By Martin Cleary
Howard Rajala has closed the file on his first world men’s senior curling championship as skip of the Canadian side.
And he has every right to stamp one word on the outside: PERFECT.
Right from the intriguing start to the celebratory, gold-medal finish, everything evolved the way a competitive athlete would want it. But Rajala would never let his mind drift into that dangerous zone, although it did ever-so-briefly in the championship game before he gave himself a shake.
Being at the world men’s senior championship with 23 other national champions in Gangneung, Korea, was one overwhelming achievement in itself, after winning his first Canadian title in three attempts in December.
And being on the ice halfway around the world with best friends third Rich Moffatt, second Chris Fulton, lead Paul Madden and alternate Phil Daniel made it even more special.
In the spectator stands, the members of Rajala’s Rideau Curling Club rink were enthusiastically supported by their families and those from the Canadian women’s rink skipped by Sherry Anderson of Saskatoon. Anderson led her team to the women’s gold medal with an 8-4 decision over Scotland’s Jackie Lockhart.
In the double-Canadian-gold-championship-ending photo session, the Canadian contingent of 25 players, coaches and family members gathered for the ultimate picture.
When it came to the actual curling, life just kept getting better every day, except for one little bobble.
The daily ice conditions were highly rated by the Canadians and contributed to the superior play by the Rajala team.
In the seven-game round-robin, where Rajala played one game each day, Canada posted a 6-1 record and finished second in Group A. Five of Rajala’s matches ended early as Denmark (12-0), Belgium (6-1), Czech Republic (7-4), Poland (11-2) and Japan (10-3) conceded with one or two ends remaining. Rajala also defeated Finland 7-3.
Canada’s only loss was to Hungary, when the winners used the hammer to score two in the eighth end. Hungary won Group A at 7-0.
Day 8 was the most difficult day for any team eyeing the championship final as two wins were needed to play for gold. Rajala’s rink more than met that challenge and again wasted little time solving the puzzle each time in six ends.
Canada scored points in all but one of its six ends and turned back Bill Gray’s Ireland squad 9-1 in its quarterfinal. Rajala continued that early scoring pattern by counting points in the first three ends of its semifinal for a 6-0 lead and defeated Joel Larway of the United States 8-2.
The gold-medal game was no different and had a familiar shaking-of-the-hands ceremony after six ends. Canada scored two in the first and stole one in the second before adding two in each of the fourth and sixth ends to defeat Scotland’s Graeme Connal 7-2.
Russell Curling Club’s Bryan Cochrane brought the world men’s senior curling title to Ottawa for the first time in 2019, after a 5-4 win over Sweden’s Mats Wrana. Former Ottawa curler Bruce Delaney placed second at the 2010 worlds to the United States, while he was representing New Brunswick.
Rajala knew Connal as one of the top men’s curlers back in his day, stayed calm and didn’t let the Scot’s reputation blind him. Connal is a two-time world men’s champion (1991 in Winnipeg, 2009 in Moncton) and a triple silver medallist (1993, 1995 and 2008).
“We were up ahead of them (3-0 after two ends, 5-1 after four ends),” Rajala said in a phone interview from Gangneung. “At the half (after four ends), my mind was thinking ahead, but I quickly shut that down.”
But after Connal scored one in the fifth end, Rajala added two in the sixth to end the match and trigger the start of the gold-medal celebration, which was Canada’s 13th world men’s senior championship. On the women’s side, Anderson became the first three-time winner (14th for Canada), since the world senior championship started in 2002.
“It has been pretty crazy. But it’s a good feeling,” Rajala said on the second day of his world championship reign.
Rajala and his teammates decided to play straightforward curling and not get too complicated, especially as they approached the playoffs.
“For the initial games, we thought we would try to play clean and not junk it up too much,” he added. “By the time we got to the quarterfinals, semifinals and final, we decided: ‘Let’s just play our Tuesday Night Men’s League (at the Rideau Curling Club) game.”
That was their comfort zone.
“Let’s just curl. We weren’t afraid to make shots. If they put up a guard, we’ll go around it,” explained Rajala, who was the spare for Cochrane’s rink at the 2017 world men’s senior championship in Lethbridge, AB., and earned a silver medal.
“The four of us decided to treat it (final) like another game as best we could. We didn’t let the moment get hold of us. It was awesome.”
The Rajala rink was consistent throughout the championship, whether scoring points early, pressing their opponents and earning 43.5 per cent of their points through steals or ending matches sooner than expected (eight of 10 wins were conceded).
“Our last three games were our best all week,” Rajala continued. “We controlled the games and forced the other teams.
“It definitely helped to get the early jump. The other teams had to chase and take risks.”
Never in his imagination did Rajala think his team’s three playoff games would each end two ends early and not go the scheduled eight ends.
“No, no, not at all,” he said. “I expected all the matches to go right to the last rock.
“We did get a lot of steal points. We were getting our rocks in the right position right off the bat and putting pressure on the other teams.”
When Rajala and his teammates have some time in the coming months, maybe after a round of golf, they’ll reflect on their longest on-ice journey, which could be named their Grand Slam Season.
After winning the 2022 Ontario men’s senior title to qualify for the Canadian championship, Rajala led his skilled sliders to the national title (his first in three finals) and then the world championship gold medal. In total, they posted a competitive round-robin and playoff record of 24 wins, four losses.
But their Grand Slam Season wouldn’t be complete without winning the Tuesday Night Men’s League at the Rideau Curling Club.
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Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.
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