A famous name in curling returns to the Brier alongside an even more eminent name in the sport.
Wayne Middaugh's curling career seemed on the wane until he joined Glenn Howard's team at third this season.
“It's like playing for the Leafs your whole life and suddenly getting traded to the Red Wings,” Middaugh says. “I'm a huge Leafs fan.
“You're sad to leave, but your pretty happy where you're going and you've got a chance to win every time you step on the ice.”
Middaugh and Howard were teammates from 1989 to 1994 with skip Russ Howard and won a world championship in 1993.
Middaugh went on to skip Ontario at the Canadian championships three times — mostly recently in 2005 — and won it in 1998. The 44-year-old from Victoria Harbour played a few bonspiels for Glenn Howard last season, but not in provincial playdowns.
When Howard's regular third Richard Hart retired last spring, Middaugh stepped in as a full-time teammate of Howard and front end Craig Saville and Brent Laing.
“The transition has been seamless,” Howard says. “A lot of it hinges on the fact he and I have been good friends for 25 or 30 years.”
Howard, 49, will skip Ontario at the Canadian men's curling championship for a record seventh straight year.
The Tim Hortons Brier opens Saturday at Saskatoon's Credit Union Centre with the first draw at 2:30 ET. The winner March 11 represents Canada at the world championship March 31 to April 8 in Basel, Switzerland.
Combining all positions Howard has played, he'll appear in his 14th Brier and match the record established by brother Russ.
Howard, Hart, Saville and Laing won the 2007 Canadian title and world championship.
They've also lost the Brier final four other times.
“Thank goodness we won in ‘07 because if we hadn't, it would really be playing on me,” Howard says. “Coming second is horrible. We've had some really tough second places over the last four or five years.”
Ontario, Alberta's Kevin Koe and Brad Gushue of Newfoundland and Labrador are the headliners in the field because of their previous accomplishments.
Koe beat Howard in an extra end to win the Canadian title in 2010. Koe also earned a world title that year. Gushue skipped the team that won Canada's first Olympic gold medal in men's curling in 2006.
Gushue topped the preliminary round last year in London, Ont., but lost a playoff game to Howard and the semifinal to eventual champion Jeff Stoughton of Manitoba.
Stoughton and 2010 Olympic champion Kevin Martin from Alberta are the glaring absences in this year's 12-team field. Neither made it to the finals of their respective provincial championships.
“You're always surprised when a couple of the big names don't make it,” Howard says.
Rob Fowler had to beat World Curling Tour leader Mike McEwan to represent Manitoba, so the Brandon team is one to keep an eye on during the tournament.
The youngest skip in the field at 26, Northern Ontario's Brad Jacobs finished third in 2010 and is another one to watch in Saskatoon. John Cotter's B.C. squad from Vernon has won substantial money on the WCT this season as well.
Middaugh has a strong personality and is accustomed to running his own teams. How he would mesh with Howard's consensus-taking approach to calling the shots was an interesting prospect.
“I know his personality well enough. He knows mine,” Howard says. “We know how to push the buttons and talk to each other in the right manner that's going to work.
“He understands the skipping position well enough to know if he's in my face all the time, it's not going to work. He picks his spots, which is great.”
While Howard and company were going to the Brier the past several years, there were two seasons where Middaugh didn't even enter the Ontario playdowns. When he did, he didn't have the team to win.
When Howard invited him to join his rink, Middaugh changed his diet, rode the bike and took more walks with his wife Sherry, who is among the best women's curlers in the country.
He dropped 15 pounds to get to 200 to start the season. A third sweeps a lot more than a skip and that's kept him in shape.
“It was a very simple philosophy. Move more, eat less,” Middaugh says. “I don't eat fruit and I don't eat vegetables. I eat meat and potatoes. That's all I eat.
“I limited myself to one burger a week which is hard to do when all you eat is burgers.”
Middaugh says joining Howard's team extended his curling career at an elite level. Howard is convinced it's revitalized Middaugh.
“Now he's on a team, and I think he sees that ‘Hey, if I pull up my socks and play really well, we can win everything,“’ Howard says. “I've said all along ‘If we light a fire under his butt, look out.“’
There are plenty rewards for the Brier winner in addition to wearing the Maple Leaf at the world championship.
The victor is eligible for $144,000 of Sport Canada funding over a two-year period as well as $40,000 from Own the Podium for training and competition expenses.
There's also an automatic berth in the 2012 Canada Cup, at which an Olympic trials berth will be awarded to the winner. The Brier champion is also named to the North American team in the 2013 Continental Cup of Curling, a competition against European and Asian teams.
The Brier finalists each get $40,000 in prize money. The third-place teams receives $30,000 and the fourth-place team $20,000.
Martin has the only team so far with one of eight men's berths into the Olympic trials Dec. 1-8, 2013, in Winnipeg. Martin earned it beating Howard in the Canada Cup last November.
Another berth gets handed out at the conclusion of this season to the top team on the Canadian Curling Association's Canadian Team Ranking System. Howard is chasing McEwen for the lead.
On the CTRS, teams earn points based on their results in WCT events, provincial playdowns, the national championships and the world championship. Since McEwen didn't qualify for the Brier, Howard has a chance to gain ground on him.
“Winning the Brier would put us a little closer to him,” says Howard. “We're making it a good race. The sooner you secure your spot at the trials, you can take that deep breathe and say ‘We're there.“’