Too close to call?
Glenn Howard has the edge in curling's top rivalry, but maybe not for long
Leafs-Habs. Yankees-Red Sox. Celtics-Lakers. Federer-Nadal. Tiger-Phil. Martin-Howard?
OK, so maybe the last one lacks the sizzle (and international appeal) of the most famous active rivalries in sports. But in many ways, curling's top duel is no less compelling. And it could hardly be more balanced.
Over the last two seasons, Kevin Martin of Edmonton and Glenn Howard of Coldwater, Ont., have turned the world of elite curling into their own semi-private domain. Combined, the two skips have won the last eight Grand Slam events, the last two Briers and the last two world championships. Over that time, they raked in more than half a million dollars in prize money on the World Curling Tour, and they've collected another $116,000 already this season. Both teams have already earned a bye into next year's Canadian Olympic trials.
Heading into this week's Grand Slam series opener — the Masters of Curling in Waterloo, Ont. — there's little doubt that a bipolar order grips men's curling.
Martin's and Howard's "are the two teams to beat," CBC curling analyst Mike Harris says. "There's very little difference between the two of them, but they've separated themselves from the rest of the world."
Indeed, predicting a winner in any meeting between the friendly rivals is akin to calling a coin toss. Maybe you have a gut feeling, but the result really could go either way.
'A fine line'
Last year, Martin captured the first two Grand Slams — running his winning streak in those talent-laden, big-money events to an incredible five, counting the prior season. But Howard swooped in to take the remaining two, capping off with a win over Martin in the final of the season-ending Players' Championship in St. John's in April.
"Our teams are very equal," Howard, the 2007 Brier and world champ, told CBCSports.ca. "Any game we play is a pick 'em. They're a great curling team. And anybody can beat anybody on any given day."
Lately, though, it's Howard who's gained the upper hand. Building on his late success in last year's Grand Slams, the Ontarian has won all three WCT events he's entered this season. And teammates Richard Hart, Brent Laing and Craig Savill captured another with Hart filling in as skip while Howard was recovering from hernia surgery.
"These are three of the best players in the game, and as far as I'm concerned, Richard is the best third in the game, bar none," says Howard, who feels "awesome" after a speedy recovery from his Sept. 18 operation.
"And for Brent and Craig to both move up a spot, out of their norm, and still play well and win is mind-boggling. It just goes to show you how great these three players are."
Thanks to his rink's red-hot start, Howard earned the top seed for the Masters. And he gained some additional momentum by beating Martin with a steal in the last end of the final of an event in Brooks, Alta., on the first weekend of November.
Howard, though, was hesitant to agree he has Martin's number heading into the Masters.
"We're ranked No. 1, but it's such a fine line," he says. "The game against Kevin in Brooks, he missed his last shot, which I'd think Kevin would make 20 out of 20 times. He should have made that shot. He normally does make that shot. And then he would have won."
Russ chimes in
It's probably a mistake to ask one of the nicest guys in sports to toot his own horn, so how about trying someone else with intimate knowledge of both players? Maybe someone like two-time world champion skip Russ Howard, who says he enjoyed great success against a young Martin back in the early 1990s with younger brother Glenn serving as his third.
Still, the elder Howard says, the rivalry is too tight to predict a guaranteed winner in any given match because "Martin is going to beat you his share of times, for sure."
And what can his brother do to prevent that from happening? Given the otherworldly shot-making skills of Martin and his rink, only so much.
"Kevin likes to have control, he likes to have the big shot, and he loves to use that high, hard one," Russ Howard explains. "All I ever tried to do was keep the guards a lot higher, so if he's playing those runbacks they're a much higher degree of difficulty.
"The long guards made him play a lot more finesse shots, and in the old days we were better at that than he was.
"But his new team has done a tremendous amount of work on those soft shots, and they're getting very, very good, too."