Curling's Howard family is better by the half-dozen
6 talented competitors traced to the same roots
Barbara Howard will sit down this Saturday, turn on the TV and watch something that leaves her, well, a little overwhelmed.
On the screen at the Midland, Ont., home she and her late husband, Bill, built together in 1952, will be the Brier, Canada's men's curling championship.
Her son Russ, world and Olympic champion, will be the colour commentator after retiring from a career that saw him go to 14 Briers.
Her son Glenn, three-time world champ, three-time Brier winner, will skip Team Ontario, with grandson Scott as the fifth. Another grandson, Steve, is the third on Team New Brunswick.
Watching elsewhere will be granddaughters Ashley and Carly, both outstanding young curlers in their own right who may, sooner rather than later, play in the women's nationals – the Tournament of Hearts.
Over the phone, one can almost hear Barbara Howard, matriarch of this country's first family of curling, shake her head in wonder.
"I can't describe it," she says, sounding a darn sight younger than her 86 years. "It overwhelms me because I don't know what I did right.
"And I have to be honest — there are times when I look at them all and I say 'I don't really deserve this.' I feel so blessed. If Bill were alive today, he'd be doing the Highland fling down the main street in a kilt, he'd be so thrilled and proud."
It is that third generation of curling Howards who will allow the clan to fairly slide by Stoughton, Sask., brothers Ernie and Sam Richardson, and cousin Wes (four Briers and four world titles) as Canada's first family of curling.
What fish has to do with it
If you can trace such a thing back to one moment, the beginning of the Howard family legacy might be found in the mid-1960s on Barbara's well-waxed kitchen floor, and involve a little boy named Russell and a few cans of salmon.
Like all children, having watched his parents curl and wanting to be like them, Russ found a way when he discovered the flat cans from mom's larder, pushed just so, slid nicely across the floor like a big rock.
"My mom had the linoleum squares, brown and green [mom says they were beige, actually], and throwing the cans to the brown ones, that was the button," says Russ, on the phone from Charlottetown, where he was working the Hearts.
Where the tale really begins, however, is with Bill Howard, an athletic, enthusiastic Second World War RCAF veteran who married Barbara (he was from Midland, she was from Penetang, and that in itself was a good story back in those days) and set about a 36-year career as a grocery store manager.
The couple loved sports, all sports, and when Russell came along in 1956, and Glenn in 1962, they determined to introduce as many of them that time and money would allow to the youngsters.
It wasn't until his early 40s that Bill picked up curling, and he and his wife, who learned as well, were hooked. And that meant study. Serious.
The Howard record
- 14 Brier appearances (eight with Ontario, six with New Brunswick).
- Two Brier wins.
- Two world championships (1987, 1993).
- Olympic gold medal (2006, Turin).
Steve Howard (Russ's son)
- Third Brier appearance (three as player, one as fifth)
- Skipped P.E.I. at the junior nationals.
- One Ontario bantam appearance.
Ashley Howard (Russ's daughter)
- One Canadian junior appearance (2006).
- Skipped Canada Winter Games (2007).
- One Canadian junior appearance (2009 - skip).
- Ten consecutive years making a provincial play down in various categories.
- 13 Brier appearances.
- Three Brier wins.
- Three world championships (1987, 1993, 2007).
- Eight Grand Slam titles.
Scott Howard (Glenn's son)
- First Brier appearance (2011 - fifth for Glenn).
- Three Ontario provincial junior trips.
- One junior provincial title.
- Second at junior nationals.
- One OFSSA provincial high school finals appearance.
- One junior mixed provincial appearance.
Carly Howard (Glenn's daughter)
- One provincial junior appearance (2010 - fifth).
- One provincial bantam appearance (2010 - fourth).
- Provincial bantam mixed champion (2010).
- One OFSAA provincial high school finals appearance.
"Dad was a real student of the game," says Glenn, who still lives himself in Penetang with his wife, Judy. "He was a student of sports. Whatever he learned, he wanted to learn to do right."
That meant getting a copy of the iconic Ken Watson on Curling book so he could learn the technical details from the best. Watson, historically, was the first one to do the long slide out of the hack.
"That's how he taught Russ and I — every sport he took on he had to learn technically — teach the boys technically and it will never let them down."
Both boys point out that neither was ever forced into curling, introduced at around 10 years old, or any sport. It was merely expected they would enjoy something, because staying active was considered so important in the Howard family.
They just seemed to gravitate to curling (Bill would say it's the one sport you can play until you're 80, so why not?), especially when dad began working at the Midland Curling Club, where he would become an outstanding manager and icemaker. That opened the doors to lots of practice time.
It paid off in ways Bill could not possibly have imagined.
Russ is one of the greatest curlers ever produced (one who changed the game by inventing the "Moncton" or free guard rule that opened things up and made the sport more fun for TV viewers), and Glenn is right behind.
Together on the same rink, they won two Briers and two worlds. And then they split when Russ, for the good of his family, left Ontario and moved to New Brunswick to take a job at Royal Oaks Golf Club, in Moncton.
Bill would die in 2002. His headstone, in the Penetanguishene Presbyterian cemetery, is easy to find — it's the one with the curling rock on top.
Along came the next generation, and the story began again.
Russ and Wendy, Glenn and Judy, each had two children, and those kids would also be introduced to many sports and activities ("an active child has a much better chance in life," Russ, now the family patriarch, says) just as the boys had been.
And unlike the old days, with the new smaller rocks, more ice available and better conditions, they could start earlier (around six) than their father's did.
Curling would eventually rise to the top, naturally. But it was never forced, especially since the parents realized how tough it would be to follow such successful fathers into the game.
"Wendy and I talked about that a lot," Russ says. "I'm just dad. There's a lot of things I'm good at, and there's a lot I'm not good at. I was the worst student God ever created, and [the children] are not. They are better at other things.
"They have to be their own person. Curling is only one facet of life."
There was proof, as well, that other things have to take precedence.
"The best example is, I was on the best team in the world, with the best vice that ever lived, in my brother, and I moved three provinces over to follow my career and that was the end of a helluva good curling team," Russ says. "Family comes first, and the last time I checked, you have to feed them."
But still, in this family, there were certain advantages, as Russ's son, Steve, can attest.
"[Curling] was just something we were always involved with," says the New Brunswick third, making his third trip to the Brier and still just 26. "You sit down at the dinner table, you are talking about shots made back in the 1980s. It's always a topic around the house.
"You grow up with it. It's second nature."
"I think it's a little bit of both genetics and teaching," Steve says. "[The children] had the best teachers in the world."
That included Bill, who passed along all of his own knowledge to his young first grandson before passing away. They even played together a few times.
Whether it's Gretzky's children, or Jordan's children, or a Howard child, carrying the name on your back naturally means higher expectations. Steve says for him, there has been some pressure, but nothing overwhelming.
"It's more or less something you put on yourself," he says. "Dad and Glenn are household names … they are well recognized, so obviously there is a little bit of pressure in this.
"But you are your own person, you are your own enemy if you want to put pressure on yourself. I'm my own person ... and I'm going to go out there to represent my province, do the best I can do and see where we are at the end of the week."
The Howards may, as a group, be among the nicest people you've met. They are also among the most competitive.
Steve Howard points out, for example, that he and cousin, Scott, both made the national juniors, while their dads never did. Scott, actually, came within a few centimetres of winning the nationals this year while playing third on Matt Camm's Ottawa rink.
But if the Howards are competitive with each other, that's nothing when someone else is involved.
Be careful who you challenge
Last year, Russ and Wendy (he hadn't thrown in a year, she hadn't in nine), got together with Steve and Ashley and entered the New Brunswick open mixed championship, hoping have a little family fun.
They came second, just missing the nationals.
Last week, up in Charlottetown, Russ was doing the TV colour at the Tournament of Hearts, where the ice at the Civic Centre was made available for any top-level curlers who wanted to mess around a bit late at night.
Steve drove up from Moncton to meet his dad and they were tossing a few on a sheet with a couple of guys from Prince Edward Island.
"So, they challenged the Howards, right, these young kids who had been throwing every night," said Russ. "We had them down 7-1 after four ends, before [the staff] kicked us off the ice.
"That's important to me. You don't have to win, but you have to try harder. Here I am, coughing and sputtering [with a rotten cold] and … that'll be my Brier this year."
A few years back, when Steve made his first nationals, Russ went down. He found himself at ice level, watching with Vic Peters, the Manitoba legend, while out on the pads both their sons were getting set to play.
"And here's his boy with Peters on his back, and Howard on my son's back, and it hits you — where did the time go?
"I was really emotional for that."
Back in Midland this Saturday, Barbara Howard will most certainly agree.