Ottawa — Around the sport of curling, Russ Howard looms large. And why not? He’s an icon of the roaring game, in the discussion for the GOAT – Greatest of All Time – and certainly among the top three to ever step in the hack.
The Ontario native, retired from the game, but in the midst of forging a another career as a broadcaster — Howard does outstanding work as a TSN curling analyst — has a special place in his heart for Newfoundland and Labrador.
It was with Brad Gushue’s team in 2005 that Howard won an Olympic gold medal, a ringer who was brought into the fold prior to the Olympic Trials that season as a fifth man to add calm and reason, not to mention a whole whack of experience, to a youthful group of Newfoundland curlers.
If you recall, Mike Adam took a step back from that team to allow Howard to come off the bench and throw second stones and hold the broom for Gushue at the Halifax Trials.
The experiment worked, sending shockwaves through the curling community.
Howard's emergence from fifth to calling line — in that famous leather-lunged way of his — for Gushue was the story of the 2005 Canadian Olympic Curling Trials.
Despite playing out of position — he’d never threw second stones before — Howard was unflappable in Halifax, third overall among seconds curling 86 per cent, and his decision-making at line calling was second to none.
“Incredible,” Gushue said of Howard at the time. “After it was all over, I thanked him. A guy like that just joining the team is pretty special. And then to play the way he did, do all the stuff he did this week was pretty special.
“Look at our stats without Russ and our stats with Russ and you can tell the difference that he made.”
Simply put, there’s a very real argument to be made Gushue, Mark Nichols, Jamie Korab, Adam and coach Toby McDonald would not have won the Trials without Russ Howard.
But it was not Russ Howard’s team.
Make no mistake, that was Brad Gushue’s team. Despite what many in the curling community believe.
Check out the media guide for this week’s Roar of the Rings in Ottawa, the Trials to determine Canada’s male and female entries for the PyeongChang Olympics a couple of months’ time in South Korea.
Right there in black and white, under Gushue’s Olympic bio:
2006 at Turin (Pinerolo), Italy (8-3, gold medal, throwing fourth rocks for Team Canada (Russ Howard).
And again under Gushue’s Olympic Trials bio:
2005 at Halifax (9-1, gold medal, throwing fourth rocks for Team Russ Howard, defeated Jeff Stoughton, 8-7 in final).
Anybody who knows Gushue knows it’s his way or the highway. He can be, with all due respect, a bit of a control freak. And if anybody’s running the show on the curling ice, it’s Gushue.
So we ask: is Gushue anxious to win another Trials, go to another Olympics and win another medal with the team that is unmistakably — without misinterpretation — his?
“That would not be even in the slightest amount in my thought process,” Gushue says.
As for ’05, Gushue maintains that if there was a call that had to be made, he was the one making it.
“He was holding the broom, but still, it was Mark or I who would have had say over any other calls,” Gushue says today.
It’s funny how the curling fan base is so tied up in what happened then (in 2005), and that it had to be me or Russ. It’s irrelevant. If you’re going to apply it to our team’s success last year, why are they going to give it to me when Brett had such a huge impact, when Mark had a huge impact? It’s kind of foolish. I certainly don’t look at it that way.”
Gushue is the first to admit that team back a dozen years ago would have not won an Olympic gold medal without Russ Howard in the lineup.
But it was Brad Gushue’s team.
That’s still the case, but Gushue also knows the skip does not solely make a curling unit. Where would Gushue be without Nichols, the all-world third? Or Brett Gallant and Geoff Walker, the top one or two front ends in the game?
Where would the team be without Gushue throwing last rocks?
“Obviously, we took Russ’s input, which helped us a lot. And like any team, even on this team, if someone wants to go out and say, ‘It’s my team’, well, if I didn’t listen to Brett on the last shot to win the Brier, we wouldn’t have been there. If I didn’t listen to Mark the end before (in the Brier final), we would have ticked the guard and lost the game,” Gushue said.
Gushue was speaking of Gallant’s intuitiveness in the final last year, prior to the skip’s last shot in the last game against Kevin Koe.
Gushue needed full eight foot on his last shot, and it was Gallant, the team’s second, who pointed out that the ice had become a lot slower in the last half of the game, so much so that he suggested that to make the draw and score, Gushue would need to throw with the same force that it would have taken to make the rock travel two yards further in the earlier ends.
“It’s funny how the curling fan base is so tied up in what happened then (in 2005), and that it had to be me or Russ,” Gushue said. “It’s irrelevant. If you’re going to apply it to our team’s success last year, why are they going to give it to me when Brett had such a huge impact, when Mark had a huge impact?
“It’s kind of foolish. I certainly don’t look at it that way.
“At the end of the day, I was the one throwing last rocks and anybody who skips will tell you that’s the toughest job. All the pressure comes down to that rock.”
Gushue has stated publicly there’s a whole lot less pressure on him at these Trials because, as far as the Olympics go, he’s been there, done that.
If he doesn’t emerge from these Trials, Gushue says, “I’m only going to lose sleep for about two nights.”
Not saying he wouldn’t want to curl for Olympic gold again.
“But for me to sit here and honestly say I want to do it because I wasn’t holding the broom in 2005,” he said, “no, that has nothing to do with it.”