ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — Expectations were kept in check for Team Nunavut at the Tim Hortons Brier.
The scoreboard was not a major focus for the Iqaluit Curling Club foursome led by 61-year-old skip Jim Nix. The main goal during the qualification round was to learn from the experience of competing at a national men's curling championship.
"We can go back and take these lessons and build on it, come back next year and be more competitive," said Nunavut coach Donalda Mattie.
The territory's second appearance at a Brier ended Friday at Mile One Centre the same way it did last year in Ottawa — with a third straight loss.
The defeats are growing pains for a program still in its infancy.
"It's a challenge for sure for us to get competition, so every game we get is huge," Mattie said. "For the round-robin that we play here, they'll never get that experience in Iqaluit."
Nix opened with an 11-4 loss to Prince Edward Island's Eddie MacKenzie on Thursday night. On Friday, Nix dropped a 17-4 decision to Nova Scotia's Jamie Murphy before falling 10-1 to Yukon's Craig Kochan in the round-robin finale.
There are only a few curling clubs in Nunavut. Players rarely travel to bonspiels so most try to improve by playing the usual opponents at the club level.
"I don't want to say it's the impossible dream," Nix said. "But right now it almost is."
Nunavut is trying to build the sport by getting more youngsters involved with curling programs. There have been signs of progress.
The territory has earned victories at the Canadian junior championship level. Nunavut also won a game in its debut at last year's Scotties Tournament of Hearts.
Mattie, who has run clinics and high-performance camps in the territory, has seen a jump in interest among young players.
"We just need more people in the clubs that exist," she said. "I was up there two weeks ago to do a learn-to-curl (session) and we saw 406 kids go through the program that week. So the people are there.
"I think just given a little more time and a little more help, these clubs will come out and produce some pretty good teams in the future."
This is the final year for the qualification round at the Brier. A 16-team field — two pools of eight teams —will play at next year's competition.
Instead of playing for two days and departing before the big show, Nunavut and every other team will play in the main draw against top rinks.
Nix fully supports the inclusion of the territory.
"I've always felt that way," he said. "I think the Brier is pretty special. I think it should be inclusive, I think it should be inclusive with all the provinces and all the territories. That's just what it should be.
"This particular event is kind of brutal, but at least it's an opportunity to be here a little bit."
Nix, a retired golf course superintendent from New Glasgow, N.S., only joined the team a few months ago. He was on vacation in Puerto Rico when Mattie, who's from Antigonish, N.S., reached out to see if he was interested.
Lead Darryl McGrath, second Gregory Howard, third Edmund McDonald and alternate Howard Fick were looking for a skip with experience. Nix, who has curled for almost 50 years, fit the bill.
He agreed and travelled to Iqaluit for a pair of games last December to earn the Brier spot.
"A very different community obviously than what (I'm) used to," Nix said. "Very remote obviously. But a fair number of people and the curling club is a great little spot. So it was fun, it was enjoyable."
They didn't play as a foursome again until a tune-up game at a local club Wednesday. That was followed by their Brier debut the following night.
"I feel great, I feel thrilled and excited to be here," Nix said. "It's not an opportunity I ever would have expected, for sure."
Nix, who curls at his local club twice a week, hasn't played at a highly competitive level in over 10 years. The closest he came to a Brier before this was a provincial final appearance in 1993.
Nunavut became eligible to compete in the Brier in 2015 but did not send a team that year. The qualification round was a rather unpopular addition to the national playdowns but it served Nunavut well.
"It was a good opportunity for them to get their feet wet without being thrown into the big event," Mattie said. "For us it was good. We do look very much forward to the two pools of eight next year.
"That's more games and that's wonderful for us. So I think it will be beneficial for us for sure."
Nova Scotia (3-0) and Yukon (2-1) will meet in the qualification final on Saturday afternoon for the final spot in the 12-team main draw.
Play continues through to the medal games on March 12.
Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.
Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press
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