SARNIA -- The frantic chase for a Brier berth doesn't excuse a skip from showering a little love on his sweetheart on Valentine's Day.
Sarnia curler Heath McCormick, who is engaged to Natalie Abbott, made sure his future wife knew he was thinking about her before heading out the door to prepare for the fifth draw of the TSC Tankard Ontario men's championship yesterday at the Sarnia Sports and Entertainment Centre.
"I hid her present in a sock drawer this morning and I know she got it before she went to work," the 30-year-old McCormick said with a grin.
If the hometown rink continues playing like it did in a 9-4 afternoon victory over Wayne Warren's Cannington foursome, McCormick should be able to provide Abbott and their families with another special gift -- Tankard playoff tickets. McCormick and teammates Jason Young, Shaun Harris and Mark Bice improved to 3-3 with a 9-8 win over Damien Villard of Renfrew last night.
The path for a late run into weekend fun has been cleared for McCormick as he has already seen the tournament's biggest fish -- Glenn Howard and Wayne Middaugh -- early in the round-robin format.
Howard's Coldwater foursome is undefeated (6-0) in first place, while Middaugh's St. George's rink is second at 5-1. Jim Lyle of St. Thomas scored scored five in an extra end to beat Wayne Warren of Cannington 14-9 and improve to 4-2, tied with John Epping of Omemee and Greg Balsdon of Guelph for third place.
"Every win helps and that was a big one (over Warren)," McCormick said. "The big thing here is to get enough wins to get through to the playoffs. After that, you know anything can happen."
McCormick knows at this point every little bit of experience helps.
"One thing -- and I don't know if it's that big of an advantage -- is teams that have been there before know how the ice is going to be. Everyone gets a lot of practice before and throws a lot of shots so it isn't a big deal, but you see early in games, there might be an edge."
McCormick, the 1996 Canadian junior champ, is playing in his fourth Ontario tournament. He played third for Brantford's Nick Rizzo -- now Epping's third -- in 1999, skipped his own team to a 4-5 finish in 2001 and played third for Peter Corner -- now Middaugh's third -- in 2003.
"It was a great thing to do and it was an opportunity I felt l had to take (to play with Corner)," McCormick said. "But I wanted to get back to skipping my own team and this is a great group. You have to be friends first to make it work and we are."
McCormick's friends and family will be on hand when he and Abbott tie the knot this summer at the Sarnia Golf and Curling Club -- the same club he curls at and represents this week.
"No, we won't (be throwing any rocks) at it (the wedding)," McCormick said.
Rizzo, who claims he was "fired" by his team after the 1999 season before catching on with Epping, is back in playoff contention in his eighth trip to provincials. The 45-year-old investment advisor for RBC Dominion Securities has been to tiebreaker games but has yet to play in an Ontario final.
"My dream when I first started curling at 12 years old was to play at a Brier and it's 35 years later and I'm still dreaming -- I never stopped," he said. "It doesn't matter to me (that the Brier's in nearby Hamilton this year). I don't care if they hold it in the middle of the Arctic circle. I would play there if I got the chance."
With work and three sons -- Nicholas, Alex and Michael -- playing competitive hockey for teams in the city that produced Wayne Gretzky, it can be tough for Rizzo to find the time to curl.
"But if it's something you love, then you make the time," he said. "My kids hate it. They don't like watching mom and dad curl. But I love watching them play hockey . . . I get a kick out of it and I'm at the rink 300 days a year. I don't buy them the expensive new sticks, though. I wait until the composites go on sale for $65 at Canadian Tire."
Rizzo, who is old enough to be the 24-year-old Epping's dad, says the age gap has zero effect on the dynamic of a team with enough youthful drive and veteran experience to do some damage here this week.
"We have a great time and I still hit the (beer) Patch," he said. "I'm usually the one they have to drag out by my ear at the end of the night."