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Team Howard prepares for last shot at Ontario Tankard spot

Team Glenn Howard is up for any challenge that awaits them this weekend in Bradford.

The Penetanguishene-based rink of Howard, third Richard Hart, second Jon Mead and lead Craig Savill have one last shot to qualify for the 2015 Recharge With Milk Tankard — the Ontario men’s provincial championship — with the two final spots up for grabs at the Challenge Round running Friday through Sunday at the Bradford & District Curling Club.

Continuing their pursuit of the Ontario title and a berth to the Brier came with a price. Team Howard had to drop out of the high-profile Pinty’s All-Star Curling Skins Game as the event’s schedule conflicted with the Challenge Round.

“It was a really, really tough decision for us, maybe one of the toughest ones I’ve had to make in curling,” Hart said. “The Skins Game is such an incredible event, one that all of us have been really lucky to play in over the years. We enjoy it so much and there’s such a great opportunity there.

“At the same time, the Brier — even after all these years and so many trips to it — is still really close to us and to give up our last chance to go into the Brier, as much as it feels like a real long shot for us right now, there’s still a chance and we felt like we really had to take every avenue possible to make it there.”

The Skins Game’s loss is the Challenge Round’s gain and Hart said he’s looking forward to seeing the turnout in Bradford.

“It’s fun for us and at the same time I still enjoy going to smaller venues and local clubs in small towns to curl and meet some of the fans. It’s usually a pretty good environment as well,” Hart said. “We’re looking forward to the Challenge Round and put it all out there this weekend. We’re putting a lot into it in terms of team practices and trying to just be ready for anything that comes our way.”

Team Howard had an eight-year run as Ontario champions come to an end after falling to Team Mark Bice (skipped by Greg Balsdon) in last season’s final. The defending champ is the only team that receives a bye to the Ontario Tankard and Howard had to start from scratch this year to seek redemption.

Howard made it through the zone playdowns in December but came up short during the double knockout regional stage two weeks ago in Gravenhurst. Team Cory Heggestad of Markdale and Kitchener-Waterloo’s Team Aaron Squires advanced out of the group, but Howard’s elimination led to speculation on CurlingZone’s message board about what went wrong with the team. Hart wrote a reply on the board to clear the air and quash all the hearsay.

“It felt like there were a lot of things being said on behalf of Team Howard, but Team Howard wasn’t saying anything,” Hart explained. “At no time did we criticize the ice or not give credit to the people who won the event and I just felt like, number one, the teams that won that week need to get credit for that. They were the champions that weekend, so I hate when that happens.

“Number two, there were issues with the ice, no question, but at the same time I wanted people to have the facts. The home club and the home ice-maker, he did what he could do, just the rocks at that location are smooth on the bottom and they just don’t curl. It doesn’t matter what ice you put those rocks on they won’t curl, so the ice-maker’s hands were really tied. I wanted people to know this was a person who was diligent in doing everything he could and I’m sure he was losing sleep over it.”

Hart left his e-mail address at the bottom of the message and said he received a lot of positive feedback including responses from ice-makers and the teams who won that weekend in Gravenhurst.

“It was great because you don’t know, it could go the other direction,” Hart said. “When you put your e-mail and your name out there those posters could really turn their venom on you but it didn’t happen this time so that was good.”

It’s been quite the curling odyssey for Hart, who originally decided to hang up the broom in 2011 after a remarkable career that saw him win the silver medal at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, with Team Mike Harris as well as capture eight Grand Slams, six Ontario Tankard titles, one Brier and one world championship with Team Howard. Hart came out of retirement to rejoin Howard this season and said the year has been exciting so far.

“Obviously we’ve had some good events and some not-so-good events but that’s curling. In terms of my enjoyment it’s just fantastic,” Hart said. “We’ve curled a ton, a lot of road trips, it’s exhilarating and exciting to just get out there and compete again and put everything you have into something. It stirs that competitive fire in me that’s been kind of asleep for a few years.”