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Laing & Savill’s paths come full circle

As it turned out, in order for second Brent Laing to win another Canadian Beef Masters title, he needed to play alongside lead Craig Savill once again.

Laing and Savill captured the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling major title six times during their tenure together with Glenn Howard’s squad. Their paths diverged during the previous Olympic cycle and although Laing soared with Kevin Koe — winning Brier and world titles and representing Canada at the Winter Olympics — their club came up just short at the Masters.

The front-end pair reunited this season linking up with skip John Epping and third Mat Camm and it was like they had never left each other’s side. Team Epping defeated Team Koe no less in last month’s Canadian Beef Masters men’s final 7-4.

“I can’t win this one without him,” Laing said. “I guess this is a lead’s spiel. This Slam you need the best lead. This is the only one that’s proven.”

Laing has won 16 Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling titles in total, 15 of them majors, which ranks him tops amongst non-skips. The 39-year-old from Horseshoe Valley, Ont., said he doesn’t think about the total count a ton only wondering when the next one will come.

“In the last four years (with Team Koe), we only won one Players’ and a Tour Challenge and we had a pretty good run,” he said. “They’re hard to win, really hard to win, so you never know when you’re going to win any more. If 15 (majors) is the number, that’s pretty crazy. All it really says is that I’ve been on some great teams with some great skips and great thirds and we’ve had a lot of fun, a lot of success.”

Savill, who was within earshot, chimed in — “What about leads?” — but Laing shut him down replying it’s a back-end game. That’s how it goes between the two and has since the ’90s when they played against each other in junior before Laing joined forces with Savill and his skip, the one and only John Morris (Who? Oh wait, you may have heard of him). Laing doesn’t recall the exact moment he met Savill, who turned 40 years old during the Canadian Beef Masters, but not a lot has changed since.

“My first impression was the same as it is today: He was a goof,” Laing said. “He was the guy that was making people laugh and always joking around, just a guy you wanted to be around and entertaining to say the least.”

Team Morris established themselves as the next big thing in curling winning back-to-back Canadian junior and world junior gold medals in 1998 and 1999. They managed to carry that success over into men’s play as the young phenoms competed at the 2001 Olympic Trials and finished runner-up at the 2002 Brier and 2003 Players’ Championship.

“That was really the start of my curling career and seeing what success was like and being around people who, not just talking about success but put plans in place to go out and get it,” Laing said. “John set crazy-high goals. Well, I thought they were crazy but he’s achieved every single one of them, so I guess they weren’t that high for him.

“That was the first group of people where I was around that really believed we could win everything, we could win anything and even at a young age. John really thought we could win Briers at 21 and we came pretty close early on.”

Nothing lasts forever and the team broke up in 2003 with Morris moving west to the mountains of Alberta, a fitting scenery for the metaphor of his life as he continued to climb even crazier highs winning Olympic gold medals in men’s and mixed doubles play. Back in Ontario, things were more grounded. Laing joined skip Heath McCormick for a year while Savill went to work bugging Glenn Howard and Richard Hart about dropping their front-end players, Collin and Jason Mitchell, and adding them instead.

“We cornered them a few times in the bar and said, ‘You should dump them and play with us. We’d be a great team together,’” Savill said. “It was at the end of the year and I still remember I was at the bar and I was watching the Sens and Leafs play in a playoff game. I got a call from Brent and he says, ‘I just got a call from Glenn and he wants us to play with him next year.’ I remember thinking, holy cow, what an opportunity. I said to him, ‘Well, play it cool and don’t phone him back right away. Make it look like we have some options.’ It was a pretty easy decision. That’s who we wanted to play with so it worked out perfectly.”

Laing added: “That was a special team just how well we got along together and how much we enjoyed each other’s company. The time in the game, as far as those years, it was different than it is now and not that it was better or worse it was just different. There was more socializing, we had more fun off of the ice with other teams and just amongst ourselves. … That was an epic run that we’ll always look back on. As many good memories off of the ice as on with that team, for sure.”

Laing and Savill won just about everything during their time with Team Howard: two Brier titles, two world championships and 12 Grand Slams among numerous other tour events.

“Four guys that just had a riot together playing. It didn’t matter if we were winning or losing, we were always laughing and having a time,” Savill said. “I remember someone talking to us and said, ‘The scariest part about playing you guys is that even if we’re up on you guys by a couple points, you guys seem to be having a good time still and it’s really frustrating because we know you’re going to eventually come back.’ I kind of took that to heart and said that was part of our team. We just got along so well. So much talent with Rich and Glenn, as well, which made it easier, of course.”

Things changed once more at the conclusion of the Olympic cycle in 2014 when Howard’s future was a question mark and third Wayne Middaugh (who took over for Hart in 2011) also needing time to think about his future. Laing couldn’t wait around though as Ben Hebert approached him with an offer he couldn’t refuse by asking if he’d like to join his new Alberta-based team with Kevin Koe and Marc Kennedy.

“I knew that team was going to do really well and if I can be a part of that, how do I say no to that?” Laing said. “Our team was a little bit up in the air. Wayne wasn’t sure what he was doing. We really hadn’t even talked about it. It was a difficult conversation when we sat down. …

“It was the right decision at the time. It sucked. It sucked leaving Craig, it sucked leaving Glenn and even Wayne, who I didn’t have as much history with but we had a great time and a great team with Wayne too. It’s just one of those decisions, I won’t use any cliches about it being a business decision because it certainly wasn’t. It was a selfish decision on my part as far as I thought I was doing what was best for me at the time. It turned out that worked out fairly well, too.”

Savill took it pretty hard as he said Laing’s decision to leave came out of the blue.

“I had no idea it was going to happen that he was leaving,” Savill said. “You lose your best friend to another team, a guy you’re hanging out with every weekend and then all of a sudden you’re not. … It wasn’t the same dynamics on our team after that.”

Savill stuck with Team Howard for another year until he was dropped from the lineup in favour of Glenn’s son, Scott Howard.

“That’s sport. Sometimes you get cut,” Savill said. “I understood why he did it, he wanted to play with his son and having a son myself, yeah, that would be cool. I was disappointed, of course, because I played with Glenn for so long and he made my curling career. It was hard to leave and I always thought I was going to stick with him until his career was done. That was my plan and I’m pretty loyal that way. I didn’t want to leave but I could understand. I had no hard feelings. That’s sport, that’s what happens so get over with it.”

Savill joined Nova Scotia’s Shawn Adams with his eyes set on competing in the 2016 Tim Hortons Brier, taking place near his home in Ottawa. His Brier journey didn’t come to fruition though as Savill was forced to step away from the game in late 2015 when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Even though Laing was making cross-country trips competing for one of the top teams in the world, he stayed close to Savill while his friend was undergoing treatments.

“I’ll never forget when Craig called and I certainly didn’t expect that. I can’t even imagine how difficult it was for him,” Laing said. “For me, we were thinking about him lots and talking to him more than I probably would generally just because of what he was going through. We made a trip or two to Ottawa. We were there for his first treatment. For me, it was a scary experience so I can’t even imagine what he was going through but he handled it extremely well. I’m sure on the inside he was not doing as well as he appeared and that sucked.

“Everybody has a story about somebody they care about that has had cancer and luckily for Craig and for me, that story has a good ending at this point. He’s cancer-free and looking as good as ever and back to his cocky, funny self.”

Savill appreciated the support he received from Laing as well as from the entire curling community.

“I couldn’t imagine going through something like this and not having that positivity behind me,” Savill said. “Every time I watched a Slam that year and they’d do a shout out to me or the players got together and wished me well, I got so many messages from both the players and the fans as well, which means so much. I realized after going through this that those little messages, text messages saying, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ or ‘Thinking of you,’ they mean so much. It doesn’t seem like a lot but to the person on the other end it means the whole world to them.

“I’m pretty fortunate for Brent to be able to come down and he came down for my first treatment and walked me through it. It’ll be something I’ll never forget for him helping me through.”

Although Savill didn’t get the opportunity to actually compete for the Brier, he was named an honourary fifth man and threw a pair of rocks for Howard’s Ontario team in an unexpected but emotional moment.

“I didn’t want to throw a rock or anything. I just wanted to be with the guys that week and sort of hang out again,” Savill said. “It was pretty nice Curling Canada and the players got together and they helped arrange for me to get on the ice for the one draw. I still remember, I was in the middle of my treatments, I was sleeping all day so I’d have the energy at night just to be up and around. Getting out there and being behind the coach’s bench was a pretty nice feeling.”

Once Savill was declared cancer-free, the wheels were in motion for his curling comeback. Savill joined Alberta’s Charley Thomas for part of the 2016-17 season before latching on with Manitoba’s Reid Carruthers as his alternate leading into the Olympic Trials in Ottawa.

The conclusion of every curling quadrennial brings a flurry of lineup changes and just about everyone was open for business including Epping. Savill saw this as his opportunity to return to full-time competition for real.

“I had been talking to John Epping for a while. I kind of looked and said I wanted to get back into the game but there were only a handful of skips I wanted to play with,” Savill said. “I wanted to either have a chance at being a No. 1 team or I don’t want to curl. I have too much going on in my life with work and my family. After talking to my wife and her saying she’s supporting me and let’s get back out there, I think she missed it as well.

“I looked around and called John Epping and said I want to play with you. Alright, let’s start finding a team together. I didn’t think Brent was going to be in the mix. I thought he was going to be staying with Koe and when I started talking to him he said, ‘I’d like to play with you again,’ and there’s a possibility. Things kind of fell into place pretty quickly after that.”

Laing happened to become available as things didn’t end up working out on his end with the Koe crew.

“I pretty quickly figured that me living in Ontario was a problem, obviously. We’d have some residency problems if we didn’t have somebody in Alberta … so that wasn’t really playing well for me,” Laing said. “Being that I’m closer to the end of my career than the start, that wasn’t playing all that well for me either.

“Of course, the first thought is, OK, what if I’m not on Team Koe, what is it that I want to do? Do I want to keep playing and who would I even consider playing with? It was a really short list, to be honest. I only made one call, I mean I talked to Craig about it, but I only made one call and that was to John and then it all came together. Any team I was going to be on was going to include Craig and it had to be with people who I really respected and enjoyed to spend more time around. So with Mat and John, that came together pretty quickly and pretty easily.

“Some people treat it just as a business and all I’m here to do is win and that’s never been that for me. Winning has been a huge part of it and success is a ton of fun and what we’re all after and what we work hard for, but if I don’t enjoy the people I’m around, I’m never going to keep going. I really enjoy the company of these guys. It was never a question mark with Craig and I never questioned Mat and John but I didn’t know them that well. You get to know people pretty quickly when you start rooming with them five and six days a week, two and three weeks a month and so far it’s been great.”

The new-look Team Epping found success in short order winning in just their second tour event together at September’s Shorty Jenkins Classic. Their Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling debut as a foursome resulted in a semifinal finish at the Princess Auto Elite 10 and was followed with their aforementioned title victory at the Canadian Beef Masters.

Winning is key, but so is having fun as it’s been the case for Laing and Savill during their time together with Morris, Howard and now Epping.

“It’s pretty cool playing with Brent again, obviously,” Savill said. “He’s one of my best friends in the game and to be able to come back and just compete and play with … three great guys and just play with this team it’s a lot of fun. We have a lot of fun on tour and travelling and stuff, it makes it easy.”