ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Following more than three hours of hockey, covering three regulation periods plus an overtime period plus a shootout at the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic, the moment at icy Michigan Stadium belonged to Jimmy Howard.
A curtain opened at an entryway from the locker rooms at the Big House. Howard, decked out in a USA sweatshirt over his Detroit Red Wings jersey, skated onto the ice with his index finger raised high into the air.
No matter that it was barely 10 degrees and the snow was flying on New Year’s Day, Howard was ready to celebrate being nominated to his first U.S. Olympic Team.
“It‘s a tremendous honor, to say the least,” Howard said. “Every single time you get to wear the USA sweater, it‘s such a tremendous honor. The respect that comes with it is second to none.”
Skating for the red, white and blue is not a new adventure for Howard. He played for Team USA at the 2012 World Championship, the 2003 World Junior Championship and the 2002 World Under-18 Championship.
As a promising national player during his high school years, Howard participated in USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program in 2001 and 2002. It was during that time that he helped the U.S. U18 squad win the gold medal in 2002, when he was unbeaten in six games and gave up just eight goals. When not competing against top international and junior competition, he was attending Pioneer High School, which is located across the street from Michigan Stadium.
“Back when I played with the U.S. (NTDP) program, my senior year in high school, it was 9/11. It was a little bit of rallying cry for us,” Howard said.
Howard, a native of Syracuse, N.Y., spent his college years at the University of Maine, where he was an All-American and MVP of the Hockey East Tournament in 2004. Since then, he has been back in Michigan. A second-round pick by the Red Wings in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, Howard arrived in Grand Rapids, Mich., to play for the AHL Griffins in 2005. He played in four games for the Red Wings in his first professional season and was a regular in Detroit by 2009.
He won 37 games in his rookie season of 2009-10 with the Red Wings, and followed that up with another 37 wins in 2010-11 and 35 in 2011-12. It was that “body of work” cited by David Poile, general manager of the 2014 U.S. Olympic Men’s Ice Hockey Team, which played a big part in Howard being named to the team.
“When you go to the body of work, three 35-win seasons, fabulous record in the [NHL] playoffs [20 wins in four playoff seasons], all those things certainly made our decision,” Poile said. “But those are hard decisions.”
Howard will join Ryan Miller of the Buffalo Sabres, who was named MVP of the men’s ice hockey tournament at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games, and Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings as U.S. goaltenders at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
“Millsy and Quicky, they’re tremendous goalies,” Howard said. “So the competition is fierce, but I think that’s a good thing. We’re going to be able to push each other. I think that just breeds success for us.”
Howard beat out 2010 Olympian Tim Thomas of the Florida Panthers, Ben Bishop of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Cory Schneider of the New Jersey Devils, among others, to make the U.S. team. But a knee injury (sprained left medial collateral ligament) has slowed Howard this season. He has just seven wins and a 2.65 goals-against average, which ranks 28th in the NHL.
“I didn’t know, to be honest,” he said of his chances for making the Olympic team. “November wasn’t very kind to me. And then going down with the knee injury in early December and really not playing. Just working my tail off with myself and my trainers. They did a tremendous job of getting me back.”
The result was a roar from the more than 105,000 spectators assembled at Michigan Stadium when Howard became the only Red Wings player nominated for the Olympic team. Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk of the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs also made the Olympic team and were introduced with Howard.
“It‘s been a great 24 hours,” said Howard, who had four generations of his family at the Winter Classic. “Very memorable for my family and myself, as well.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.