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Together Again: Curling veterans Howard and Hart hope to rekindle old magic

11/04/2014 02:02 EST | Updated 01/04/2015 05:59 EST
Veteran skip Glenn Howard wasn't sure what to expect when he called on old friend Richard Hart to fill in as a substitute for a week last season.

Hart spent a number of successful campaigns on Howard's team before stepping aside in 2011 to concentrate on the family business. He made a one-off return at a 2013 competition in Brockville, Ont., and was a pleasant surprise.

"He came out, hadn't played at all and played amazing," Howard recalled. "He kind of amazed himself."

A year later and the old teammates are back at it again, this time on a regular basis.

Hart returned to Team Glenn Howard during a busy off-season loaded with big moves around the domestic men's curling scene.

Howard suspected he'd have to replace second Brent Laing, who ended up leaving the rink to join Team Kevin Koe. However, he wasn't expecting the departure of third Wayne Middaugh, who couldn't commit to a full-time schedule.

"I respect that (and) it was obviously very unfortunate to hear that," Howard said in a recent interview. "I was somewhat devastated to lose him because he's unbelievable. One of the best curlers to have ever played."

With lead Craig Savill still on board, Howard first turned his attention to finding Middaugh's replacement. He landed Jon Mead from Jeff Stoughton's old team and quickly started work on adding a second.

Unaware of the changes at the time, Hart sent Howard a text asking when he was going to announce his new lineup. He was surprised to learn that Middaugh was out at third and Mead was in.

Hart let Howard know that he'd love to return at second if there was interest. Howard said it would be a "a no-brainer" for him, but he wanted to touch base with his teammates before finalizing the move.

Savill and Mead were both on board. Mead even suggested that Hart take his spot at third, given the history that Hart and Howard have together.

"I went, 'Wow. What a class act,'" Howard said of the gesture.

Howard and Hart formed the back end of the Ontario rink that won national and world titles in 2007. Both have glowing resumes — Howard is a four-time Brier and world champion while Hart won Olympic silver at the 1998 Nagano Games with skip Mike Harris.

Mead, meanwhile, won national titles with Stoughton in 1999 and 2011. They finished second at the '99 world championship and took gold at the '11 playdowns.

"An unbelievable curler. He's done it all," Howard said of Mead. "Arguably one of the best that ever played and now he's going to play second for me? Like, 'C'mon, it's unbelievable.'"

With his new rink intact, Howard and his teammates got together with family members for some team bonding at Hart's cottage over the summer. A team camp session followed and they were soon back out on the ice.

Strong team chemistry has been a constant with Howard and this lineup looks no different. The new-look team has played well from the start, reaching three straight semifinals at early-season events before falling to Olympic champion Brad Jacobs in a playoff tiebreaker at last week's Masters.

"Jonny has fit in remarkably well," Howard said. "Not a surprise by any stretch. He's just a great guy, a great personality, he likes to have fun, he's got a great sense of humour which fits in on our team because we all do.

"We've had a blast already and we really haven't done anything yet. I think that the chemistry is going to be top notch and I don't expect that to change."

Howard also described Hart's return as "seamless" after three seasons away from the competitive scene.

The team is working now to find that steady rhythm when it comes to things like releases, weight, timing and communication.

"You take it for granted with longtime teammates," Howard said. "That is a little different now, so that's a bit of a learn thing. You can't really get that and put it in place until you play lots of games. So we're going to be working on that and (by) the same token, as that goes on we want to win games."

Annual provincial and national championships are still highlight events for teams, but the sport's inclusion at the Winter Olympics has forced curlers to look at four-year cycles. Howard will be 55 when the Pyeongchang Olympics begin in 2018.

"I haven't come out and said, 'Yeah I'm going to do a four-year run,'" Howard said. "But I'm about 80-90 per cent I'm going to just because I love the guys I have, I think I'm capable, I'm keeping myself personally in great shape.

"I'm in the best shape I've ever been in in my life and you have to at 52. And it is just a number."

For now, the current season has his full attention as he aims to get back to the Brier.

"Sometimes a (lineup) change is great — this one kind of came out of nowhere, it wasn't designed by me by any stretch," Howard said. "But changes are good. You feel renewed. I found I have a little more jump in my step because I've got a new team."

Howard won his first world title way back in 1987. He still has the same spark that he had when he was breaking into the sport decades ago.

"I'm probably a little bit more excited than I have been in years just to see what this team can do," he said. "I've got high hopes and I think we're going to do a lot of damage out on the tour this year."

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Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.

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