Gushue takes Howard's steady hand
By Jesse Campigotto
Anticipating how difficult it would be to get by the star-studded field at the 2005 Canadian curling trials, Brad Gushue decided to seek a little help from a friend.
Fortunately, the 25-year-old skip, had just the number in his rolodex: that of two-time world champion Russ Howard.
The two met at the 2000 Canadian junior curling championships, held at the Beausejour Curling Club, Howard's home club in Moncton, N.B. Howard was on hand as an honourary chairman when Gushue's Newfoundland rink made it to the final against British Columbia, only to lose by one when Gushue failed to convert a potential game-winning shot in the final end.
After the game, Howard approached the distraught youngster to offer some encouragement.
"I said to him, 'You're way too good a talent and too good a team and you were meant to win something bigger and better than the Canadian juniors,'" Howard recalls. "I think he appreciated that."
Though almost a quarter-century apart in age (Howard turns 50 on Feb. 19), the two became friends, often chatting at tournaments once Gushue graduated to the men's circuit.
With the 2005 Olympic trials drawing near, Gushue, a talented shot-maker who had been hampered by strategic gaffes at past big events, figured his young team (no player over 26) could use the steady hand of a seasoned skip.
"We figured we were lacking a bit in experience and who better to fill that gap than Russ?" Gushue says.
Who's calling the shots?
Howard originally served as the team's fifth, acting as a non-playing advisor to the other four players. But with the rink struggling as the trials approached, Gushue decided to expand Howard's role, bringing the veteran off the bench to throw second stones and direct the team's shots.
The move was a gamble in that it required Gushue, who had skipped his team to two Brier appearances and a victory at the 2004 Canada Cup East that earned them a spot at the trials, to surrender some of his shot-calling to Howard.
While skips often rely on their teammates for advice, the Gushue-Howard arrangement carried the potential for disaster. As the man who throws his team's final two rocks in each end, it's important for Gushue to be comfortable with the decisions that set up his crucial shots.
"As a skip I've played with curlers that I've asked for input and I eventually got so much input that it threw me of," says Howard. "So there's a balancing act there."
The transition was made easier by Gushue's willingness to defer to Howard, Howard's willingness to accept Gushue's input, and erstwhile second Mike Adam's willingness to take one for the team by giving up his spot to Howard.
"Mike has put his heart and soul into this team, but he realized that our chances of winning were better with Russ than without," says Gushue. "Having a teammate like that means a lot and it made the decision a lot easier that he handled it that well."
Mixing a winning formula
Though some observers suggested the late roster move would hurt team chemistry going into the trials, the changes went swimmingly to say the least. The overhauled Team Gushue breezed through the tournament with a 9-1 record, then defeated two-time Brier champion Jeff Stoughton in the final to earn a trip to Turin.
"Russ is a very comfortable and confident person," says Toby McDonald, who has coached Team Gushue since last February, before Howard arrived. "When he came on he raised the confidence level of the team just by being him."
Howard's confidence and experience could prove even more valuable at the Olympic Winter Games in Turin, Italy. Team Gushue will compete against a field of savvy international veterans if it hopes to win Canada's first men's curling gold medal since the sport was reinstated as an official Olympic event in 1998.
Skips like Sweden's Peter Lindholm (a three-time world champion) and Norway's Pal Trulsen (the reigning Olympic champ) have more big-time international experience than even Howard, who has never appeared at an Olympic Games. But Howard knows the book on most of Europe's top players from his years competing against them on the North American cash circuit.
"You'll see somebody throw a rock and go, 'Oh yeah, I remember that on that turn he tends to throw it a wee bit wide, maybe we can catch him later in the game,'" Howard says. "Knowing your opposition certainly helps."
Still, as many a Canadian skip has discovered, beating the top European teams, especially on their own turf, isn't easy.
"The Europeans are really well-coached and well-trained," says Howard, who says the Olympic rocks don't curl as much as North American rocks and Europeans are more familiar with them. "I'm not making excuses but I think you'll see some awfully good shot-making from the Europeans."
Howard is confident in his teammates' ability to go shot-for-shot with the best overseas players at the Olympics.
"The boys have a lot of talent," he says of the Canadian champs. "They don't have the experience at this event, but they've got it upstairs, and that's probably more important."
"Russ's experience is a calming influence," says Gushue. "He's been in most situations before and he can just say one word to put everything in perspective."