Michael Houser, as protocol dictates, is keeping his eyes on the next prize.
To little surprise, the London Knights goalie who has never been drafted by any league accepted the the Red Tilson Trophy as the Ontario Hockey League's most outstanding player. However, the 19-year-old goalie's sights are firmly on the league final vs. the Niagara IceDogs that opens in scarcely more than 24 hours. Savouring the fact he's just the second netminder to sweep the Red Tilson and OHL goaltender of the year awards since the latter bauble was created 25 years ago has to be on the backburner. Still, it's a tribute to how far he's come since the Knights took a chance on him.
"It's an honour to win this award, and some of the names that [Ontario Hockey League commissioner David Branch] mentioned that have won this award in the past, it's an honour to be mentioned in the same name as them," Houser said during Wednesday's media conference in London. "I can't thank the Hunters enough, both [GM-coach] Mark and [co-owner and former coach] Dale, for giving me a chance to play here three years ago... I was undrafted and Mark came down to find me, I came to visit London, fell in love with it, so it was kind of a no-brainer."
Houser played a league-high 62 games and was credited with 46 wins, tying the league record, while playing for a relatively young Knights team. He maintained a 2.47 average and .925 save percentage, good for third and fourth respectively in the 20-team OHL. That impressed the 80 media voters enough to give him the nod over Colorado Avalanche prospect Michael Sgarbossa, who won the scoring title with the Sudbury Wolves. Houser had 182 points in the balloting, followed by Sgarbossa (164), Los Angeles Kings prospect Tyler Toffoli of the Ottawa 67's (106) and his counterpart in the final, Niagara goalie Mark Visentin (104).
The Knights are often perceived as a team which can recruit itself. The presence of high-profile prospects such as their captain, Jarred Tinordi, who changed course from Notre Dame to southwest Ontario in 2010, or rookie Max Domi speaks to that. However, their continued success does owe to Mark Hunter and his scouting staff's ability to turn up unplucked gems. They have a right wing, Josh Anderson, who will likely be a middle-round NHL pick this summer after being snubbed in the OHL priority selection draft when he was 16. Count Houser as another of their success stories.
"One thing myself and the coaching staff noticed is that he had a passion to win," Hunter recalled of when Houser came in as a free agent. "And he showed it this past year here, getting 46 wins. It's a great accomplishment, and I think it stands out by itself.
"We're proud of how he's developed as a young man representing the London Knights. He's done a great job, and one last series to go here. I know Michael will be ready."
Houser is up for the NHL draft for the third time this summer. To have seen him play is to wonder why no NHL team has come calling for his services yet. Of course, goalies mature at a much different rate than skaters. The two netminders in the final have traversed two very different routes throughout their time in junior. At age 16, Visentin was the third goalie taken in the OHL priority selection draft and was the second netminder selected in the NHL cattle call in 2010, going 27th overall to the Phoenix Coyotes. Houser's time might come yet.
"He illustrates another path that players can take to get to the best development league in the world," Branch said. "He was undrafted, from that hockey hotbed of Wexford, Pennsylvania, and, I mean, he just wanted to play the game with a passion."
Houser noted a lot of credit for the honour goes to the Knights' back end, which is led by Tinordi, Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Scott Harrington and Finnish rookie Olli Määttä. Brett Cook, Tommy Hughes, Tyler Ferry and Kevin Raine also shore up the blueline.
"I tried to thank them in different ways throughout the year," said Houser, who is the first goalie to win the Red Tilson Trophy since the Kingston Frontenacs' Andrew Raycroft in 2000. "I took the defenceman out for dinners for shutouts. I couldn't have done this without them. We can enjoy this today, but once tomorrow comes it's about winning hockey games.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.