So far, the top story of this year’s Tim Hortons Brier hasn’t been defending champion Brad Gushue going for a fourth Brier Tankard in five years or Kevin Koe looking to capture a record fifth Canadian title.
All everybody wants to talk about is 53-year-old Wayne Middaugh, who has turned back the clock this week and is in the thick of things in his first Brier appearance since 2013.
As you may have heard, Middaugh’s career was thought to have been cut short five years ago when he broke his leg in 11 places in a horrific skiing accident and had a 15-inch titanium rod implanted in his tibia.
Over the next year and a half, Middaugh, a three-time Canadian and world champion, did all he could just to be able to properly walk again.
Middaugh was eventually able to get back onto the pebbled ice and play at his local curling club, but a return to the Brier seemed unattainable.
Things changed last month, however, when former teammate and long-time buddy Glenn Howard suffered injuries in another winter sport accident – this time breaking multiple ribs in a snowmobile crash – and needed a replacement for the Brier inside the Calgary curling bubble.
"It's awesome, it's unbelievable," Middaugh said earlier this week. "You play your whole life as a kid to get to play in the Brier and here I am. I don't know how I got here but here I am."
Middaugh, who is making his 10th appearance at the Brier this week, says coaching Sweden’s Anna Hasselborg rink over the past few years rejuvenated his love for the game.
“This is what I do. This is who I am. I’m a curler,” he said.
Just over halfway through the national championship, it appears Middaugh hasn’t missed a beat. Leading Howard’s Wild Card rink of third Scott Howard, second David Mathers and lead Tim March, Middaugh has posted a 5-1 record and is tied for first in the Pool A standings. The Brampton, Ont., native has shot 85 per cent or better in each of his five wins.
“When I was coming up, Wayne was a guy I kind of idolized,” Mathers said of Middaugh. “A guy that threw it hard. That’s something I pride myself on. During this week, him, Scott, and I are just having so much fun. And after this week I think it’s going to be a week we look back on for a long, long time as one of the best of our curling careers.”
On Tuesday, Middaugh beat Wild Card’s Mike McEwen and British Columbia’s Jim Cotter with a pair of highlight-reel game winners that would have sent Markin MacPhail Centre into a frenzy if there were fans in the stands. He added an extra ends victory over New Brunswick's James Grattan on Wednesday.
“My job is to get it close, and I throw it to the sweepers. Once again, I used those guys perfectly and they are super strong horses, so Dave and Timmy have made more than one for me this week,” said Middaugh.
In his heyday, Middaugh was a top contender at every Brier he played in, whether it was a skip of his own team or a third for Howard. That wasn’t the case coming into the bubble Brier.
“There’s no extra pressure. We’re the Wild Card. As Craig Savill would say, we’re free rolling out there,” Middaugh said after Tuesday’s win over B.C. “We couldn’t be in a better spot for us. We’re a little bit of the underdog. It’s a great role to be in and it’s nice we can go out there and play a fantastic game like that. So that gives our team, all across the board, the confidence to know that if we keep playing well, if we keep getting the little breaks here and there and everywhere else, we might make it to Sunday afternoon and God only knows what happens Sunday afternoon.”
It will only get tougher from here on for Middaugh and company. They finish preliminary round play against two tough teams in Northern Ontario’s Brad Jacobs (5-2) and Manitoba’s Jason Gunnlaugson (5-1). They need to stay in the top four of Pool A to qualify for the championship pool.
“It’s the million spiels we’ve played in the last 30 years where lots of times you’ve played with your back against the wall, whether you’re down in the ‘C’ side or you’re in the playoffs and you have to win a quarter or semifinal. You’re just trying to go out and take it one game at a time,” said Middaugh.