The Recharge with Milk Ontario Men’s Tankard final this past Sunday came down to Glenn Howard’s last shot of the game against John Epping.
Trailing by one, Howard called for a tricky double angle raise to score a deuce to win the provincial championship and a secure a spot in next month’s Tim Hortons Brier in Ottawa. It had to be on point; just a fraction of an inch off and it would all be a different story.
Howard fired the shot and his son Scott, who plays lead on the Penetanguishene-based team, brushed it down the line to the target. A few granite taps later and the crowd erupted at the Wayne Gretzky Sports Centre in Brantford. Playing together was on the elder Howard’s bucket list and the first person he looked to after making the shot was his son, who was screaming and proudly pumping his fist.
It was the best feeling ever according to Howard.
"This is what it’s all about," he said. "This is super-cool and now I get the opportunity to go play with him in a national championship."
That's only scratching the surface of Howard's road back to the Brier: the spectacular shot capped one of the craziest periods in curling for the 16-time provincial champion.
It all began the previous month when vice skip Wayne Middaugh sustained a broken leg during a skiing accident. Richard Hart, who served as Howard's vice for over a decade, moved up from second back to third, but he too was dealing with nagging injuries. Howard called upon Adam Spencer from the spare pool to play second with no guarantees he'd be available every draw.
Add it all up and in all of his years competing at the Ontario Tankard, has Howard ever played in another one quite like this?
"Not even close," said the four-time Brier champ. "I think that was my 28th or 29th provincial and I’ve been to a lot of finals as well and I can’t remember a crazy week like it was and then a final as exciting as that was. The shot-making was incredible from both teams. The last end was just incredible and a pretty cool last few shots to finish. No, I haven’t had one quite that exciting in all the years I’ve played."
Despite the team dynamic being in a state of flux right from the start of the grinding week-long event, Howard just kept finding ways to win and went a perfect 10-0 through the round robin. A loss to Epping in the 1 vs. 2 page playoff was the only blemish. Howard bounced back beating 1998 Nagano Olympic silver medallist Mike Harris in the semifinal to set up the dramatic rematch with Epping.
"If you had told me 10-0, I would not have taken that bet," Howard said. "Truth be known, you take one step at a time. We really just wanted to make the playoffs. We were hoping we play well we can get to the top four and then you never know in playoffs. We just cruised along. We kept making a ton of shots all week and one win after another after another, next thing you know we’re 10-0. ... It was quite a week but then you start to believe. When you start winning games like that you think why not? Just because it’s not your normal team. Adam fit in so beautifully with us and made so many good shots you think we can do this. You start to believe and away you go."
It helped Spencer had played in a couple events with Team Howard at the start of the year when Middaugh was unavailable due to work commitments. He happened to be part of a spare pool of players on hand at the Tankard, however, Howard was required to apply for his services prior to every draw (think of that one guy in your fantasy football pool who's adding and dropping players from the waiver wire every week. Howard had to do that each and every game).
While we've seen curling rinks taking time to adjust with new teammates, Spencer fit in immediately.
"It’s actually mind-boggling," Howard said. "I use the word seamless. It really was seamless. ... He’s like the gentle giant. He’s just one of those guys and he makes so many good shots. He’s easy-going, he’s not a flamboyant, he’s not an out-spoken guy. He fit right in with the team. He did his job. He sort of just sat back and waited when to say anything. It wasn’t by design it just sort of happened that way. But you just don’t know.
"Team dynamics is massive in this sport and for us to really gel as well as we did quickly was unbelievable. You want that to happen but you can’t really plan that. You just don’t know. You get into pressure situations and everybody has their own little idiosyncrasies and little quirks. Rich knows if I’m getting tense he knows how to deal with me and vice versa. Obviously I know my son and how to deal with him. But with Adam you really don’t and Adam maybe doesn’t know how to deal with us when we get out of sorts. The beauty was it didn’t really happen and we kept cruising along. Maybe because we did so well we didn’t get out of sorts. It was awesome. It didn’t make sense that it worked out well but it did."
Seamless was also the word Howard used to describe Hart's return to third -- a "no-brainer" decision according to the skip. However, Hart's swollen knee was another factor that could have been disastrous for the team. Yet somehow Hart managed to play through the pain changing up his delivery sliding out of the hack, something that Howard admitted he wouldn't have been able to pull off.
"It would be like you’re a good golfer, you’re playing in a tournament and you’re going to change your putting stroke from a normal conventional grip to cross-handed just because. It’s just so different you might be able to make it," Howard explained. "It just goes to show you how talented he is for him to overcome that. The pain and the destruction of his knee and then changing his whole delivery to make it work and he played great.
"I personally don’t think I could have done it because it’s just so many years the same way and for Rich to do it, but he knew that was the only way for him to curl. We also knew with just having the three players at the provincials -- Rich, myself, and Scott -- we all had to be there. If one of us were hurt we’d be in big trouble. We would probably have to forfeit, so he just grit his teeth and away he went."
Even that superb final shot could have gone sideways and ended everything.
"There was one little disruption around the hog line," Howard said. "Scott stopped and I asked him later because I’m screaming and Rich is screaming. He said he couldn’t hear because the crowd was yelling and it was Adam who actually said, ‘Go Gomer. Go Gomer,’ because Adam could hear better. I don’t know maybe he was concentrating differently and that got him back onto the sweep and just got enough. If it curls half an inch to an inch more, I don’t make that shot for two. It was pretty cool."
On top of the adversity and turmoil, Howard was also playing with former teammate Craig Savill in mind. Savill is undergoing chemotherapy to battle cancer and the team wore purple ribbons with No. 27 on them to honour their friend.
"Savy is one of my best buddies. He’s going through a tough time right now. He’s got a great attitude. He’s fighting his cancer like he should with a positive attitude. He does his chemo and he’s not disrupting anything doing his thing. He’s been on our minds obviously this entire curling season," Howard said. "Those ribbons were made up at one of the Grand Slams back a few months ago and I thought that was a terrific tribute all the players did for him. Our team decided we were going to wear them anyway because he’s our guy and we just wanted to show that we’re thinking of him. He’s a great guy, a great player and a great friend so we just wanted to pay a little tribute to him and let him know that we’re thinking of him."
After everything they've been through on and off the ice, Howard and his crew are now bound for the Brier in Ottawa representing Ontario once again.
"It was just one thing after another but you know what? Sometimes adversity is good," said Howard, who was also quick to credit sponsors VR Mechanical and Balance Plus for supporting his team along the way. "We just sort of didn’t overthink anything. All four of us played really well, Adam included. Adam was just stellar. All of a sudden you play the first very games, you play really well and you think geez if we keep going like that, we’ve got a good chance and we just never really turned back. We just made a ton of shots and when it got to crunch time I think we played even better.
"It really was an incredible win and one for the ages. That’s why we were so excited at the end. We overcame a little bit of adversity and it all worked out."