When play begins on Friday at this year’s Tim Hortons Brier in Calgary, a couple of grizzled, broken-down veterans will be sliding down the sheet, trying for one more chance at Canadian curling glory.
Glenn Howard, 58, and 53-year-old Wayne Middaugh are a couple of old-timers taking on a bunch of kids, relatively speaking. Howard is the only grandfather in the field, Middaugh the only one with a titanium tibia. Together they’re curling’s answer to Waldorf and Statler, the Muppet geezers who love to recall the good old days.
To say the duo has been around this rock show a few times is an understatement. Middaugh is making his 10th appearance at the Canadian men’s curling championship, this one coming 30 years after his first.
Howard is collecting a record 18th Purple Heart. He first played in the Brier in 1986 as third for his brother, Russ. That year, a few players were still sweeping with corn brooms. It would be another nine years before Matt Dunstone, who is skipping the Saskatchewan team this year, would be born.
This time around, the team, that also includes Howard’s son, Scott, David Mathers and Tim March, got into the Brier by invitation rather than competition. Due to the lack of regional playdowns, Curling Canada expanded the field and invited three Wild Card teams, including the Howard rink.
“This one’s a little different,” admitted Howard, who retired from his job with Ontario’s Beer Store two years ago, “because I don’t feel we earned a spot. The previous 17, we did. We had to play well enough to do it. This one was kind of handed to us. Obviously, our rankings were good from the year before, but it’s just different because this year we got a phone call, ‘Hey, you’re now in.’”
For Middaugh, playing another Brier came straight out of left field. A longtime teammate of Howard’s, he’d retired from competitive curling five years ago, But he was invited to join as team’s alternate when Howard called him up, asking if he’d fill the open spot.
“I’m probably more excited than when I went to my first Brier,” admitted Middaugh, who has won the event three times. “This came out of the blue five weeks ago. I feel like I won the lottery.”
Five years ago, just making it back to the curling ice would have been a small miracle for Middaugh. A skiing accident left him with a leg broken in 11 places and he required a 15-inch titanium rod inserted into his tibia. Over the next 18 months, he progressed from a hospital bed to a wheelchair to crutches to physiotherapy. Forget curling, just being able to stand upright was the goal.
“My life revolved around learning how to walk again,” stated Middaugh, “and here I am playing the Brier again and I’m pretty happy about it.”
Even when he was better, he had no interest in curling. It was a case of been there, done that. A call from the Anna Hasselborg team from Sweden asking if he would consider coaching changed all that. He took up duties with the elite team and gradually began throwing rocks along with them in practice.
Middaugh may be listed as the team’s alternate, but due to another injury he’ll likely be on the ice more than in the traditional alternate spot on a stool behind the sheet charting shots and eating donuts. Howard recently injured himself in a snowmobile accident that left him with broken ribs. He’s been attempting to throw rocks but the recovery is slow.
“It took him a little while to look like Glenn Howard throwing a rock,” said Middaugh, who practiced with his longtime teammate prior to leaving for Calgary. “He was pretty shaky the first few because of course he was protecting everything.”
Right now, the team’s plan is to go with Middaugh at skip for the week. Despite the fact he hasn’t played a competitive game for half a decade, he might not be at too much of a disadvantage. With the majority of the competitive curling season cancelled due to the pandemic, most teams are coming in cold, having played no more than a handful of meaningful contests.
Of course this will be a different Brier in so many ways, with no fans and no side trips.
“I think the big difference will be you won’t have that goosebump moment,” stated Howard. “I throw a big shot or the guy on the next sheet throws a big one and the crowd goes nuts and the hairs on your arm stand up. ‘What just happened?’ There’s going to be none of that. There’s going to be crickets.
“It’s going to be get in your van and go right back to the hotel. You can’t stop and have a drink in the Patch. All that stuff that has made the Brier what it is, is going to be gone.”
The team does have some intelligence it hopes will let it adjust to the strict protocols. Middaugh’s wife, Sherry, served as coach for Team Fleury at last week’s Scotties Tournament of Hearts, also played in Curling Canada’s bubble and returned with plenty of advice.
“She told us what to expect and what to do and where to order food from,” said Middaugh. “I think we know what we’re getting into a little more than some people do.”
Despite their advanced ages and battered bodies, there’s no loss of enthusiasm from either curler. This is still meaningful, still important and still almost unbelievable.
“You go from thinking you’re never going to curl again and all of a sudden you’re in the Brier,” said Middaugh. “It’s a dream come true.”
“I don’t know how many more years I’m playing, very few I’d guess,” added Howard, “so to go back to another one is surreal. I’m just as excited as I was for my first one back in 1986.”