The Redemption of Jimmy Howard
By Leah Moss
Great sports movies all have an uplifting storyline, but the best ones are true sagas, full of ups and downs, heroes and villains, beloved mentors and a main character so full of contrasts and internal conflicts that the audience is left bewildered by his tenacity throughout the various trials and tribulations set before him. And so it went with the 2011 NHL Playoffs. At the epicenter of the Detroit Red Wings’ rollercoaster post-season was the starting goaltender, Jimmy Howard, who defied every critic’s worst comments, saved seemingly unstoppable shots, and yet said absolutely nothing.
With the 2010-2011 regular season winding down and the 20th consecutive Wings playoff appearance on the horizon, local sports reporters had a lot to cover – and they had a lot of questions about the ability of the sophomore goalie, without Chris Osgood in the net, due to post-surgical complications. Commentators pointed to Howard’s dip in numbers since his rookie season, his lack of playoff experience, and simply the fact that he isn’t Ozzie. Howard took it all in stride, but rather than answer their questions (or quell their doubts) with words at a press conference – or an hour-long ESPN special – he focused his attention on his job: playing hockey to the best of his ability.
He answered critics loud and clear; a 4-0 sweep of the Phoenix Coyotes in round one demonstrated his goaltending prowess from the start. In the second round against the San Jose Sharks, his stellar performances and acrobatic saves in games four, five and six allowed the Wings to come back from a disturbing 3-0 deficit and make the series even. In game five, he made 39 saves, and in game six, earned a .960 save percentage, which factored into his overall playoff save percentage of .923. And so the hero demonstrates promise, for his own talents and his ability to lift a city in hope. And then he bears the burden of a loss.
The Introduction to Our Hero
As I stood behind my car this spring, trunk flung open, I watched the cream-colored Escalade noisily barrel into the otherwise nondescript warehouse parking lot in Pontiac. Well, I thought, that’s your typical athlete. This should be interesting. The Detroit Red Wings starting goalie then walked up to my car, noticed me struggling to carry armloads of bags, and instantly shattered a whole host of expectations. “Hi I’m Jimmy, let me carry that stuff for you.” And so I met Jimmy Howard, a fierce and focused competitor, devoted family man and friend, and one of the nicest guys in sports.
Our meeting took place just before the playoffs began, long before the unfortunate game seven loss to San Jose, but we talked about losing nonetheless. “You just gotta let things roll off your back. The season is just so long that it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. That’s what you gotta tell yourself, is that the following night, it’s a brand new slate for me. You gotta go out there and put an end to what was going on previously.” That afternoon, I witnessed his fiery competitive drive burn, so I can only imagine how pissed he must have been with the ultimate outcome post-comeback. As an elderly mentor figure in the would-be movie would wisely explain, the clean slate starts for him this fall with game one – his chance for redemption.
His Fortuitous Past
A second round draft pick, Howard joined the Detroit Red Wings organization in 2003, leaving the University of Maine after his junior year to go pro. He recalls that draft day was filled with a lot of emotions, but when he heard his name called, he was in total shock, thinking, “’I’m not making an ass out of myself by standing up here and hugging all my family or anything like that, right?’” He remained in the AHL program in Grand Rapids for a longer period than initially anticipated. “I wasn’t as prepared as I thought I was, going into the professional world. The schedule is what really killed me, going from, if you’re lucky and playing in the national championship game at school, you’re playing 40 games. Now all of a sudden, you’re playing 80, 82. It’s a big jump. I remember my first and second year, when it got to February, and I was like, ‘I’m ready to go on summer break.’”
The photographer had his session with Howard before we sat and talked. While he eased Howard’s jitters about getting in front of the camera for the first time in this capacity, I absorbed his boyish excitement about what he does for a living. He relished the times when tens of thousands of people get behind him with the “JIM-MY HOW-ARD” chant at the Joe, in full recognition that what he does is very rare, and incredibly special. This notion makes him the quintessential cinematic character we all get behind – the kid from a small town, whose dad was the high school hockey coach, who dreamt of nothing but playing hockey, now plays in the NHL for an Original Six team. And he appreciates the opportunity.
Still desperately clinging to my journalistic cynicism for our interview, I built up an arsenal of hard-hitting questions surrounding his decision to pass up his last year of college (and his degree) to make money and achieve the status that comes with playing at the professional level. When the photographer finished, the two men exchanged contact information to stay in touch. He chided Howard, noting he was in his mid-twenties, so it might be time to grow up and get rid of the collegiate email address – upgrade to a G-Mail account like the rest of us, dude. In a soft-spoken, unassuming way, Howard responded that he’s still taking classes because he wants to finish his program and earn his degree. Well there goes my interview.
Instead, I asked him why it was so important to finish his education. He said he didn’t come to the decision to leave school lightly – education was always first and foremost to his parents and extended family. When the option to get drafted was presented, he said, “I sat down and talked to my family, and figured that school’s always going to be there, but this opportunity might not be. It was one of those situations where we just had to jump on it.”
Fast forward a few years and he’s in the process of finishing his degree, but says he probably won’t complete it until his career winds down. Obviously professional hockey takes a toll on one’s body, and a career can’t last forever – unless of course you’re Nicklas Lidstrom, but that’s another story. Howard wants to follow his playing career with a role on the bench. “I would like to pass on all the knowledge and experiences that I’ve had with guys, kids younger than me. A dream of mine was always to go back to the University of Maine and get my degree so I can help coach there.” And so the sports movie continues its uplifting, emotional trajectory.
For the time being, all he can focus on is his game, and the stiff competition he faces. Citing Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin as the best players he’s faced, Howard enjoys the challenge they present from inside the crease. “I enjoy being out there, I enjoy the competition of playing against the best. It takes a lot of pride to go out there – when push comes to shove I want to be the one left standing.” So far, he’s managed to be the one left standing, even as a newbie. During his rookie season on the Wings roster (2009-2010), Howard’s save percentage was a stunning .924, with an average of 2.26 goals allowed against him. Naysayers have pointed to a so-called sophomore slump, with a drop in his save percentage during this past season to .908, and an increased GAA to 2.79. Yes, his numbers weren’t as solid as in his rookie year. That’s true – no argument there, even with an outstanding playoff performance. But let’s get real: back off.
Comparatively, Martin Brodeur’s rookie season ended with a .915 save percentage, and his sophomore season culminated with a .902 follow-up. Granted, Brodeur has since followed his second year with 17 more rock-solid ones, but this much is clear: give Howard a break – his first two years go toe-to-toe with that of the best goalie to play the game. Ever. And so the violently enthusiastic music swells in the film – as the crowd goes wild. Gordon Bombay would be proud.
So far, Howard has only played two full-time seasons, but he’s made it abundantly clear that he’d like to stay in Detroit. Early this year, he signed a continuing contract with the Wings, without even shopping around to other teams. I asked why he didn’t bother looking elsewhere. His answer was simple. “I didn’t want to go anywhere. I enjoy it here, my wife (Rachel) enjoys it here, she’s made a lot of good friends with the wives on the fam- team.” I’m not sure if he misspoke and got his words jumbled, or if he actually started to say “family,” instead of “team.” Either way, it warmed my heart.
Jimmy Howard represents a newly added line on a short list of American-born goalies; this past season, there were only 18 of them that were active in the NHL. Hailing from Ogdensburg, NY, Howard is proud of his upbringing and honored by the hometown support. When the Wings won the Stanley Cup in 2008, he didn’t play in the postseason, but he still got to take the cup for a day – and brought it back home to New York. “I brought it all around to the local elementary schools and had a gathering with my family and friends in the house that I grew up in, and then we had a big party at one of the local bars, called The Place.” The bar with the perfect name was happy to have him, as was every single person in town. From the 2000 Census, Ogdensburg’s population was listed at 12,364. It is the only city within the confines of Saint Lawrence County. Two words: local hero.
For the future, he says he obviously wants to win a Stanley Cup. “If I were to win it again, I would bring it to my lake house in Maine, and just have it sit there and have a lot of fun with my friends.” Even without the cup at his side, that’s where Howard spent this summer. He played golf a lot – his second passion – and enjoyed the company of his wife, as they celebrated their two-year anniversary in August.
Celebration of True Character
He’s a homebody anyway: during the season, he doesn’t go out much in town. “We just constantly go go go, when we get home from a road trip after nine or ten days, you know our wives are really excited to see us, so I usually just hang out with my wife. We go out to dinner and it’s very relaxed, nothing crazy… enjoy each other’s company.” The only change in his routine lately is that he is recognized more and more throughout Detroit. He misses the anonymity of his pre-professional life, but says it’s just a sign of how special his job really is, even though it’s uncomfortable to catch people pointing or whispering.
Becoming someone with “celebrity” status is a weird development for him, and he never took advantage of the collegiate version either. I asked what women have done for him, anticipating a slew of outrageous incidents. He said nothing crazy has ever really happened to him, as spoken like a true gentleman, but the status worked anyway. “When I was at school, one of my buddies, my teammate’s friend, told a girl he was me, and he got lucky that night.”
As a goalie, fights erupt on Howard’s behalf. You mess with the goalie, and you’ve set yourself up to get hurt. Throughout the hockey community, analysts, players, owners, coaches and training staff have argued about the new, more stringent head-contact rules and its impact on the overall physicality of hockey. Does it change a core element of the game? Does it make a contact sport less pure? In a close parallel to the NFL’s ruling about concussion prevention, Howard took a strong stance on the issue, clearly explaining that the NHL is doing a great job in cracking down on head contact, in order to put the players’ safety before anything else. “It’s still a contact sport and there still needs to be big hits and everything like that, but guys need to have a little bit more recognition, instead of running around with reckless abandon out there, trying to hurt guys.”
At this point, Howard isn’t thinking about any of that. He’s gearing up for a season packed with ruthless forwards, feisty defensemen, high-flying pucks and a group of crazy Swedes. He says the largely international team speaks great English, eliminating much of the potential language barrier in the locker room, but sometimes the Swedes still talk with one another in their native tongue. When asked if he thinks they’re making fun of the other guys, Howard laughed. “No, no, it’s probably a little easier to get their points across to each other.” Yeah right. In the instant classic sports movie surrounding Howard, his teammates, like a band of brothers, would (lovingly) harass him that he actually believes that about the Swedes – ha-ha, the joke’s on you Jimmy.