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Red Wings’ Jimmy Howard enjoying fatherhood and finally, NHL stardom

Red Wings’ Jimmy Howard enjoying fatherhood and finally, NHL stardom
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Wings' Jimmy Howard (L) at the All-Star Game Fantasy Draft with captain Zdeno Chara

OTTAWA - Jimmy. It sounds like a kid's name. But Jimmy Howard isn't a kid anymore. He's a man, and that's why he's the man in goal for the Detroit Red Wings. That's why - after three years in college, after four years in the minors, in his third year as an NHL starter - he's here for the NHL All-Star Game, a drive of slightly more than an hour from where he grew up in the border town of Ogdensburg, N.Y.

This is a story about lineage, about one generation blending into the next, about maturing in life and in hockey. It starts with family. His full name is James Russell Howard III. His grandfather and father go by Jim, so he goes by Jimmy even at age 27. When he and wife Rachel had their first child Oct. 23, they carried on the tradition. They call their son James - or J-Four.

Ask Jimmy Howard about his success this season, and becoming a dad is the first thing he cites. You learn patience, something that wasn't easy while he waited so long for his chance. You gain perspective, and that's important playing for the Wings, who expect to compete for the Stanley Cup each year - who have been so talented for so long, their fans tend to think they lose because of their goalie and win in spite of him.

There will be bad games. Witness Wednesday night, when Howard gave up four goals in the first period and got yanked as the Wings mailed in a can't-wait-for-the-break 7-2 loss at Montreal. But being a pro is about forgetting the bad and the good both, building a body of work.

Howard leads the NHL with 30 wins; the Wings lead the league with 67 points. Howard has been more consistent - 2.03 goals-against average, .925 save percentage, five shutouts - at least partly because he has more balance in his life.

After a home game, he might come down to the wives' room at Joe Louis Arena and find the little guy waiting for him. "Everything else just sort of goes to the back burner," he said. "I'm not thinking about hockey as much as I used to. I'm not stewing over things."

On the road, he might video chat with his family. Rachel might text him a photo of James. "Sometimes if Jimmy has a bad game and there's a picture of James," she said, "that will totally turn his mood around."

The story goes deeper than that, though. It goes to the Wings' philosophy of developing players. It goes back to before he was born.

* * * * *

Red Wings general manager Ken Holland was once a goaltender, too. The Hartford Whalers called him up from the minors in 1980-81, and the coach called him into his office about an hour before a game against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. He was starting. This was his chance.

After the first period, Holland felt good. The Whalers were down, 1-0, but he had stopped 14 of 15 shots. I'm here, he thought. I'm where I belong.

After the second, Holland felt the opposite. The Whalers were down, 6-1. He had allowed five goals on 21 shots. I'm never going to be in the NHL ever again, he thought.

In the third, the Rangers' Nick Fotiu fired a shot that whizzed over the crossbar and broke a pane of glass behind the net. Holland was happy. This would make his moment of fame last a little longer. As the workers made their repairs, he had the presence of mind to take off his mask and soak up the scene.

Holland allowed a seventh goal at some point. He went back to the minors with this stat line: one game, one loss, 7.00 goals-against average. He was 26.

"You'd worked a lifetime for that one opportunity," Holland said, "and all of a sudden, it came and it was gone."

Holland played only three more games in the NHL, for the Wings in 1983-84. He became a scout and never forgot his experience as he rose through the Wings' organization.

The talent level is fairly even among players at the professional level, except for perhaps the elite of the elite. The difference between success and failure often comes down to other factors - their competitiveness, their work ethic, the situation.

Time after time, Holland saw guys get called up, get excited, get humbled, get crushed and come back down needing their confidence to be rebuilt. They were rushed before they were ready or put in a position to fail because the big club was struggling and looking for a quick fix.

"I still think today, if somebody would have just given me a chance to get my feet wet …" Holland said, his voice trailing off. "But the manager and the coach in Hartford, they were under pressure. The more you can win, the more patience you can have, and the more patience you can have, the more you up the odds. That's the reason I like veteran players."

The Wings' patience is both a necessity and a luxury - an effect and a cause of their success.

They draft later, so they don't get teenage phenoms who can jump right into the NHL. They get prospects with flaws. They look for skill, smarts and heart more than strength and size. They give their prospects time to grow, and they can afford to wait while winning. Ideally, they want their prospects overripe when they finally make the NHL, and they want them walking into a winning environment with wise vets who are secure enough to be mentors. One generation passes its knowledge to the next - Igor Larionov to Pavel Datsyuk, Steve Yzerman to Henrik Zetterberg, Nicklas Lidstrom to Niklas Kronwall. Mike Vernon to Chris Osgood to Jimmy Howard.

"Our philosophy of developing ultimately is about the respect that I have for the league and how hard it is to win," Holland said. "You can play in the league. We want to win in the league."

Holland's philosophy crystallized in 1995, when he was an assistant GM. The legendary Scotty Bowman was the coach and in charge of player personnel. Bowman sent a third-round pick to the New Jersey Devils for defenseman Slava Fetisov. At the time, Fetisov was 36 and sitting in the press box. Holland wondered what the heck Bowman was doing. But Fetisov's veteran presence paid off on the ice and in the dressing room. He helped the Wings advance to the Cup final that year, and he helped them win the Cup in '97 and '98.

"It took me back to my time as a player," Holland said. "It's a man's league, and some people are men at 20, some people are men at 22, some people are men at 25. We all mature at different rates."

* * * * *

The Red Wings drafted Jimmy Howard in 2003 - second round, 64th overall. They thought he was a good college goalie at a good college program. When Howard left the University of Maine in 2005, they thought he needed a lot of work. He had to condition himself to play more games, not just Friday and Saturday nights. He had to learn to ride the roller coaster.

From 2005-09, Howard popped up from the minors so rarely that he played only nine NHL games in all that time. But he came up to practice during the playoffs, and he learned from the likes of Osgood and Dominik Hasek. He watched the Wings win the 2008 Stanley Cup.

The fourth season in the minors was the hardest. Hasek retired after 2007-08, and Howard was probably ready for the NHL. But the Wings were trying to repeat, and they didn't want a rookie backup and no depth in the minors. So they signed Ty Conklin, and they signed Howard to a three-year contract - a two-way deal with a $200,000 AHL salary the first year, a one-way deal with NHL salaries of $750,000 and $800,000 afterward. "The message is, 'We're paying you. You're coming to the NHL,' " Holland said.

Just not yet.

The decision paid off. Conklin bailed out the Wings as Osgood struggled early in 2008-09. Osgood got going late in the season and carried them all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final. "Probably if you've got Jimmy Howard here, you might miss the playoffs, because he's green," Holland said.

Howard was overripe when he arrived in 2009-10. He went 37-15-10 with a 2.26 goals-against average and .924 save percentage. He was the runner-up for the Calder Trophy as the NHL's rookie of the year. He was 26.

"Looking back on it, I guess Kenny had a great plan," Howard said, smiling. "At the time, sometimes you're looking around, and you're seeing other guys around the AHL getting called up. But you've got to keep telling yourself to keep working hard and sooner or later you'll get your chance and take full advantage of it."

Howard wasn't as good in his first playoff run. Fans howled, and it hurt. "He tried not to let it bother him, and he'll still say that it didn't bother him," his wife said. "But I know that it did, because you always want people to believe in you."

But he wasn't crushed.

After every game, he would call his father and let out whatever he was feeling. Often, he would talk to Osgood, who knew all too well what it was like to be blamed for losses but also knew how to handle it. After the Wings were eliminated in the second round by the San Jose Sharks, Howard told Osgood that he'd had fun. "And I said, 'Yeah, it's supposed to be fun, Howie. That's why we play,' " Osgood said.

Howard wasn't that great last season, either. The Wings were uncharacteristically loose defensively, and he didn't bail them out enough. His numbers got worse. Fans howled some more, and the Wings tried to acquire Evgeni Nabokov on waivers before signing Howard to a two-year, $4.5-million extension.

But he still wasn't crushed.

He played much better in his second playoff run. Even though the Wings were eliminated by the Sharks in the second round for the second straight season, they rallied from a 3-0 deficit and nearly pulled off the impossible. Howard was their best player in Game 7, making 27 saves in a 3-2 loss.

"I think that kind of made him believe that he could take his game to the next level," Osgood said. "I think that's carried on to this season as well. 'You know, I can play in these games where it's sudden death and play good and not be overwhelmed by it by any means.' "

It's a man's league, and Howard had hair on his chest.

"Just over the course of the summer, your belief in yourself," Howard said. "After a couple of years, you believe. After you've seen yourself do a couple of things, you believe that you can do a lot more."

* * * * *

There are still doubters. Osgood, who retired after last season, now works for the Red Wings as a scout and goaltending instructor. He runs into hockey people who pay Howard backhanded compliments. I can't believe Howard's as good as he is. "I'm like, 'Why would you say that?' " Osgood said. "It's kind of the mentality people have. Why can't a goalie in Detroit be good?"

Why wouldn't a goalie in Detroit be good?

From watching Hasek, Howard learned to be intense all the time - squaring up to every single shot in practice, never giving up on any puck in a game. "It keeps that little guy off your shoulder who says, 'You can't do it. You can't do it,' " Wings goaltending coach Jim Bedard said. "He goes away when you just constantly work, work, work."

From listening to Osgood, Howard learned to relax at the right times - tuning out criticism, realizing every game is not the end of the world. "In the simplest terms, I'd say Howie gets it now," Osgood said. "He gets how to be a goalie in the NHL."

From fatherhood, Howard has learned to leave hockey at the rink, clear his mind at home and come back refreshed. "The person he is and the player he is is coming together at one time here, and we're seeing the results," Osgood said.

For a while, things seemed to be going so slowly - three years in college, four years in the minors. And now? It's almost like it happened overnight.

Osgood found himself sitting in a restaurant on the road recently, watching Howard on television. He saw Howard anticipate a play masterfully, and it struck him that Howard had arrived already.

"I knew he'd be good eventually," Osgood said. "He just needed some time to mature and be good. Saying that, though, I never expected him to take the jump he's taken this year - I mean, that quickly."

Howard's wife was going over the stats the other day. It seems like Howard just turned pro, and now he's in his third NHL season and they have a baby and here comes the All-Star Game …

"It just seems to be going by so fast," she said. "It has been an incredible year. We're very fortunate for everything that's gone our way so far. Hopefully it continues that way." Man, time flies when you're having fun. Howard might want to take off his mask for a moment Sunday and soak up the scene.

"It's been quite the progress," Howard said. "You look back on it, you see how you've grown and how you've come from an immature college kid to a … you know, young adult. I'm just sort of taking it all in stride and enjoying it."