Curling changing of guard on the horizon

Rachel Homan delivers a shot during Players' Championship action at the Mattamy Athletic Centre (Sportsnet/Anil Mangul).
April 23, 2013, 5:31 PM

By Ryan Horne

SPECIAL TO SPORTSNET.CA


TORONTO – In sports, there is an inevitable changing of the guard.

It’s a time when one day’s superstars are replaced by a generation of youthful, energetic talent that can sometimes change how the game is played.

In basketball, it was Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls of the ‘90s passing the torch to a Los Angeles Lakers squad led by super-stud Kobe Bryant. In hockey, it was a relay race of dynasties over nearly 20 years, from Philadelphia to Montreal to New York and finally Edmonton.

Curling could be on the verge of such a change, with a handful of young, skillful teams rising through the ranks faster than a Kevin Martin take-out.

However, the elder statesmen of the sport are not ready to give up their reign quite yet.

Glenn Howard, 50, won the Players’ Championship last weekend at the Mattamy Athletic Centre – formerly known as Maple Leaf Gardens – taking home $76, 000 in cold, hard cash and reiterating the fact his rink is still one to be reckoned with.

"There is a new era coming up, but the old men aren’t done yet. Martin, Stoughton, Howard, we’re not finished yet," said the Beer Store manager from Midland, Ont. "I know I’m not."

"We got a big year coming up next year with the Olympic trials and I don’t see the changing of the guard quite yet."

Brad Jacobs and Rachel Homan each won their respected national championships this year, yet neither has reached their 30th birthday.

Jacobs, 27, and his burly rink from Sault Ste. Marie are leading the renaissance charge for men. On their way to Brier glory, they defeated Howard in the semis and Jeff Stoughton in the finals. The group then settled for silver at the World Championships in Victoria, B.C., losing to Niklas Edin – a young buck in his own right at 27 – of Sweden.

The skip says it’s important to maintain the skill level and the high quality of play after the big names call it a career.

"I think it’s great for the sport," said Jacobs, who lost to Howard in the semifinals at the Players’ Championship and failed to gain enough points to qualify for the Olympic trials in December.

"It’s a step in the right direction as far as the younger teams are getting stronger to being able to continue the sport to the level that the Howard’s, the Martin’s, the Stoughton’s have been at."

"It’s awesome to have the veterans out here too because they have their fans, we’re developing fans and it’s great to see the younger teams challenging the veteran teams a little bit more."

Team Jacobs and other clubs are now putting more of a focus on strength and conditioning to get an edge over their opponents. Their front ends – brothers E.J. and Ryan Harnden – are two of the biggest and muscular men in curling, giving their rink an advantage when it comes to sweeping.

"A lot of the press and even some of the other curlers know, is our fitness," he said. "I think our fitness is probably the best out here and I think that sets us a little bit apart."

Howard has been working closely with a personal trainer for the past four years in attempt to keep up with the evolution of the sport.

"I have to keep myself in the best shape as I can and that’s huge," said the four-time Brier and world champion. "It creates more energy, so you have less fatigue and when you’re less fatigued you produce a better product on the ice."

Jacobs hopes he can perform to the level of the legendary Howard 15 to 20 years from now.

"I think it’s great to have both [young and old teams] still and one day hopefully we’ll be their age and still be able to play as well as they are," he said.

On the women’s side, Homan and her Ottawa rink are a team to keep an eye on for many years to come as their average age is just 25.

Homan missed an opportunity to take a $100, 000 bonus cheque for winning the Players’ Championship but still had a surreal year, becoming the youngest skip to win a Scotties Tournaments of Hearts at just 24. She also won bronze at the World Championships in Latvia.

"They’re phenoms compared to us," said Jacobs.

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