EXCLUSIVE: Hart leaves Team Howard

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Middaugh to replace the man who played for just two skips in a 21-year career

Richard Hart embraces Criag Savill at the 2011 Brier

Richard Hart embraces Craig Savill at the 2011 Brier

by George Karrys

TORONTO – Richard Hart has retired from high-performance curling by announcing his departure from Team Glenn Howard, one of the most successful high-performance foursomes to ever play The Roaring Game.

The 2007 world champion and 1998 Olympic silver medallist had already taken a partial step back from the sport this past season, dropping his commitment to Team Howard's World Curling Tour schedule by three tournaments. While not necessarily unexpected to some, his decision will nevertheless send shock waves throughout the sport.

Consistently ranked in the top three teams in the world – or pretty much the the top two alongside Alberta's Kevin Martin – Team Howard has been a veritable curling machine for the past seven years. Heavily backed by sponsorship dollars and virtually unparalleled in their consistency of winning, the foursome are all charter members of the National Team program; they own and operate a profitable Fantasy Curling Camp; and they even have a professional video documentary set for release late in 2011 or early in 2012.

Yet Hart has chosen to walk away.

Team Howard does "Movember" to fight cancer in 2008

Team Howard does "Movember" to fight cancer in 2008

The 42-year-old lefthander informed longtime teammates Howard, Brent Laing and Craig Savill of his decision on Wednesday. He spoke exclusively with The Curling News late Thursday morning.

"Man, has this been a tough decision," said Hart. "This is something (wife) Margaret and I have been thinking about and talking about for the last four or five months. I mean, I don't think a day's gone by when we haven't discussed it. We tried to figure it out, tried to figure out a way that we could somehow continue on, but we just couldn't come up with it.

"I am permanently retired from high-performance curling," Hart continued.

"With the way the game's changed over the last 10 years, to compete at that level you have to be willing to make that time commitment... and I just couldn't. If you want to be the best... it's not just a matter of signing up for a bonspiel and throwing a few rocks anymore."

"I'm definitely looking forward to taking a full season off."

Gosh, those guys were colourful!

Gosh, those guys were colourful!

Inevitably, Hart's decision centered around his career. As a project manager and vice president of his family-owned electrical engineering firm based in Pickering, Ontario, increased work responsibilities had become a factor. With a senior partner in the firm set to retire this year, the pressure had climbed a notch.

Just a few short weeks ago, Team Kevin Koe lost third Blake MacDonald to his busy work schedule plus family commitments. MacDonald, who has been replaced by Saskatchewan's Pat Simmons, actually planned to quit the highest levels of the sport a year ago, but postponed his decision by a year after Team Koe won the 2010 Brier and world championship.

Just prior to the London Brier in March, longtime Team Brad Gushue third Mark Nichols announced he was taking a hiatus from the sport, although he stressed that he was not retiring.

"I've been going through it in my mind for so long now, and it's just that there was nothing else I could do," said Hart. "My two options were to basically turn pro as a curler, and leave my work as I know it right now, or the other way... to leave curling and start focussing more on work.

"We talked a little bit on the weekend (at the Players' Championship in Grande Prairie), but not too much," Hart revealed. "I basically left it that I would call the guys next week, as there were a couple more things I wanted to look into. But I called them all yesterday, and told them I couldn't continue.

"It's emotional for me, for sure. It's really hard. One of the things that I considered in this decision – and it's nothing you can really control – but one of the toughest things that I'm afraid of giving up is my friendship with the guys, because you just don't know how it's going to all play out.

"When it's all said and done, Team Howard's record in terms of win-losses is right there for everybody to see, but that's not really how I evaluate our team. It was so much more than that for me, and for the guys as well. It was about four great friends who played the game the way we wanted to play it.

"That's what I'm going to miss. We'll still be friends obviously, but now for half the year they're going to be unavailable, they'll be busy competing, and I now won't be. So I look forward to spending some time with them this summer, and playing some golf, but at the end of the day I spent half my year... probably spending as much time with those guys as I did with my family. And it will never be the same, just because of that."

Hart has definitely left the door open to play the game he loves in the future – just not at the elite level.

Hart with the 1998 Mike Harris Olympic team at Edmonton in 2009

Hart with the 1998 Mike Harris Olympic team (Edmonton 09)

"The stuff I love about curling is still there, so if I were to get back into it I would be looking into playing in local bonspiels with good friends," said Hart. "After I told Glenn (my decision) I mentioned that when he's finished with this next Olympic run, if he wants to get together play for some fun I'd be up for that.

"I find it hard to believe I won't be throwing rocks at all, even once in a while by myself, after practicing almost every day for 20 years."

Hart, who plans to spend more time with his bantam-aged sons and their budding curling careers, also believes his ex-teammates will soldier on.

"They're disappointed for sure, but they totally understand where I'm coming from," said Hart. "And Team Howard's success will continue, with whoever they decide to pick up and replace me with. There's no doubt in my mind that they're going to continue on and do great things."

The early frontrunner for Hart's spot was always going to be ex-Howard teammate Wayne Middaugh, who replaced Hart three times on the WCT this season. Middaugh shone in one particular event, the Canada Cup, in which the modified Team Howard won the title with a classic victory over Martin (remember Hart ♥ Middaugh?)

Indeed, as word began to spread around the curling world, Middaugh confirmed that he had signed up to replace Hart on Team Howard.

Hart's legacy may well be unmatched as the ultimate third; a man who never chose to move up and skip a team himself.

"It's been seven years with this team, 11 years with Glenn overall and 10 years with Mike (Harris)," said Hart. "21 years of curling and I've played for just two skips. I'm pretty proud of that, and of all that those teams accomplished."

Anil Mungal photos copyright Capital One and/or The Curling News • Olympic Team 1998 photo by Michael Burns– click images to increase size