Glenn Howard’s foursome from Coldwater, Ont., has become fire on ice in curling, in particular when there’s big money on the line.
Howard’s squad, which includes vice Wayne Middaugh, second Brent Laing and lead Craig Savill, has won two of its last three cashspiels, placing second in the only one it lost. The Howard team is looking to continue that torrid pace this week in the $100,000 Canadian Open, the second of four men’s Grand Slam events on the World Curling Tour, in Medicine Hat, Alta.
The tournament features 18 of the top teams on the WCT and runs Wednesday through Sunday and will be broadcast on Sportsnet and the CBC. Reigning world champion Niklas Edin is in the lineup, along with Norway’s Thomas Ulsrud and many of the top Canadian teams of recent years, including former world champions Kevin Martin, Kevin Koe and Jeff Stoughton.
Howard’s team has won the last two Slams going back to the Players’ Championship at the end of last season and started off the Slam season winning the Masters of Curling. If a team sweeps the Slams it collects a $1-million bonus introduced by Sportsnet last year. If there is no sweep, the top-three teams will split bonuses totaling $100,000. Howard’s team finished first overall last season, claiming the $50,000 top bonus prize.
Howard’s team is the defending Canadian Open champion. In fact, it was in this tournament last year when the foursome started to find its groove after winning the Canadian and world title in 2012, the first season with one-time world champion skip Middaugh at third. Whether it was the world championship hangover for Howard’s team or simply needing time to refocus, the Canadian Open became the turning point for a great season on the cashspiel circuit and it has continued into this season.
“To be honest with you, I think we’ve found ways to win,” Howard told sportsnet.ca. “We haven’t stood on our head by any stretch of the imagination. All four of us have had versions of standing on our head, but not the four together. What I like about it is we’ve found ways to win and to me that’s a sign of a good team. We’re playing just well enough to win each game we play or make it to the finals or the playoffs and play a little bit better than the other team.
“That’s sort of been the way that it’s been. And we still feel there’s room to improve. You’re going to have adversity, you’re going to have games that you’re not going to play your best, but we’re not getting upset. We’re not perfect, but we seem to be managing our time and our play really well and it’s been working out. We’ve had a nice run this year, which is great. It helps your confidence. If you had told me in the last three spiels (the results would be two wins and a second), I’d have said I’d take that in a heartbeat.”
Manitoba’s Mike McEwen said beating the Howard gang will be hard because there is little margin for error. McEwen’s team beat Howard’s in the Canad Inns Prairie Classic three weeks ago, but has lost some key Slam battles to the Ontario skip, including the Players’ last year.
“You need to bring your best game against them,” McEwen said. “They’re a team that just seems to be so consistent, especially once the playoffs hit.”
Toronto’s John Epping, who has faced Howard-skipped teams numerous times in WCT play and the provincial playdowns, praised the steady play of the veteran and his third-year squad.
“They can be stopped, but you’ve got to play great against them,” he said. “They must have the best winning percentage on Tour for who knows how long because they’re just so steady.”
The Canadian Open has added importance this year because it’s the last major tournament prior to the Canadian Olympic Trials that begin in December and will choose the men’s and women’s teams that will represent the country in the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.
The Canadian Open features seven of the eight teams that have qualified for the Trials. The only absentee is defending Canadian champion Brad Jacobs of Sault Ste. Marie, who qualified for the Trials this past weekend in a Pre-Trial event in Kitchener. John Morris, who viced for Martin for several years and was part of his squad when it won the 2010 Olympics, will be in the tournament with his new team skipped by B.C.’s Jim Cotter. His team also grabbed a qualifying spot for the Trials in the Pre-Trials.
“It’s a perfect time for the event,” McEwen said. “It gives us and all the other Trials team one last go at it to show everybody what you’re made of before you head to the Trials.”
Epping is using the tournament as a replica for what it plans to do in the Trials, bringing along a coach and fifth man.
“We’re taking our whole entourage with us, and we’re really trying to implement everything that we’re going to do the week of the Trials,” Epping said. “Definitely this is big for us. We definitely want to be hitting our strides this week so that we can peak the first week of December.”
McEwen also plans to make some changes for the Canadian Open compared to what his foursome would normally do for a Slam event.
“Our coach will be with us and for our fifth man will there for most of the event,” McEwen said. “For most of the Slam series we might not bring that large of a crew. There would just be the four of us. We’re definitely taking this as a feel for what everyone’s roles should be heading into Winnipeg.”
Howard plans to keep it status quo for his team.
“We’ve been there, done that,” he said of the numerous spiels played in provincial, national and world play. “We know what it’s all about whereas a guy like John Epping doesn’t. He hasn’t had a coach or a fifth man at anything. I get that. It’s not as if it’s going to be something new to us. It’s just business as usual. We know what we’re up against.”