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Former Canadian and world champ from Northern Ontario faces Jacobs crew

VICTORIA - Al Hackner still has a Maple Leaf in his heart — but not on his sleeve.

The Canadian curling legend's loyalties were tested Monday as the U.S. rink he now helps coach faced Canada's Brad Jacobs at the world men's championships.

Jacobs is trying to become the first skip from Northern Ontario to win a world title since Hackner triumphed in 1985.

"The fact that they're from that area makes it even harder to wish for an American team to win," said Hackner. "I'm sort of wishing for (Canada) to win, too."

The Thunder Bay, Ont., native is in his first season with the U.S. national program's coaching staff. The opportunity arose after he coached a team in Duluth, Minn.

Working with head coach Ken Trask, Hackner helps mentor U.S. skip Brady Clark, who is making his first appearance at the worlds following the Seattle rink's upset win at the American national championship in February.

But Hackner is more familiar with Jacobs' Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., team than the one he helps coach.

"They're a West Coast team, and I'm much more familiar with the Minnesota and North Dakota and Wisconsin teams," said Hackner. "That's the hub of the American curling powerhouse teams."

Hackner is a close friend of Eric Harnden, the father of Canadian front-end brother act E.J. and Ryan Harnden. Rick Lang, the Canadian team leader, was third on Hackner's world championship rink and the two still curl with and against each other in Thunder Bay.

Those factors did not make Hackner's loyalty test any easier.

"You always seem to cheer for your home," said Hackner, a retired CN Rail conductor. "We've gone, obviously 28 years of someone else winning (the Brier.)

"We didn't even make it into the final. There was always some sort of backside chirping about getting rid of Northern Ontario's spot (in the Brier.) So it was really nice to see Northern Ontario come to the front and be a top team."

But American skip Clark has not sensed any of Hackner's concerns.

"I feel like he's totally behind us, and I'm very happy to have him as a resource for us," said Clark.

He praised Hackner's even-keeled nature, and knowledge of other teams, scouting and strategy. Ideally, Hackner would like to see the U.S. and Canada in the final, but he is not sure how he would handle such a situation.

"It would almost be easier if it didn't happen," said Hackner.

He is not the only one facing a loyalty test this week. A number of other Canadians are coaching other teams. Czech coach and Montreal native Daniel Rafael said he is often asked how he could coach against Canada.

But Rafael, who has been coaching full-time since 2008 following a 25-year career in a school board's printing department, has not problem putting a pay cheque before patriotism.

"As much as I love Canada, I get paid to do a job. If it means leaving Canada, then so be it," said Rafael, who has also coached in China, Italy, and France as well as Canada.

Other Canadian coaching ex-patriots here include Lorne Hamblin of Morris, Man., a co-coach with the Chinese team that appears to be a strong contender for a playoff berth. Hamblin, who has also coached in other countries, has chosen five national team members from 12 candidates.

"We've watched them over 100 games. We analyzed them, we videoed them, we watch releases, we look at stats, we look at many things, attitude — the whole picture," said Hamblin. "It's just a package that we've developed to decide who the players are."

Another Canadian, Roger Schmidt of Neudorf, Sask., serves as a coach in Russia's national program.

Canadian team leader Lang does not have a problem with Hackner or other Canucks who choose to guide other teams at worlds.

"Why wouldn't you do that?" he asked. "It only makes sense. When we want to excel in another sport on the international level, we bring in some of the top-notch coaches, so it's all fair game, and good for them.

"The stronger curling is (worldwide), the better it is for Canada."

Hackner works on a year-to-year basis with the Americans and is hoping to remain with the program for several years.

Despite his world-championship pedigree, he is not qualified to work with the Canadian Curling Association.

"I never took any of those (national coaching certification courses) so, basically, in Canada, I can't coach anybody," said Hackner.

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