual Tim Hortons Brier Canadian men’s curling championship – which includes the Vernon/Kelowna foursome of Jim Cotter, Ryan Kuhn, Tyrel Griffith and Rick Sawatsky, owners of 18 Purple Hearts – might be the best ever assembled.

Cotter, appearing in his sixth Brier, third straight and fifth in the last six years, opens the national championship in Ottawa Saturday (4:30 p.m. our time) against PEI’s Adam Casey.

“It’s a phenomenal field,” said Cotter. “Every year it seems they’re saying it’s the best field ever. We’ve played all these teams 20-plus times so we know we have to be on top of our game, just like everyone else will be too, to come out successful.”

Added Sawatsky, also appearing in his sixth Brier and who just celebrated his 40th birthday: “It’s going to be a dogfight to get out. It’s pretty much a (Grand Slam of Curling) Slam field. It’s going to be a grind to get through the end of the week to get into the playoffs and go on a run. It’s the best Brier field I’ve been a part of. There are no easy games for sure.”

No kidding. After Casey, Cotter and company will play, in succession:

Stephen Laycock of Saskatchewan, who finished third last year in Calgary; Northern Ontario’s Brad Jacobs – 2013 champ and 2014 Olympic gold medalist; Glenn Howard of Ontario, a four-time Brier champ; Jean-Michel Menard of Quebec, the 2006 winner, who hails from Gatineau, just across the Ottawa River, and will be a hometown favourite; two-time defending champ Team Canada, skipped by Pat Simmons; two-time winner Kevin Koe of Alberta, who beat Cotter in the 2014 Brier final in Cotter’s hometown of Kamloops; Mike McEwen of Manitoba, who sits third on the Canadian Team Ranking System; and Newfoundland/Labrador’s Brad Gushue, the 2006 Olympic champion and CTRS leader.

“Our confidence is high,” said Sawatsky. “Our experience goes a long way. All four of us are playing well. It’s just a matter of going there and playing like we can and executing the shots. Having been there several times is a key for us.”

Cotter won the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling Tour Challenge Tier 2 event this year and finished second at the Masters (lost to McEwen) and at the World Curling Tour’s Ed Werenich Wrench Classic (lost to Simmons) in Phoenix a month ago.

The rink went undefeated in Nelson to capture a third straight provincial title.

“To represent B.C. is a privilege and an honour, and to play in an arena full of people on national TV, it’s not hard to get up for those games,” said Sawatsky.

And going to the national championship never gets old.

“The Brier is where it’s at,” said Cotter, who coached his daughter, Jaelyn, and her rink at last weekend’s B.C. Winter Games in Penticton (Cotter slept on a cot like the athletes, and roomed with the Okanagan boys alpine ski team, getting up at 5 and 6 a.m. each day – “Good preparation for the time change out east,” he said).

“It’s what we’ve played for since we were kids. To go back is an absolute thrill for all of us.”

Cotter’s best Brier finish was the 2014 silver medal. He made the playoffs one other time, in his first appearance throwing third rocks for Kelowna’s Bob Ursel in London, Ont. in 2008. The rink lost to Howard in the quarterfinals.

The Okanagan team will finish the preliminary round against the winner of a four-team pre-Brier qualifier featuring the  Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia and, for the first time ever, a rink from Nunavut, and a final game against 2014 world senior men’s champ Mike Kennedy of New Brunswick.

The championship game will be played Sunday, March 13.

The winner of the Brier will represent Canada at the Ford World Men’s Championships in Basel, Switzerland, and earn an automatic berth in the 2017 Tim Hortons Brier in St. John’s, Nfld/Lab.

It’s the fourth time Ottawa has hosted the national championship.

Vernon Curling Club manager Dave Merklinger is the official icemaker for the Ottawa Brier.