Russ Howard was asleep in his Riga hotel room when the phone rang with word that he would be inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame.
The Olympic champion curler immediately went online to look at the Hall’s long list of honoured members. That’s when the enormity of the honour sunk in.
“I get the chance to golf with (hockey legend) Bobby Orr once in a year in a charity event and he’s my hero,” Howard said Wednesday at a morning news conference. “To think that a little guy from Midland, Ontario is in with Bobby Orr is pretty cool.”
Howard is a two-time world champion who now does curling broadcasting work. He was in the Latvian capital last March to cover the world women’s championship.
“Nobody knew I was in Latvia so that’s why I got the call at four in the morning,” he said. “I thought I was dreaming obviously — and I still am.”
Joining Howard in this year’s class are former NHL star Joe Sakic, cyclist Alison Sydor, five-time Paralympian Andre Viger and the 1992 Olympic champion women’s coxless four rowing team of Kirsten Barnes, Brenda Taylor, Jessica Monroe-Gonin, Kay Worthington and Jennifer Walinga.
Former Canadian Amateur Hockey Association president Murray Costello and sport development architect Dr. Jean-Guy Ouellet enter as builders. Inductees will be presented with their member jackets at an evening ceremony.
Howard won national and world titles in 1987 and 1993. He said the first Brier victory with his brother Glenn was one of the most special victories from his long career, especially since they came up just short in the 1986 final.
His most memorable win came at the Turin Games in 2006 when he earned Olympic gold with skip Brad Gushue of Newfoundland and Labrador.
“There was so much different pressure at that, with 70 million people watching our final game,” Howard said. “You’re representing your country. At my age it was my last and only chance to win an Olympic medal for my country. So that pressure was a lot different than at the Canadian championships.”
Sakic, who had 1,641 career regular-season points over 20 seasons in the NHL, won the Stanley Cup with Colorado in 1996 and 2001. He currently serves as the team’s executive vice-president of hockey operations.
“It’s a tremendous honour,” Sakic said. “When I got the call it was very, very exciting.
“Obviously you start to reflect and you think back, and I just remember as a kid you’re watching your Canadian Olympians and obviously cheering them on and you want to see them do well. And then to get a taste of it yourself, have a whole new appreciation for what all the athletes in different sports had to do to prepare and get ready for these things.”
Sakic won titles at the Winter Olympics, world hockey championship, World Cup of Hockey and the world junior championship. He first broke into the NHL with the Quebec Nordiques in 1988.
“To play for your country, I got a chance to play with Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, and I wouldn’t have had that happen on my regular team,” he said. “Any time you put the Canadian jersey on, you just felt something more and something special. The game just seemed to mean a little bit more. We never took that for granted.”
Sydor won Olympic silver at the 1996 Atlanta Games and picked up her third straight world title that year. The three-time Pan Am Games medallist had 17 career World Cup mountain bike victories.
Viger, who died in 2006, was one of the best wheelchair racers of all-time. He won 10 medals over five appearances at the Paralympic Games and held world records at several distances.
The coxless four team that won Olympic gold in Barcelona is considered one of Canada’s best-ever rowing crews. Walinga was forced to withdraw with a back injury shortly before the competition but Worthington stepped in and helped the crew win a gold medal.
“I think we feel that our honour has a great deal to do with what we went through,” Walinga said. “I think we represent the power of sport and the power of team, or what human beings are capable of achieving and what human beings are capable of overcoming when they function as a unified, collaborative team.”
Costello has helped Canada become a hockey powerhouse. He has served as president of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association (now Hockey Canada) and vice-president of the International Ice Hockey Federation.
He has spearheaded numerous development and skills programs that continue to be used today.
“It’s always nice to be recognized,” Costello said. “It’s particularly nice when you’re recognized across all sports in this great country.”
Ouellet, who held the position of Director of Mission Quebec, designed and implemented programs to prepare athletes from the province to represent Canada at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
The programs were the basis for the high performance sports model in Quebec and are used today as a model for other provinces and countries around the world.
A gallery featuring each of this year’s inductees will be showcased at the Hall of Fame facility at Canada Olympic Park in Calgary. The Class of 2013 brings the total number of honoured members to 540.