by Kimberly Tuck
LONDON – You might have seen them sitting behind the scoreboards, watching intently as the games before them unfold, eyeing every stone that is thrown by their team. Staying alert, just in case their call gets heeded: "Put me in, Coach!"
They are the alternates, the official name of the "Fifth Man". Each team is required to bring an alternate from their respective province to slide and sweep in case someone falls ill or gets hurt. Teams employ different reasons for choosing their alternate but, this year, youth seems to be one of the deciding factors. Out of the 12 teams here, nine of the alternates are getting their first Brier experience.
Now, these guys don't just get to come to the Brier and hang out; they will all have specific jobs to do, all of them deemed very important to helping their team get to that end goal of becoming Brier champions. Some of these jobs won't be very exciting, and will be quite laborious... like filling water bottles and carrying out the "snack bag" (okay, well, maybe that happens more at the women's STOH, along with carrying the broom bag, changing broom heads, and things like that).
But are more important tasks like scouting stones during the games (that's where those binoculars come in handy, they aren't just for searching the crowd to see who is here) and when their respective team is off for the evening, you often see them and the coaches sitting in the stands – with notebook and bionics in hand – watching who is throwing what rocks... and what sheet is doing what... and who is playing like what. This information will find its way into team pre-game meetings to help assemble a game plan of how they are going to attack their next opponents.
Some of these guys made it onto the ice for the Hot Shots competition – and some of them got to sweep for players from other teams, not necessarily their own. Cool, eh?
I took a few minutes to talk to some of the alternates who are undergoing the Rookie Brier Experience... to find out how they are enjoying themselves, what exactly it is they do for their team, and how being at the Brier compares to the likes of a Canadian Juniors.
First on my hit list was 25-year-old Alberta alternate Dustin Eckstrand, or "Ducky" as he is so lovingly called (thanks Johnny Mo). I caught Dustin after he entered the eighth end of a 9-2 trouncing of PEI, and I asked him how it all felt: the overall experience, and that first slide.
"It's all been great, and I think that alot has to do with the team I am with," he said. "It's a special feeling to take that first slide in front of the crowd, and the first roar that went up during the Hot Shots gave me goosebumps, and you know you are at the Brier!" When I asked Dustin what role he might have that is somewhat out of the ordinary, his reply made me smile.
He is the team "Wing Man", of sorts. He's the guy that either accompanies essentially Ben Hebert or Johnny Mo (I'm just saying!) when they go out, to make sure they stay on curfew... or if they stay out too late, he's the guy who has to crawl out of bed and go get them! LMAO! I thought only wives did that, eh Wayne? (Tuck that is).
I then caught up with 26-year-old Matt Dumontelle, the alternate for Northern Ontario. The fellow has also been in awe of his first Brier to date, but due to his team's close games he hasn't been able to enter a game yet. Having played in the 2004 Canadian Juniors, I asked Matt how this event compares?
"No comparison at all, it's just unreal," said Dumontelle. "It's a bit of a surreal week, seeing the guys you see on TV all the time and being out there with them, hearing all the comments and taking it all in."
Sunday night Scott Howard of Team (southern) Ontario got his first shot at gracing the sacred ice. The 21-year-old son of skip Glenn Howard was substituted in for Craig Savill in the eighth end. The crowd started to buzz when they realized he was going in, and although he got off to a wobbly start – his practice slide wasn't the most graceful – he dropped his first stone in the top four-foot, just as called, and his second shot ended up in the top eight and directly in line... for a 100 shooting percentage in his first Brier appearance – thank you very much!
The best part was the roar of the crowd when both his shots came to rest... cheerworthy of some crazy Marc or Mark (Kennedy or Nichols) runback quadruple, yes, but this was for precisely-placed draws and, most likely, also for his cute smile and nonchalant waves to the spectators... as if he's done it a million times before.
It has to be special, achieving your first Brier experience in front of a home crowd, but to be able to do this with your father and be a member of one of the top picks to Make The Final! (sorry, Vic)... well, that has to make it all that much more golden.
The only thing possibly better would be the sight of Glenn and Scotty versus Russ and Steven Howard – Ontario versus New Brunswick – and oh, how Grandpa Bill would have loved to see that! Two years ago, three quarters of this gang did in fact have a battle at the Brier, but the addition of Scott would take it to another level.
Makes me wonder... who would have won that battle?
The Curling News photos by Kimberly Tuck; Four Howards photo by Michael Burns/CCA