Little labour for Howard's remaining rink

RYAN PYETTE -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:33 AM ET

SARNIA -- Nothing was going to deny Glenn Howard getting back to the Tim Hortons Brier.

Not even the departure of his trusty second Brent Laing, who missed the TSC Stores Tankard Ontario men's curling championship game to rush back to Huntsville and witness the birth of his first child -- a son -- while his teammates capped a 11-0 week with a 9-5 victory over Wayne Middaugh yesterday afternoon at the Sarnia Sports and Entertainment Centre.

Sarnia native Steve Bice, a 25-year-old McMaster University grad and Lambton College student who had served as a spiel volunteer all week, was an emergency fill-in at lead while Craig Savill shifted to second. Howard's dominant Coldwater rink shrugged off the last-minute drama to capture a second straight provincial title and beat the top-flight Middaugh rink for the third time in four days.

Laing will rejoin Howard for the Brier March 3-11 at Copps Coliseum in Hamilton.

"It was a left hook (for Laing to leave), but it's only once your first child is born and there will always be other tournaments," Howard said. "You should've seen the poor kid (agonizing over the decision), but we told him he had to go and he said, 'You're right.'

"We brought in Steve and he did a great job for us. When we asked him if he wanted to play, he said, 'I'd be thrilled,' and right there, we knew it would be fine and off we went.

"We had originally considered going with just three (with Savill and third Richard Hart throwing three rocks per end apiece) but then I gave my head a shake and realized how important sweeping was."

Howard didn't know much about his new team member, whose younger brother Mark had played lead for hometown favourite Heath McCormick's rink in the spiel. Bice had been on a list of curlers available in case competing teams ran into any complications.

"I didn't know what would happen, but I was hoping to get in a game this week," Bice said. "I never thought it would be the final and I'd be playing for Glenn Howard."

Howard had predicted his old friend and former teammate Middaugh would provide a nerve-wracking final test for a team that breezed through their first 10 games without having to play a full 10 ends, and he was right.

"Until Wayne got his deuce (yesterday), we hadn't trailed all week and that ended up being for 15 minutes," Howard said. "I hardly had any tough shots -- I was always on the offence -- and that's because the three guys in front of me were great all week."

For his part, Middaugh, who last played in the national championships two years ago, said he'll spend the 10 days of the Brier on his snowmobile.

Howard, who lost last year's Canadian final 8-7 to Quebec's Jean-Michel Menard in Regina, is intent on finishing the job this time as the representative of the host province.

"They (the Howard rink) were great all week and I felt it would've almost been a shame if we had won," said Middaugh, whose team curled much improved from their 9-2 waxing in five ends during Saturday's Page 1-2 playoff. "We still gave 110 per cent but it wasn't there. The fifth and sixth (ends) were the turning points (when Howard jumped in front 6-3). I didn't make my shots. The eighth, we were already in trouble and on my last shot, I only had an eighth of an inch and missed by a hair (to effectively put the game out of reach)."

As well as Howard's rink had played all week, their complete dominance through Saturday made them a little leery because none of them had experienced such a run of consistent play before. They were nervous about the law of averages, knowing that the curling gods had been extraordinarily generous with the karma to that point.

"We were all waiting for something bad to happen and then Brent had to leave -- and it's not like that was a bad thing (because of the reason for his leaving)," Hart said. "But I think it raised us up another level. We said, 'O.K., that's what was supposed to happen and now how do we get over it?' "

They did it with strong curling, expert resolve and admittedly, a little bit of luck.

"I think teams made some shots against us this week that they wouldn't normally make," Howard said. "Wayne's team is top of the world, but they didn't play the way they usually do."


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