Frozen Four Features: NCAA PRO-file with Jimmy Howard
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SECURE YOUR SEAT
BE THE THUNDER
He rolled into Boston's TD Garden for last Friday's matinee before a national audience on NBC as the main man in the Detroit Red Wings' net.
Jimmy Howard skated off the ice hours later with a 41-save, 3-2 shootout-win to end the Bruins 10-game unbeaten streak.
"This was great fun today and I hope the NHL keeps this [day after Thanksgiving game] as a tradition," Howard told NHL.com right after. "Maybe always Boston and Detroit because it's two great teams."
Between 2002-2005, Howard put his goaltending talents on display in front of big crowds against many NCAA teams at the TD Garden and across New England and beyond as the Maine man.
The University of Maine's all-time leading goalie in most categories, Howard also established Hockey East records those three years, not to mention his presence on the NCAA Tournament stage. (See sidebar box.)
Six months before Howard landed in Orono, the Black Bears suffered a gut-wrenching 4-3 overtime loss to Minnesota in the 2002 championship game after leading 3-2 with a minute to play.
By the end of his freshman season, Howard had been taken with the 64th pick in the 2003 NHL Draft by the Wings, and was on his way to leading the Black Bears to three consecutive postseason appearances, including another shot at all the marbles in the 2004 title game at the TD Garden.
Those final 60 minutes came as close as possible to a third Maine title, following the ones won in 1993 and 1999. But Adam Berkhoel and company kept the 18,597 mostly Maine supporters on the edge of their seats in a nail-biting 1-0 final that ended with Maine on a 6-on-3 advantage.
"Yeah, that national championship game was fun and playing in the Frozen Four," Howard said, "but the most fun I always had was going into BU and BC and even UNH. Those regular season games on the road for some reason were great, and for whatever reason I always wanted BC."
For the 27-year-old Howard, who grew up in upstate New York and is now entering the prime of his pro career, a career between the pipes was in his sights at an early age.
"My dad was a coach in our hometown," he reflected about the initial draw to guarding 24 square feet of net. "So I was always around the rink and dressing room. I think I was drawn to the goalie equipment with the painted masks. That all was cool and different."
What was Howard's route from upstate tyke to Maine titan, where standout goaltenders like Mike Dunham and Garth Snow preceded him?
"I grew up with St. Lawrence and Clarkson right near me," he said. "The NCAA was really what I wanted to do. But before that it was tight -- down to the final day -- to decide between the [National Team Development Program] or juniors. The chance to wear the USA Prospect on your chest everyday weighed heavily."
Two years later, and throughout several years of recruiting intensities, Maine won out for one simple reason: The blue-collar Black Bear culture was a perfect fit for the affable and low-keyed kid from Ogdensburg, New York.
"I was given great advice when I went on a BU visit. I was told, 'You'll know what school's for you when you get there.' I picked Maine because it felt like home. It really did.
"We always seemed to get it going the second half," Howard said about Maine's annual run to traditional late March and often April play. "We had great guys in leadership in the room and really close-knit as a team."
After the crushing 1-0 OT NCAA tournament loss to Minnesota that ended Howard's junior year in 2005, the Wings came calling given the new NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement that ends NCAA draft rights right after the senior year.
"Leaving [early] was an extremely difficult decision," Howard said. "It came right down to the day before school started [my senior year]; I was back-and-forth all summer. At the end of the day we decided this was the best jump for me."
Even more difficult were the next four years.
With Chris Osgood still taking the Wings deep each spring and etching his name for a third time on Lord Stanley, Howard, while appearing Osgood's heir-apparent, would not assume a key role on the Wings' roster for some time.
"It was a long four years in Grand Rapids before getting here," Howard said. "I just had to work hard, but I owe a lot to Kenny (GM Ken Holland) for sticking with me and letting me develop, because the biggest thing I found was the length of the season. When I got to February I felt better each year as a pro."
Like his experiences at Maine, the Red Wings are a perfect fit for Howard.
"This is what's great about playing in Detroit. The fans and city are working-class people who support their hockey. It's always about the Stanley Cup for us and keeping the team intact for that," he said.
How does that work upstairs, from Howard's perspective?
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"It's the major goal Kenny has: not to make many changes. And when he does, they seem the right ones. He doesn't make a move to make a move," Howard said.
Howard still gets an annual dose of Maine's influence -- he still maintains a residence there and goes up in the summer to train. But Detroit is now home.
After back-to-back 37-win seasons and a current 13-5-1 record with a 1.86 goals-against average this season, Howard could be heading for his best season so far as the Wings lean incrementally more heavily on him to help lead them to a 12th Stanley Cup and first since 2008.
Howard was runner-up for 2010 Calder Trophy, finishing behind the Sabres' Tyler Myers.
"I like the feeling that the next Cup here might have my name on it; I like that pressure and enjoy it," he said. "It's something that drives me to be better and keeps me at the top of my game every night."