BASEL, Switzerland — Whether it’s the rocking atmosphere of the Tim Hortons Brier or the relative serenity of the world men’s curling championship, Canada skip Glenn Howard just keeps doing what he does best.
Winning — and doing it with remarkable consistency.
Howard picked up victories over Germany and the United States on Sunday to remain unbeaten at 3-0. The veteran Ontario skip lost only once en route to the national title last month and hasn’t slowed down here in his pursuit of a fourth career world title.
The only differences have been the international opposition and the intensity of the crowds.
The Credit Union Centre in Saskatoon was a curling madhouse for the national championships. The St. Jakobshalle is like a library by comparison.
“It’s sort of more like a club game,” Howard said after his win in the morning draw. “You’re out on the ice and you don’t hear as much.”
That’s an understatement. It was so quiet during the morning game that banter between curlers could easily be heard from the stands.
The occasional cheer, the steady whirr of stones sliding down the ice and buzz from the brushers were essentially the only sounds in the rather cavernous 9,000-seat venue.
Official attendance figures weren’t released but organizers estimated that 800 spectators were on hand in the morning. A manual head count revealed less than half that number.
At the midway point of the draw, there were 65 spectators on one side and 158 fans on the other.
A total of 77 fans took in the action from the grandstand and 34 fans sat at the VIP tables.
Add it up for a grand total of 334 spectators.
To be fair, only two of the four sheets were in action, the host side was idle and this picturesque city was bathed in spring sunshine. It’s hard to blame the locals for spending time on a cafe patio or taking in the scenery of the nearby Rhine River.
However, when a similar draw was played last month at the women’s world championships in Lethbridge — a two-game draw with the host side idle — over 1,900 fans took in the action. That’s well over five times the attendance here Sunday morning.
“We played in Saskatoon and the crowd was absolutely crazy,” Howard said.
“Obviously not so much for us but it was really loud and it does get the adrenalin pumping. It gets you excited, you get goose bumps when people are cheering and it definitely kind of gets you in the game a little bit.
“A bit of that game atmosphere. Obviously here there’s not as many people but you have to be aware of that.”
Curling is actually quite popular in Switzerland. The European country boasts 160 clubs and 8,000 registered curlers.
Switzerland has also picked up some impressive international victories. Patrick Hurlimann won men’s curling gold at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano and Mirjam Ott won the women’s world title last month.
Armin Harder, the head of high performance with the Swiss Curling Association, expects attendance to pick up through the week.
“You’ll probably get the best crowds here in Europe in this area because it’s fairly central,” he said. “You have the city of Zurich not too far away, the city of Bern is also a big curling centre. We’ll probably get a pretty good crowd.
“Obviously not comparable to Canada, but 2,000, 3,000 people would be a pretty good crowd here.”
Attendance picked up later in the day when the host side was in action. Organizers estimated about 1,800 fans were on hand in the afternoon and the same figure was given for the evening draw.
Howard was at a loss to explain why packed houses are the norm back home but the sport is nowhere near as popular abroad.
“I can’t answer that. The birthplace was Scotland, it’s obviously huge in Scotland but still not nearly as big as it is in Canada,” he said. “We just seemed to adopt it back in the day and flourished with it. It was one of those cold environments and it’s one of those cold weather sports I guess.
“Nothing else to do in the winter, that and play hockey.”
After opening the competition with a win over France, Howard crushed Germany’s John Jahr 9-2 in six ends before edging American Heath McCormick 8-7 in the evening game.
Howard hit a draw to the four-foot in the 10th end to win it.
“You just divorce yourself from the outcome, just throw a quality curling shot and good things will happen,” Howard said. “I was pleased. We played really well that game.”
The American skip scored single points in the eighth and ninth ends to pull even.
“Heath McCormick put on a one-man wrecking crew highlight reel,” Howard said. “He was making so many great shots. That’s what happens when the opposing skip makes a ton of shots — you have good games.”
Sweden defeated the Czech Republic 8-5 to remain tied with Canada at 3-0 after five draws. China, Denmark, France and Scotland are next at 2-1.
The Czechs, Germany, Norway and New Zealand are 1-2 while the Americans and host Switzerland are winless at 0-3.
Howard said he and teammates Wayne Middaugh, Brent Laing and Craig Savill are feeling good after the opening weekend.
“I see a little more confidence as we go and that’s typical of the week,” he said. “You’re always getting comfortable with the surroundings, you’re getting comfortable with the ice.
“I see all four of us are doing that now and that just builds confidence in all of us.”
Round-robin play continues through Thursday night and playoff games are scheduled for the weekend. Teams also have an opportunity to earn Olympic qualifying points for their countries at the competition.
Howard’s previous world titles came in 1987, 1993 and 2007. He teamed with Laing, Savill and Richard Hart to win his last world championship.
Middaugh joined the Ontario team prior to this season after Hart’s retirement.
Manitoba’s Jeff Stoughton beat Scotland 6-5 in last year’s world championship in Regina.