The fifth element

TERRY JONES -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 12:18 PM ET

HALIFAX -- Getting to the five-ring circus which is the Torino 2004 Olympic Winter Games is what this is all about.

But this deal is developing into a five-man circus, a real high-wire juggling act.

The fifth man in curling has been around for a while, but here this year at the 'Roar Of The Rings' Olympic Trials, he'll come into play in a big way.

Russ Howard, the curling legend who has won more games at the Brier than anybody by dozens, didn't qualify. But he's been picked up by Brad Gushue as a fifth man.

Howard will "skip.''

He'll start the tournament throwing second rocks, may move up to third and may even move up to last rock thrower before this is over. Whatever, he'll call the game for Gushue's otherwise Newfoundland-based rink and "Hurry hard!'' will be heard again at the Olympic Trials, which begin here today with a draw-to-the-button contest to decide last rock advantage in such openers as Randy Ferbey vs. Kevin Martin.

It's an interesting debate. On one side, most feel Gushue - with his normal rink - isn't a real favourite. With Howard calling the game and not having to throw last rock at age 49, maybe he has a shot. But this means Gushue has to sweep and he's not much of a sweeper. And with either second Mike Adam or lead Jerry Korab having to sit, what does that do to the chemistry of the rink - not only here but for the future?

FAILED TO QUALIFY

Howard's brother Glenn picked up Wayne Middaugh, who like Russ, failed to qualify. But Glenn has no intention of playing Middaugh, arguably the hottest curler in the country so far this year, unless it's because of injury.

Middaugh's wife Sherry, however, did qualify and has picked up Cathy King of Edmonton as a fifth and Middaugh says curlers on her rink will be playing on short leashes.

On the flight here, King said she didn't expect to play but Middaugh told her the other day that if someone is playing poorly she'll take them out to put King in with the philosophy that "we didn't put all this time in to get here to not give ourselves the best chance to win.''

But when do you do that?

"After one loss?'' asks Ferbey. "After two losses? Three might be too late.''

"Four losses isn't going to get you into the playoffs,'' said Ferbey, who went 5-4 four years ago and didn't get a sniff.

Ferbey is keeping longtime fifth man Dan Holowaychuk, who has seen only token action in past Briers and Worlds in one-sided games and operates mostly as team manager.

'IT'S ABOUT CHEMISTRY'

"It's about chemistry,'' said Ferbey. "And it's about loyalty. He's been part of this team since 2000.''

Martin has recruited Scott Bailey from Middaugh's Brier rink to play lead. Everybody involved concedes that move makes sense. Martin's lead Don Bartlett has chronic back problems. Martin thinks curling should go to not only a fifth man ready to be a prime time player but a sixth man.

"I think you need one for the front end and one for the third and skip positions. If Randy's knee is shot, they're toast. Holowaychuk can't play that position. They're done. If I get sick, we're done, too.''

Martin, who used to pencil in coach Jules Owchar as his fifth man for previous Briers, Trials, Worlds and Olympics, says he saw the light of it all when he lost the final at the 1998 trials to Mike Harris and watched Harris take over-the-hill Paul Savage to Nagano as his fifth.

"That cost Canada a gold medal,'' he said of Harris settling for silver as Martin did four years later in Salt Lake, not because of coming up an inch short like Martin did with his last rock on the last end at Salt Lake 2002 but because Harris was sick. "Mike got the flu. Paul was 10 years past his prime and there was no way. Mike had to play.''

And what about the rink which wins here? They go to Torino and the Olympics. And do they not owe it to Canada to have a top player at least in reserve in case of, say it's Ferbey and his knee goes or somebody gets sick?

Would it not make sense with Ferbey, for example, to pick up somebody like Don Walchuk from Martin's team who could play any position? Or if it is anybody else, wouldn't it make sense to take Canada's greatest shot-maker and a guy who sweeps well, too, in Dave Nedohin?

Whatever happens here doesn't end here.


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