Curling’s biggest guns to hit London

Steve Green, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:39 PM ET

LONDON, ONT. - That breeze blowing through London on Monday may actually have been a huge sigh of relief.

The host committee for the Tim Hortons Brier next month at the John Labatt Centre was holding its collective breath over the weekend to see who emerged from the six provincial and territorial championships that had yet to be decided. There were already some big names coming — most notably 2006 Olympic champion Brad Gushue out of Newfoundland/Labrador — but most of the “major” provinces declared their reps Sunday.

And when the sweeping stopped, London had, in Glenn Howard’s words, “one of the best Brier fields in the last 10 years.”

Howard, of course, is the one organizers prayed would represent Ontario and the Coldwater skip won his sixth straight provincial title and 13th overall in style at the Dominion Tankard finals in Grimsby, throttling Greg Balsdon of the Elgin Loonie club 10-3 in the final.

And the big names kept slotting into place as Sunday wore on — two-time Brier champ Jeff Stoughton winning in Manitoba; 2010 Olympic champion and four-time Brier winner Kevin Martin regaining the Alberta crown by beating defending Brier and world champ Kevin Koe in the final; Brad Jacobs repeating as Northern Ontario champion. Elsewhere, Jamie Koe three-peated as the Territories champion and Jim Cotter will be welcomed back to the Brier for the second time (first as a skip) after winning in B.C.

And with the likes of Gushue, nine-time Brier participant James Grattan of New Brunswick and Shawn Adams of Nova Scotia making his fourth Brier appearance, it’s a veteran-laden group that starts play March 5. Half of the field was at the 2010 Brier in Halifax, and Philippe Gagné of Quebec is the only other first-time skip.

“I’m very happy,” host committee chair Peter Inch said. “If I could have written down who I wanted, they’re all here.”

Inch is hoping the quality of the field will lead to a surge in ticket sales, which at last count were around 90,000.

“There’s no doubt, if you have the right field, the ticket sales will improve. And I think we’re going to see a big pickup now as people start booking from out of town.”

And Howard is thrilled to be making his first appearance in the Forest City.

“It’s about time they held something big in London,” he joked Monday from the Beer Store he manages in Midland — no rest for the weary here. “Ontario Briers have been very good to us. We won in Hamilton (in 2007) and in Ottawa (in 1993 as third for brother Russ). So we love, love playing in Ontario.

“This field is very sexy, very similar to last year. It’s the who’s who, right across the country — one of the best fields in the last 10 years.”

Howard will be making his 13th Brier appearance, the most of any curler coming to London and one shy of his brother’s record of 14. And with third Richard Hart in his sixth and the front end of Brent Laing and Craig Savill both in their seventh, the Ontario rink will be the most experienced of the lot.

Their season got off to what their skip called a “weird” start, though. Laing had to have an emergency appendectomy in September and Hart took a couple of events off for family and work, with Wayne Middaugh replacing him.

“But what I’m really seeing is in the last month, we’ve been on fire,” Howard said. “We played really, really well in Oshawa (At the BDO Classic at the end of January) — probably the best week of curling we’ve had all year — and we played great at the Ontarios.

“I like our chances and I like the way we’re playing.”

He’d also like to add a second Brier title as a skip, if for no other reason than to show 2007 wasn’t a one-off.

“You don’t come to a Brier to finish second, but the good news for us is we continue to put ourselves in that position to win another one.”

And there will be a little family bragging rights on the line in the first draw of the Brier when Ontario meets New Brunswick. Steve Howard — Glenn’s nephew — plays second for James Grattan. Glenn’s held the edge in their previous meetings, winning 7-4 last year and 7-2 in 2009, when Russ was the New Brunswick skip.

“There might be a little ribbing going on, but that’ll be about it,” Glenn said with a chuckle.

Martin, meanwhile, will be trying for a record fifth Brier title as a skip. He’s currently tied with fellow Albertan Randy Ferbey (who has a record six overall, two as third for Pat Ryan) and the legendary Ernie Richardson of Saskatchewan.

Manitoba leads with 26 Brier titles, but the last of them came in 1999 when Stoughton prevailed in Edmonton. He beat Mike McEwen, who’s had a monster year on the World Curling Tour this season — he beat Howard in the BDO Classic final — in their championship game.

Jacobs, third last year in Halifax, had probably the most dramatic victory Sunday as he stole three in the 10th to edge Joe Scharf 7-6, when Scharf was heavy on a draw. The pair had topped the 12-rink round-robin at 9-2, with Scharf winning the 1-2 game and looking like he had the final sewn up as he led 5-1 after six.

steve.green@sunmedia.ca

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THE SKIPS

Alberta: Kevin Martin

British Columbia: Jim Cotter

Manitoba: Jeff Stoughton

New Brunswick: James Grattan

Newfoundland/Labrador: Brad Gushue

Northern Ontario: Brad Jacobs

Nova Scotia: Shawn Adams

Ontario: Glenn Howard

P.E.I.: Eddie MacKenzie

Quebec: Francois Gagne

Saskatchewan: Pat Simmons

Territories: Jamie Koe

BRIER RINKS

(Total appearances for each player, including 2011, in parentheses)

Alberta: Kevin Martin (11), John Morris (5), Marc Kennedy (4), Ben Hebert (6)

British Columbia: Jim Cotter (2), Ken Maskiewicz (1), Kevin Folk (2), Rick Sawatsky (2)

Manitoba: Jeff Stoughton (9), Jon Mead (4), Reid Carruthers (2), Steve Gould (7)

New Brunswick: James Grattan (9), Charlie Sullivan (5), Steve Howard (4), Peter Case (5)

Newfoundland/Labrador: Brad Gushue (8), Mark Nichols (8), Ryan Fry (4), Jamie Danbrook (1)

Northern Ontario: Brad Jacobs (4), E.J. Harnden (3), Ryan Harnden (3), Scott Seabrook (2)

Nova Scotia: Shawn Adams (4), Paul Flemming (5), Andrew Gibson (5), Kelly Mittelstadt (2)

Ontario: Glenn Howard (13), Richard Hart (6), Brent Laing (7), Craig Savill (7)

Prince Edward Island: Eddie MacKenzie (2), Mike Gaudet (3), Mike Dillon (3), Alex MacFadyen (1)

Quebec: Francois Gagné (1), Robert Desjardins (1), Christian Bouchard (1), Philippe Ménard (3)

Saskatchewan: Pat Simmons (5), Steve Laycock (3), Brennan Jones (1), Dallan Muyres (1)

Territories: Jamie Koe (5), Tom Naugler (1), Brad Chorostkowski (7), Marty Gavin (3)


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