This curling season hasn't been quite so magical for Glenn Howard and his Ontario champions.
By most barometers, a berth in the Brier would be reason enough to call a curling year a success but that's the problem when you need to measure up to comparisons to yourself.
Howard - nicknamed "The Wizard Of Winter" by his fans - comes into this weekend's national men's curling championship hot on the heels of his eighth straight provincial conquest as a skip.
Unlike last year, when he arrived with something to prove in the minds of many curling fans, this time around Howard takes part with seemingly nothing left to answer for. Before winning his second tankard (as a skip) last March, the wizard's Ontario crew had been champions of all the land just once, while finishing second four times in the six years previous. Then came a win over Alberta's Kevin Koe in the final and a world championship to boot.
“We’re a little bit more inconsistent this year than last year," Howard began, when asked if this season doesn't seem to have the juggernaut feel of 2011-12. "For whatever reason, I’m not sure. We haven’t had as good a year as last year. Last year was kind of a Cinderella year."
Again, the standard is high, with comparisons being made year over year. And the 2011-2012 season was a heady one for the 50 year old skip from Midland, Ontario. The Brier, The Worlds, first place in the Canadian Team Ranking System standings, over $100,000.00 on the World Curling Tour money list. Two Grand Slam Championships and finalist in a third. A spot earned at next December's Olympic Trials.
"To do what we did last year was just incomprehensible," Howard said. "To win as many games as we did and to win the Brier and The Worlds was just unbelievable. So now you come back and try to mirror that year and we’ve been close but not quite as good."
Included in the Howard Four's big season was an undefeated run through the provincials and near perfect runs through both the Brier and the Worlds. So, in comparison, going 7 and 3 at the 2013 Ontario Tankard round robin before beating Joe Frans twice to take the title seems - if unfairly so - like a crack or two might be showing in the hull of that great juggernaut. As well, Howard, vice Wayne Middaugh, second Brent Laing and lead Craig Savill have plummeted to under $40,000.00 won on the money list, stand fourth in the CTRS rankings and missed the playoffs entirely at two slams.
Never mind, says Howard. He claims the foursome's ready to do battle in Edmonton.
"What I’ve really liked, at the end of our provincials we played two of the best games we did the entire year. That’s what I look at. How well we’re playing going in and we’re playing solid. If we got in playing poor to average, I’d definitely be concerned. We definitely are not doing that. We’re playing well.”
So is everybody else, however. Turning his attention to the teams that will be duking it out at Rexall Place between March 2nd and 10th, Howard knows that a deep, deep field is fraught with danger. Losses could come easily if any one of six or seven teams are taken lightly.
“The way I look at it is you take the top two teams in every province or territory and pretty much, one of those two teams is there. That’s pretty impressive. (Brad) Gushue, (Brad) Jacobs, (Jean-Michel) Menard and (James) Grattan - all these guys are right there. And they can beat you at any given time on any given day, but over the long haul, they’re probably in that next group."
That "next" group would be the challengers that fall in line right behind Howard, Kevin Martin and Jeff Stoughton.
“The only difference I think is that those top three teams have been a little more consistent and that’s really all it is," Howard said, flatly.
While Howard obviously takes things seriously when events warrant on the ice, he is not shy about yucking it up and having a good time when he can. Earlier this year, his team tweeted out a picture of him in a sponsor's superhero costume. Part of that happy-go-lucky style will manifest itself in Edmonton, where Howard knows an incomparable Brier experience awaits. "It’s going to be electric in there," he said of Rexall Place.
Not just in the arena. That's why he and his mates will make an effort to hit The Brier Patch and do some socializing.
“We definitely like to go into the patch and partake for sure. That’s all part of the Brier and you don’t want to miss out on that and the fans want to see you in there and having a good time."
Howard, Savill, Laing and Middaugh plan to hand out hockey-style cards of themselves to some of the fans, partly in respsonse to Jeff Stoughton's marketing plan of a Team Stoughton beer cozy photo contest.
Howard says he loves it all, with the game he's mastered still giving him boatloads of joy every time he steps on the ice.
“As silly as it sounds - and this will be my fifteenth go at it - when I get out there on the first day against the first day on the first sheet, I will be just as giddy as I was 26 years ago when I went for my first time."
That's not just The Brier, he insists. Unlike Alberta champ Kevin Martin, who admits not just any game at any time will fire his jets, Howard says he still loves being on pebbled ice for any game.
"I get up for every game. I know what Kevin’s talking about. There are certain games that when you start getting into the playoffs and you’ve gotta bring your 'A' game, it is more exciting, no doubt about it. Because now you’re getting close to the end and you’re starting to taste it.”
Getting to the big games on playoff weekend will once again mean winning the just slightly smaller games through the week. If it seems the reigning world champs might be not quite what they were a year ago and therefore ripe for the picking, that could be a mirage. A trick of the optics of comparing a team to its own lofty accomplishments from the previous season.
The skipper ignores those comparisons and feels the juggernaut is ship-shape.
“Heading in we’re great. I’m really happy," he said.