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THE APPRENTICE

03/01/2006 10:28 AM - Rookie goaltender Jimmy Howard is anxious to learn everything he can as he ascends the pro ladder

Story and photo by Mark Newman

Jimmy Howard left college to turn pro, but that doesn’t mean he stopped being a student.

Calling it a difficult decision, Howard chose to forego his senior season at the University of Maine to sign a three-year contract with the Detroit Red Wings last August.

Howard was the Red Wings’ first pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. Detroit selected the talented netminder in the second round, making him the 64th player chosen overall.

He was highly touted, to say the least.

“I have no doubt that Jimmy is probably the best goalie with the most potential that we’ve ever drafted,” Red Wings general manager Ken Holland told the Detroit Free Press, “and he’s continued after the draft to improve. He’s going to be a good prospect.”

As a freshman pro, Howard harbored no illusions of jumping to the head of the class. He was the new kid on the block, and NHL teams don’t make a practice of handing out jobs to novice netminders.

And yet – call it beginner’s luck – Howard found himself in the enviable position of starting the season with the Red Wings after injuries opened the door of opportunity.

Nobody was more surprised than Howard.

“I guess my timing was right – that’s just the way the cards were dealt,” he says. “I didn’t think I’d be starting the year in Detroit, but I was very thankful that I got to be there on Opening Night.”

In retrospect, it made his decision to turn pro look all the wiser.

“(Leaving school) was very difficult,” he says. “The University of Maine had been my home for three years and I loved it. I’ll always be honored to be a Black Bear.”

But the Wings convinced Howard that he was ready to graduate to the pros.

“He’s shown over the last three years that he’s one of the top goalies in college hockey,” Red Wings assistant general manager Jim Nill explained to the Portland Press Herald shortly after signing Howard.

“He’s played in pressure situations and at times had to carry the team. We think he’s had great development and now is the proper time for him to turn pro.”

So Howard went from being a physical education undergraduate to neophyte understudy – from college student to puck pupil – in one fell swoop.

Joe Louis Arena became his classroom for the first six weeks of the season when he backed up Manny Legace and, later, Chris Osgood.

“Practice every day was like a game for me since I was seeing guys like Steve Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Chelios, Brendan Shanahan and Mathieu Schneider. The knowledge they brought to me was just awesome.”

In Detroit, Howard worked extensively with Red Wings goaltending coach Jim Bedard. “It was all very positive,” he says. “He helped get me moving in the right direction.”

He waited patiently on the Red Wings’ bench for his opportunity to play. He was sent back to Grand Rapids three times to get playing time. Finally, on Nov. 28 in Los Angeles, he was given his first NHL start.

“I was all excited,” he recalls. “During the first five minutes, my heart was in my throat, my legs were shaking. But after I stopped my first shot, I settled down and played my game.”

More nervous than a roomful of SAT takers, Howard gives credit to his Red Wings teammates for providing both the cushion and the support to cruise to a 5-2 victory.

“Those guys played so well defensively for me that night,” he says. “They knew I was going to be nervous and they did a tremendous job of keeping me loose in the dressing room.

“Before the game, Yzerman said to me, ‘Don’t worry about what happens tonight. It’s going to be the first of many games for you.’ I felt like it was a tremendous honor to go out there and play my first NHL game in a Red Wings jersey.”

Howard feels that being exposed to the NHL at such a young age – he won’t celebrate his 22nd birthday until March 26 – will ultimately benefit his development.

“It showed me what NHL players do to prepare themselves day-in and day-out,” he says. “Some days will be better than others, but you have to learn to be consistent every single night.”

Spending time in the NHL was an eye-opening experience not only for Howard, but also for his father, Jim Sr., who participated in a week-long road trip with the team, courtesy of the Red Wings.

In mid-December, Detroit players, coaches and support staff were allowed to invite a father, male family member, or mentor on a trip that started in Pittsburgh and included games against Atlanta, Florida and Tampa Bay.

“It was awesome,” Howard says. “It was a dream-come-true for my dad, who never imagined being able to travel with a National Hockey League team. I’m very thankful that the Red Wings put it together for the fathers.”

The players’ guests were allowed to go everywhere the players did, except on the ice, whether it was catching a red-eye flight, sitting in a strategy session, getting to the rink early for a pregame skate or sharing a post-game meal.

“He was able to see what life on the road as a professional hockey player is all about – I’m glad we got to share that experience,” Howard says. “He still talks about it and it was two months ago. It’s the first thing he brings up at the dinner table.”

What impressed Howard more than anything was how down-to-earth so many future Hall of Famers could be. “They were talking to my dad like they had known each other for years.”

For Howard, the special trip was a way to say thank-you for the support of his parents when he was growing up in Ogdensburg, N.Y., a town of 12,000 not far from the Canadian border.

His father was a teacher who also coached high school hockey; his mother works with special-needs children.

“My dad resigned as a coach to support my development,” Howard says. “He really made a lot of sacrifices, along with my mom, to drive me all over eastern Ontario for summer hockey and tournaments in the spring.”

Having played college hockey at Oswego State in upstate New York, his father recognized that his boy had special talent.

Once a week, they drove up to Ottawa to work with goaltending coach Barry Madigan, who taught him all the fundamentals that are now part of his game.

To this day, Howard is still learning.

“This is all new to me,” he says, talking about his whirlwind first season as a professional. “I’m just trying to take everything in stride. I want to learn as much as I can from the guys who have been here a couple of years.”

Howard has always tried to stay ahead of the game. At 14, he joined the Westport Rideaus, a junior B team in eastern Ontario. There he faced players who were five or six years older. Two years later, he moved to Ann Arbor to join USA Hockey’s National Development Program.

In 2002, he competed in the Under-18 World Championships, where he led the U.S. to its first gold medal at the tournament, going 5-1 with a 1.17 goals-against average.

“That’s still at the top of my resume,” Howard says. “To win a gold medal for my country was a big thrill.”

It was a year later, after an impressive freshman season at Maine, that the Wings took Howard with their first pick in the draft.

He was selected to the roster for the 2004 U.S. National Junior Team, but did not make the trip to Finland due to a knee injury the week before the tournament.

Although staying home was a big disappointment, it allowed him to finish an incredible sophomore year at Maine. He recorded six shutouts in 22 games, posting a stellar 1.19 goals-against average and a .956 save percentage, both NCAA records.

“I was fresh from sitting around and I went on a heck of a run at the end of my sophomore season, all the way to the NCAA championship game,” Howard says. “We won 10 out of 11 one-goal games down the stretch.”

It was quite the opposite of what his experience has been with the Griffins. “Very seldom did we score four goals in a night and it’s on a regular occasion here, so I’m very thankful for the offensive support I get here.”

The ability of the Griffins to stage come-from-behind victories has taken off the pressure that comes with being a young goaltender who is still adjusting to the pro game.

“For a goalie, it makes our job easier,” he says. “If we’re down 2-0, it’s really nothing, because we can roll four dangerous lines out there and you know they can get you right back in the game.”

Knowing he still has much to learn, Howard hasn’t set a timetable on his development, although ideally he would like to make the Red Wings roster in two years.

“If it takes longer than that, it takes longer than that,” he says. “Ken Holland has said that they’re not going to rush me. They want me to get experience because I’ve never played an 80-game schedule.”

Howard is content to leave gazing into the crystal ball to others.

“I’m just going to go out there and learn to be consistent. That’s all I can do.”


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