Shocker: Glenn Howard's ouster in Ontario curling playdowns shines light on province's antiquated qualification rules

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Glenn Howard releases a stone during the 2014 Canadian Open. (Anil Mungal/Sportsnet)
Glenn Howard releases a stone during the 2014 Canadian Open. (Anil Mungal/Sportsnet)

Glenn Howard will not be at the Ontario Tankard this year. A loss in Regionals, today, has made that so, even though there remains one final route into the provincial championship; the upcoming Challenge Round, where two final teams will be given passage to the Tankard.

It's been confirmed - with only the very slightest possibility of a change of heart by the team - that Howard, vice Rich Hart, second Jon Mead and lead Craig Savill will instead take part in the TSN Skins game, which is being held the same weekend as the last-chance Ontario spiel.

That a team of this calibre is forced to choose between a chance at representing its province and taking part in a previously agreed to event will be the subject of divided conversation over the next few weeks. Howard's 8-4 loss to Kitchener's Aaron Squires at Regionals in Gravenhurst, Ontario, has effectively eliminated the skip who won eight straight Ontario titles between 2006 and 2013, before being upset in the 2014 finals by Greg Balsdon.

This situation shines a glaring spotlight on Ontario's playdown regulations - regulations that have already been questioned by many curling observers - and will put the Ontario Curling Association in an uncomfortable spot when the Tankard plays out in Dorchester, between February 2nd and 8th.

Think about it. The Ontario championship will be contested that week without one of the top teams in the world in the field (and the skip who at the time of the writing of this blog was prominently featured on the Tankard's website), because of the province's system of qualification, which sees only the defending champion automatically return to play. Team Howard's World Curling Tour play means nothing in the qualification process. That means a team that is currently ranked sixth in the WCT Order of Merit has had to go through the old-fashioned way of making provincials, even though many other provinces long ago identified the importance of rewarding tour teams with berths based on their performances in world class events.

In Alberta, for instance, four qualifiers were announced back in December, and they included Kevin Koe, based on his team's performance on tour this year. As well, the Alberta Curling Association awarded berths to two provincial teams based on their performances in provincial tour events this season. Since Alberta's defending championship team was awarded an automatic berth to the 2015 Brier, Alberta also awarded a spot to Brendan Bottcher's rink based on their play throughout the 2013-14 season.

It's a system that recognizes the realities of competition schedules for the top teams in the province. As well, it allows the organizers of the Boston Pizza Cup (Alberta's championship) to start selling tickets based on the certainty of top names being in the field.

The game of curling has changed immensely over the course of the last two decades and the OCA has been bombarded with criticism over what's been seen as its failure to march with the times. A couple of seasons ago, John Epping's team was having a good year on the tour, but failed to make provincials when the great equalizer of less than top notch ice caught up with them and saw them eliminated from Tankard play, much to the consternation of sympathetic Ontario competitors.

There has been some lip service paid to changing the province's antiquated system, but no major alteration has come.

That may well be about to change, as Howard's failure to be included in the field despite his enormously successful resume (including this year's performances, even if they don't include a championship so far) could be the catalyst needed to spur real progress.

Unless the Howard Four change their minds and take part in the Challenge Round (I'm told there is almost no hope of that as they feel the commitment they made to TSN long ago needs to be honoured) OCA representatives face a tough week at the Tankard.

They'll have to answer constant questions as to why one of the province's very best curling teams is not at the province's championship.

And why the guy on the poster is in Banff, instead of Dorchester.

Even if the OCA is somehow able to convince Howard and his team to forego the lure of Skins Game dollars and take part in the Challenge Round, there's no guarantee they'll make it through to the Tankard. A turned ankle, a team flu bug, or wonky ice (some say that's what got Howard at regionals) could mean they face the same situation anyway.

No, the real way this could have been avoided would be to have an overhauled system of qualification. One that makes sense to today's competitors and fans. One that rewards top teams for consistent autumn performances at big events.

Change, you would think, is coming.

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