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Mead hard to keep down

Nearly retired after tough loss; at top of game with Stoughton

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS archives
Jeff Stoughton (right) and teammate Jon Mead nearly retired together, but a world title in 2011 postponed that.

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BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS archives Jeff Stoughton (right) and teammate Jon Mead nearly retired together, but a world title in 2011 postponed that.

NEEPAWA -- History will record that cold December night in Halifax as the game that very nearly drove Jon Mead from the game.

And yet here he is at the Safeway Championship once again this week, still curling -- maybe better than ever -- more than seven years after his line call in the 10th end of the final of the 2005 Canadian Curling Trials did -- or did not, depending on whom you ask -- cost his team the chance to go to the 2006 Winter Olympics.

Ask Mead and he will tell you he blew that line call as Jeff Stoughton's third in Halifax, and if he hadn't, he and the Stoughton team would have scored a game-tying deuce in that fateful 10th end and headed into an extra end against Brad Gushue with momentum on their side and the Olympics in their sights.

Stoughton, on the other hand, will tell you that is nonsense, that it was his own failure to draw a piece of the button with the final rock of the fourth end against Gushue that gifted the Newfoundlander a steal of two and rendered irrelevant that Mead's failure to call off sweepers in the 10th end resulted in Stoughton's hit-and-roll attempt rolling too far.

"There were a lot of things that happened in that game," Stoughton said Thursday, "long before that 10th end."

Manitoba curling fans still recall how close it was, how that errant Stoughton rock was measured at the conclusion of the 10th end for what would have been the game-tying point and how it was found to be maybe an eighth of an inch outside the rings, sending Gushue to Torino and, ultimately, to the top of the gold-medal podium.

Mead, 45, says that game sent him into a depressive funk that winter that ultimately led to his decision at the end of the 2005-06 season to pack it in forever -- or at least so he thought at the time.

"I was just cooked," Mead said after his team improved to 2-0 at the Manitoba men's curling championship with a 9-2 throttling of West Kildonan's Trevor Loreth.

"We'd invested so much that Olympic year and I was just tired -- tired of playing, tired of being away, tired of making my family work for it -- and all of it to get what seemed like diminishing returns."

Mead spent the following winter sparing for a few different teams on the World Curling Tour, but mostly healing from Halifax. With some renewed enthusiasm for the sport, he then spent the next three seasons curling a reduced cashspiel schedule with Ontario's Wayne Middaugh that kept his toe in the game without having to make the additional commitment that comes with curling in the provincial playdowns as well.

And that's maybe where it would have all ended for Mead had Stoughton and former lead Steve Gould not "ganged up" on Mead -- in Stoughton's words -- following the 2009-10 season and convinced Mead to come curl with them for just one more year the following winter.

Mead says that was all it was supposed to be -- just one more year together. He said both he and Stoughton talked about retiring together after that 2010-11 season, but Mead said they also added one tiny escape clause.

"We figured we'd probably pack it in," Mead recalled, "unless we won a world championship."

And then -- against seemingly all odds -- they went out and did exactly that in April of 2011. Fairy tale, right?

Well, we'll soon find out. After a disappointing 2011-12 season, the Stoughton foursome -- Reid Carruthers and newcomer Mark Nichols round out the front end -- come into this week's provincials curling as well as perhaps any Stoughton-led team ever has.

They are second only to Alberta's Kevin Koe on the WCT money list; they just finished winning a Grand Slam event -- the first Slam victory for Stoughton since 2006; they're the pre-event favourite here to win what would be Stoughton's 10th Manitoba men's title this weekend; and, most importantly, they have a ticket already booked to this December's Canadian Curling Trials at the MTS Centre, where Canada's representatives for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi will be determined.

The poetry of it all is impossible to miss. With Nichols now on the Stoughton team, Mead and Stoughton will have with them at the MTS Centre the same man who crushed their Olympic dreams that night in Halifax at a time when Nichols was still the third for Gushue.

If it all seems a bit unreal -- almost like the plot for a movie, with only the dramatic final scene still to be written -- you're not the only one.

"If you'd told me in 2006, after all we'd been through that winter, that I'd still be playing at this level at this stage of my life," says Mead, "I wouldn't have bet a penny on that.

"But here we are, and I'm shocked every day how well we're playing right now. I can't believe how good this team can be."

The only question now is whether , all these years later, this time it will be good enough.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

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