Updated: January 19, 2012, 11:53 AM ET

The evolution of a Red Wings goaltender

Custance By Craig Custance

Jimmy Howard was handed a game-used hockey stick and knew exactly where it was headed. He grabbed a pen, signed the stick and handed it to the 12-year-old girl visiting the Red Wings dressing room, wearing a Howard jersey.

She happened to be the daughter of Detroit Lions president Tom Lewand and reacted about the way you'd expect a girl her age to respond.

"Oh my gosh," she said, stunned, while examining the stick as her father shook his head with a smile.

Like Howard, Paige Lewand is a goalie.

"She's not a Calvin Johnson fan, she's a Jimmy Howard fan," Tom Lewand said.

With the Lions' season over, the Pistons an afterthought and the Tigers still months away from playing, Hockeytown is starting to act like it. Distracted sports fans in the city looking to Joe Louis Arena for entertainment are now discovering that their team is every bit as dangerous as previous versions. Only the Red Wings are doing it in a dramatically different fashion. They're winning because of goaltending and a team defense that has consistently been among the top in the league.

Howard leads the NHL in wins, is sixth among starting goalies with a 2.04 goals-against average and ranks 10th overall with a .924 save percentage. According to Elias, his current streak of 15 straight home wins is tied for the second-longest streak since the 1943-44 season. And, he already has five shutouts, equaling a career high.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Howard
Andrew Weber/US PresswireJimmy Howard leads the NHL in wins, ranks sixth among starting goalies with a 2.04 goals-against average and is No. 10 with a .924 save percentage.

"He doesn't have off-nights. He just hasn't had off-nights," said Red Wings backup goalie Ty Conklin. "There's times when we win games 5-1 and he's legitimately the first star of the game because of the way he plays early in games. He's been fantastic."

And it's not just teammates who have noticed.

"There's been a lot of improvement in his game," said Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews. "Sometimes goaltenders quietly hide behind a team like Detroit because they're so smart, so solid defensively. They [Red Wings] have that confidence now that if they start making mistakes, [Howard] is going to make stops for them. It makes it even tougher."

Toews' teammate Marian Hossa knows Howard well, having played a season with the Red Wings when Howard was still developing. Hossa's first word to describe Howard this season is mature. His second: calm.

Howard is growing into one of the league's elite goalies and the fans in Detroit are starting to realize it. During the final 90 seconds of Monday's shutout win over the Sabres, they filled the rafters of Joe Louis Arena with chants of his name. It was almost as if 20,000 people realized at the same moment that their goalie has matured into one of the game's best. It just took awhile.

Mental block

Last season wasn't a banner season for Jimmy Howard. Lost in the outrage that he wasn't on the All-Star ballot last season is the fact that he probably shouldn't have been. His .908 save percentage was good for No. 33 among NHL leaders last season. His 2.79 goals-against average was even worse -- No. 36 overall.

"I didn't think I deserved to be there at the beginning of the season," he said of the All-Star ballot controversy. "Stats-wise, mine weren't very good last year. I had a lot of wins but a lot of nights, the guys bailed me out."

Goalies will tell you that most of their success is mental. It's about focus and preparation and being organized in such a way that everything is in order and stopping the puck the only concern.

There was a lot on Howard's mind last year, and it showed. Especially during a January stretch in which he had a 3.49 goals-against average and .894 save percentage in eight starts.

The biggest issue was an expiring contract. Howard was set to become an unrestricted free agent and contract negotiations during the season sapped Howard's success. The Red Wings typically don't spend big money on goaltending and weren't exactly eager to break the bank to keep Howard. The talk that goes on during negotiations can try the confidence of any goalie, especially one still trying to establish himself in the league.

"I'd be lying if I said it didn't weigh on my mind," Howard said. "It was brand-new, things are going on behind the scenes. The agent is talking to the management, you're hearing all sorts of things."

It changed the way he played.

"Next thing you know, you're trying to be perfect instead of just playing. That's when your game unravels," Howard said. Before he signed a two-year extension worth $4.5 million on Feb. 28, the negotiations threatened to unravel years of careful preparation that went into developing Howard into the NHL starting goalie he is today.

Talent discovered

Talk to people around Howard and nearly all of them can tell you the moment they discovered he was a special talent.

For his father, a high school hockey coach, it came when he watched his son dominate a tournament in the small town of Alexandria Bay, N.Y., as a 9-year-old. Howard was always a goalie and his dad suspects it had to do more with the equipment than anything. He was mesmerized by goalie equipment and at 5 years old could be found in the high school locker room trying on equipment twice as big as he was.

Howard's father still remembers the moment standing at that tournament when he realized his son was more than the typical squirt goalie. He saw it in his athletic ability and the way he handled himself in the crease. At one point, he turned to his own dad to make sure he wasn't alone in seeing what he was seeing.

"I was just like 'Wow, did you just see the glove save he just made?'" Howard's father, James, said. "I just could see he was a natural at it and he loved it."

Former Maine assistant coach Grant Standbrook first saw Howard at a showcase for hockey prospects in Minnesota. He was the only recruiter who showed up for the 8 a.m. goalie session because he liked to see how kids practiced when they thought scouts weren't paying attention.

Standbrook went to every one of those early sessions for an entire week to watch Howard.

"Most of his teammates didn't want to be there. They just wanted to perform in front of the coaches in the afternoon. They wanted to conserve energy," Standbrook said. "[Howard] was competing for every puck. I liked the fact that he was big but more than anything, his competitiveness."

He went to Maine, where he set NCAA records for save percentage (.956) and goals-against average (1.19).

It was during a game against Cornell that Howard caught the eye of Red Wings goalie coach Jim Bedard. Bedard was there to see Cornell goalie David LeNeveu, but was more impressed with the goalie on the other side of the ice. Howard wasn't intimidated by playing against older players and stood his ground ready to take on Cornell's best.

By the middle of the second period, Bedard stopped watching Howard so the other scouts in attendance wouldn't notice how interested he was in the young prospect.

"He outwitted guys, he battled and his competition level was so high," Bedard said. "Guys were driving down the lane and he never gave up his ice. He just stood there and said 'Give me the best shot.'"

The Red Wings chose him in the second round of the 2003 draft and slowly put their plan into place to groom him as the eventual starter in Detroit.

Maturing into an NHL goalie

Four years in Grand Rapids. Four years of AHL seasoning. That's a long time for someone anxious to make his mark in the NHL. While goalies drafted later than him got their shot at NHL success, Howard patiently waited, occasionally sharing his frustration with family members. But only occasionally.

"Once you're out of sight for so long, there's a perception that a player isn't developing as he should," Red Wings GM Ken Holland said. "But we felt we had a guy developing into an NHL goaltender, on a real nice curve, gradually improving."

And the truth is, had Howard made his NHL debut any earlier, he wouldn't have been ready. He's always had the competitive edge and athletic ability but hasn't always been in NHL shape.

One of his mentors, former Senators goalie Darrin Madeley, worked with Howard at the U.S. National Development Team Program and remembers his first impression of Howard when he joined the program.

"When we first got him, I was like 'That's Tommy Boy,'" Madeley said. "He was blond, smiling all the time."

And he didn't have the body of an elite athlete. Madeley didn't want Howard to make the same mistakes he did while chasing his NHL career. One of them was an aversion to the weight room. Madeley joked that during his time at Lake Superior State, they threatened to name the weight room after him, just so he might actually visit it.

"I'd hide behind the punching bag," Madeley said. "I wanted him to be different than me. I was a talented kid, things came easy. I didn't want him to rely on that."

Spending four years in the minors has a way of getting a message to sink in and it certainly did for Howard. Looking at Howard now, it's hard to imagine him getting teased about his weight. It's maturation. It's part of the process of developing as a Red Wings prospect. Especially a goalie.

He was a prospect for so long that people almost forgot he was a prospect. But in Detroit, jobs aren't just given to those with talent. They're seized.

"We don't hand the keys over, they go in and grab the keys," Holland said. "That's it right there. We don't hand the keys over. You wait, you be patient, you're going to play with veteran players. When you get an opportunity, you make a statement."

Howard did exactly that.

Ten minutes that changed everything

Two things happened after last year's regular season that propelled Howard into the goalie he is right now. He was outstanding for the Red Wings during the playoffs, outplaying Ilya Bryzgalov in a first-round sweep of the Coyotes, and then he nearly led Detroit to a historic comeback win against the Sharks after the Red Wings dropped the first three games of the series. Somewhere along the line, the remaining doubts as to whether or not he could be an elite goaltender in this league disappeared.

"He kind of found himself," former teammate Chris Osgood said. "He was a completely different goalie. He was thriving on [the pressure] where before he was nervous about it. He could handle the tough times, in the NHL, in the playoffs. He's carried that on."

On Oct. 23, the single-biggest contributor to Howard's maturation arrived. Howard was with his pregnant wife, Rachel, for a routine checkup when the doctors sent him home to get his wife's belongings and prepare to have a baby. While he was home packing he got another call from the hospital, upping the urgency.

"I get back there, get up into the delivery room, throw the scrubs on," Howard said. "Ten minutes later, I was a dad."

Ten minutes that changed everything. Howard has always been well-rounded. He's always been laid-back, but something about becoming a father put things into focus that much more.

After a tough game, Howard makes the walk down the Joe Louis corridor to the wives room, where Rachel and James Howard IV wait on the leather couch. The game disappears.

Sometimes, when he's on the road, it's a baby picture texted from his wife that brightens the moment.

"He'll be like, 'That just totally turned my mood around,'" Rachel Howard said.

It puts things in perspective. Not in a 'The universe is huge' sort of way but in a way that makes success crucial. Now, it's not just about one person or teammates. It's about providing for a family.

On Saturday, following a win over the Blackhawks, there was nothing to forget. Only celebration. It was Detroit's 14th consecutive home win. Behind Howard's shutout against the Sabres two days later, the Wings would break their franchise record.

In the wives room, 3-month-old James IV sat on the lap of Natalie Ceccolini, Howard's former billet from Ann Arbor. Rachel looks at him and says everyone thinks he looks just like Jimmy. Especially in the eyes. The eyes that have put everything into focus for his dad.

"I just play in the moment. Who cares about tomorrow? Who cares about the past?" Howard said. "You learn -- whether you've made some mistakes or even when you do good things. You learn from it and you move on."

Craig Custance is a senior NHL writer for ESPN The Magazine.


You must be signed in to post a comment

Already have an account?