Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Third is second to none

Mead brilliant while fighting ghosts of past

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LONDON, Ont. -- He has never curled better.

By any measure -- statistically, situationally or just that one incredible game against Alberta on Wednesday night -- Jon Mead has performed as well at the 2011 Tim Hortons Brier as he has ever performed in his hall of fame curling career.

He has consistently been the best player on the ice this week, not only for Manitoba but in the entire field. And when the Canadian Curling Reporters announce their Brier all-star team Sunday morning, they will almost certainly anoint Mead as the first-team third.

All of which is why it was so striking the other day that, in this forum in which he has shone perhaps brighter than ever before, Mead is still talking about the lights going out on his curling career, sooner rather than later.

There are kids at home (Sophie, 8, Charlotte, 1), he says, and a new job enticing businesses to set up shop in Winnipeg.

But as much as what is going on in his life off the ice right now, it is what happened in his life on the ice that one cold night in Halifax six years ago that has Mead talking about leaving the sport forever, even at the very time he has reached its apex.

"To be honest," Mead mused the other night, "I'm really not sure I'd want to put myself through that kind of experience again. That was a very difficult thing to go through and, like I say, I'm still not entirely over it even now.

"Emotionally, I just don't know I have what it takes anymore after going through that once."

-- -- --

"That" was this.

On Dec. 11, 2005, before a full house at the Metro Centre in Halifax, Jon Mead, Jeff Stoughton, Garry Vandenberghe and Steve Gould stepped on the ice against Newfoundland's Brad Gushue.

At stake -- the right to represent Canada in curling two months later at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin.

Team Stoughton had few fans in the crowd that night. For one thing, with both Nova Scotia men's teams -- Shawn Adams and Mark Dacey -- floundering that week, the locals adopted Gushue as their Atlantic Canada favourite.

But there was also another thing that had the fans so fired up against Stoughton that the Canadian Curling Association brought in extra security that night just in case things got out of hand.

A few weeks before the Trials, the Free Press had asked Stoughton to handicap the Trials field. He was brutally honest, saying he felt Gushue has "no chance."

Gushue took it as a slight to his team, but the folks in Halifax took it as a slight to all of Atlantic Canada.

The game went badly immediately and by the fourth end Gushue led 6-2.

But to their credit, Stoughton battled back, scoring deuces in the fifth and eight ends to head home for the 10th end trailing by just two at 8-6, but holding hammer and hope.

Stoughton was already lying one behind a cover guard when he went to throw his first skip rock -- an open hit-and-stay to lie a game-tying two.

What happened after that depends on who you talk to. Stoughton, Vandenberghe and Gould will tell you Stoughton maybe threw his rock just a little outside, causing it to remove the Gushue stone but also roll a sliver outside the rings.

But Mead told a different story after the game, taking all the blame for what he felt was a blown line call.

Whoever was to blame, the game, the 2005 Trials and Mead's Olympic dream ended two rocks later when a CCA official swung a measuring stick to the edge of the rings and determined that the game-tying rock, the one Mead blamed on himself, was maybe five millimetres outside the rings.

Gushue 8 Stoughton 7.

-- -- --

Mead was crushed, announcing shortly afterward that he was leaving the Stoughton team at the end of the winter, even as Gushue was winning gold in Italy.

But while he left Stoughton, Mead never really did entirely leave curling, banging around on a few makeshift foursomes over the intervening years, including an Ontario-based team with Wayne Middaugh.

And then Stoughton came calling again last spring, asking Mead if he would like to reunite not just the partnership that broke his heart in 2005, but also the partnership that won the 1999 Brier and came within an extra end of the world championship that year.

Mead was wary, but agreed to a one-year commitment only.

Or at least that was the plan. Because what's happened in the interim, no one could have predicted.

Newly invigorated, with Gould back at lead and a new second in Reid Carruthers, the renewed Stoughton-Mead partnership quickly rediscovered the old magic. There were final appearances in two Grand Slam events, a semifinal appearance in another and then an undefeated run through the Manitoba playdowns.

And then there was a 6-0 run here at the Brier that culminated in a 9-2 round-robin record and a playoff berth.

And through it all, there have also been eerie reminders here calling out to Mead of that night in Halifax that he has failed so mightily, despite his best efforts, to forget.

First, there was the announcement, in this week of all weeks, that the next Olympic Trials will be played in Winnipeg, of all places.

And then there was the close of the round-robin Thursday night and the realization that his team had finished second to Newfoundland's Brad Gushue, of all teams.

That set up another showdown with Gushue, this time in Friday night's Page playoff 1-2 game. The stakes were huge again -- a berth in Sunday's Brier final -- but lacked the same finality this time, with the loser on Friday getting a second chance in today's semifinal.

It all begged the obvious question of a man who seems so determined to leave behind the game, even if it's not yet ready to leave him behind -- Ever get the feeling someone is trying to send you a message?

"Playing in the Trials in Winnipeg is still really not on my radar right now," Mead maintains. "By that time I'd be, what, 46, 47 years old. Just because Glenn Howard can do it doesn't mean I can do it.

"If something turns around and everything lines up and I get a certain mojo back to go do it, I can't imagine a more entertaining experience in my life.

"But if I had to lay a bet today, I can't imagine I'd do it. It's just too much -- too much emotionally and too much to ask in my situation. But who knows? If we win a world championship this year, we'll see.

"But at some point you have to make choices -- you really do."

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 12, 2011 C4

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