Brier Notebook: Curlers in awe of Middaugh’s miraculous return

Team Wild Card Three alternate Wayne Middaugh directs his team as he plays Team Alberta at the Brier in Calgary, Alta., Monday, March 8, 2021. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

Wayne Middaugh has been rebuilt; We have the technology.

The $6-million dollar man this week in the Tim Hortons Brier at Calgary’s WinSport Arena has been Middaugh, who has come off the bench to skip Wild Card Three with a metal rod in his reconstructed leg and remarkably picking up where he left off.

Middaugh's curling career had hit rock bottom when he sustained a serious leg injury while skiing a few years ago. Some didn’t think they would ever see him curl again, never mind play for the Canadian men’s championship. The 53-year-old from Victoria Harbour, Ont., got the call from Glenn Howard to join as just the alternate, but Middaugh has had to sub in for his longtime friend after Howard was injured in a snowmobile accident a few weeks prior to the start of the Brier.

It's been vintage Middaugh on the ice. Wild Card Three's game Tuesday morning against Wild Card One’s Mike McEwen came down to the last shot. McEwen was ahead by one point but Middaugh held the all-important hammer with rocks from both teams cluttering up the house. After McEwen’s final shot grazed another stone, it looked like all the geometry angles lined up for Middaugh to whip his last one straight down the centre line like a stick of dynamite and blow everything up. The math checked out and when the dust settled, three of McEwen’s rocks vanished and Middaugh was sitting the winning two points.

“We got very fortunate that Mike’s rock paper-ticked the top one,” Middaugh said. “It actually ended up in a really good spot for us. It was very fortunate for us the way it worked out. As it turned out, I just had to throw it hard somewhere down the edge of the centre line and all the rocks were in the right spots.”

Middaugh has won three Briers and world championships at three different positions. He was one of the original skips of the Grand Slam of Curling and opted out of a couple playdowns and potential Brier appearances in order to help the series get off the ground. Altogether he's won 15 Grand Slam titles as a player and has helped Sweden's Anna Hasselborg capture five as their coach. Middaugh was inducted into the Canadian Curling Hall of Fame last year but the book isn't closed on his epic career as he continues to write another chapter this week.

Wild Card Three third Scott Howard, Glenn's son, played with Middaugh prior to his accident and said it’s awesome getting the opportunity again.

“He was one of my childhood legends and we hang out all the time,” the younger Howard said. “To play in a Brier with him skipping and throwing it as well as he is right now, it’s just a dream come true. And having my dad on the team as well it’s awesome. One of the best in the game right here.”

Ontario skip John Epping idolized Middaugh growing up and got to play with him for a few seasons, capturing his first Grand Slam title at the National in 2008. Epping’s face lit up when asked about his favourite player of all time.

“I think he’s the most talented player I’ve ever seen play the game, so it’s great seeing him out here,” an ecstatic Epping said. “He’s looking like he’s throwing it great and you can see his intensity level hasn’t changed at all. You can see he still hates to lose and he loves to win, so it’s awesome watching him out here again.”

Alberta skip Brendan Bottcher got the better of Middaugh during their matchup Monday afternoon winning 5-3 and said it was really neat playing against someone who was winning Briers when he was just starting out.

“It’s pretty neat to have come to a place where we’re now playing against each other at a Brier,” Bottcher said. “He also threw some curveballs at us I’d say in that game. He played some shots that not a lot of other guys would have called and that was pretty unique, too.”

Lead Karrick Martin, son of legendary skip Kevin Martin, has been both a competitor and a colleague as Middaugh subbed on their squad during the 2015 Players’ Championship when Bottcher had to return home early to finish university.

“For me, he was definitely one of my idols growing up,” Martin said. “I loved watching him and dad fight it out, so it’s always fun playing him and it’s good to get another W on him.”

Saskatchewan third Braeden Moskowy, who called Middaugh the greatest shot-maker, said he was so excited when he heard one of the greatest ever was going to play again.

“He’s got all the shots, he’s a fierce competitor, so he’s so fun to watch,” Moskowy said. “No surprise. I can’t remember who said it but, ‘Wayne’s going to come out and play 90 per cent this whole week.’ Someone on our team said.”

Skip Matt Dunstone quickly piped in and joked it was Moskowy himself who said that.

“Maybe it was me,” Moskowy said with a laugh. “There he is right at the top of the percentages. He’s still so pure, it’s so fun watching him on the TV and being in the arena and in the event with him because I didn’t think we were going to see him again. I’m hoping we get a chance to go toe-to-toe with him at some point because it’s always a lot of fun when you get to go to battle against the guys you grew up idolizing, wanting to play like and be like. Just an absolute treat to see Wayne in this, playing so well and what a shot to win [Tuesday] morning. That was fun to watch.”

As much as they’re having fun watching Middaugh, he's having fun playing, too.

“It’s a lot of fun to kinda be the old guy on the ice and play against the young guys,” Middaugh said, “and playing with three young guys that jack me up a little bit more and make me feel like I’m 25 again.”

Good vibes only for Epping, Dunstone

Ontario earned a 6-2 victory Tuesday over Newfoundland and Labrador’s Greg Smith for their fourth consecutive win after dropping their opener Friday night to defending champion Brad Gushue. The Toronto-based squad had Monday off and the rest did them well as they came out firing at 91 per cent as a unit.

“It feels really good,” Epping said. “I think everybody looks technically well, our releases look good. We had a great little 20-minute practice yesterday having the day off. I think that was actually great for us after going out of the gate with four in a row and we haven’t played in a year. I think that break yesterday was good for our sweepers because I know [second Mat Camm] has been sweeping a bunch so far, so it’s good to rest him up for the rest of the week.

“Overall, I’m really pleased. Just the attitude out there, the positivity, the good vibes that our team feels right now, I think it’s going to go a long way. It’s going to be a grind of a week, a lot of games, and it’s been great.”

Good vibes is also the name of the game for Dunstone, who also improved to a 4-1 record Tuesday with a 9-6 victory over Quebec’s Michael Fournier. While other teams were unable to practise due to COVID-19 restrictions and came into the event rusty or cold, Team Dunstone was invited from their home base of Regina up to the small town of Wadena, Sask., for a couple weeks to prepare for the Brier and provided them with ice and everything else they needed to get ready.

“Technically we feel as good as we’ve ever been,” Dunstone said. “That’s the big advantage we had was we had two straight weeks of dialling in pretty much exactly how we wanted to throw the stone. A huge advantage to us being able to spend that kind of time doing exactly that. Not a whole lot of rust coming into this. We felt pretty confident in how we were throwing the rock and it’s made things pretty easy going out onto the Brier ice and not having to make many adjustments.”

The numbers, Jason. What do they mean?

Manitoba skip Jason Gunnlaugson pays attention to the stats and analytical side of the game. He knows when you have the hammer you want to score two or more points and don't want to settle for just a single.

That's why it's not unusual to see Gunnlaugson fire a shot for a double takeout and attempt to roll out for a blank in order to retain control of the game with last-rock advantage. Gunnlaugson said great skips tend to be "control freaks" and credited third Adam Casey with going with the flow (figuratively speaking, although they're both sporting quite the lockdown locks, literally).

"Use numbers to make decisions in life seems like a good idea," Gunnlaugson said. "That’s kind of what we do in curling a bit. That’s why I love having Casey in the house. As ridiculous as some of my calls are, he at least gets what I’m doing and why I’m doing it and is usually supportive and knows when it’s time to just pump the brakes on my ridiculousness. We try and use numbers to make decisions. My gut’s not that accurate."

Food for thought for Wild Card One

McEwen already finds his team with their backs against the walls with a 2-3 record and needing a quick turnaround in order to stay in contention.

"The losses are harder than they used to be and the margin of error in games is smaller than it ever was," Wild Card One lead Colin Hodgson said. "I think that’s just the nature of all the games now is everybody’s good, everybody’s elite. Even teams people might not have really heard of before, you have to play very well to beat them no matter who you are. I think that’s kind of where we’re at with the game. It is more difficult to play."

Hodgson said the team will draw upon their prior experiences such as their tour victory earlier this season in Penticton, B.C., where they won seven consecutive games en route to the title.

"We’ve gotten a little tight on the time clock and that affects things," he said. "We just need to overcome that and just exude that. ... We just didn’t have the opportunity to practise so we’re going to have to use our experience and realize that sometimes we don’t have those small intangible things that we normally would, so how are we going to deal with that in a constructive way that gives us the best chance to beat teams. We’re all dealing with it as individuals and as teams. I think that has to be the key for us to have any success here."

A culinary chef by trade, nutrition is an important factor for Hodgson and having a supply of healthy food delivered to his door has been key to keeping his energy level up. Since the curlers are restricted to their hotel rooms inside the bubble, Hodgson prepared ahead of time and reached out to a local company to keep his team well fed.

"It seemed like a really good fit that a company aligned with our ideals and also was able to provide healthy food," Hodgson said. "I’ve been pretty much getting deliveries every day of fresh, healthy food, so our whole team has been able to benefit from that and it’s been awesome. It would have been very difficult if we were always ordering room service because we can’t go and get anything. We can get groceries delivered but the problem is just with the setup there aren’t kitchens to cook in, so you have to get really creative. I did bring my knives and cutting board and what I could but there’s only so much you can do with that."

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