ANN ARBOR, MI – Jimmy Howard looked around the Detroit Red Wings dressing room at Michigan Stadium, a witness to the temporary de-aging of his teammates.
“As soon as everyone walked in it was like a bunch of 13 and 14 year olds in here,” said Howard on Monday, after the Red Wings skated on the rink at The Big House in preparation for the Winter Classic on Jan. 1.
“It was a lot of fun out there. The snow made it that much more memorable for us.”
Ah, yes, the snow. It made a cameo appearance on Tuesday, but could play a starring role on Wednesday when 2-4 inches are expected to fall during the afternoon game between the Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs.
“It’s going to be a little more tougher on the skaters and the goalies. There are going to be a few more fans on the puck, and you have to adjust accordingly,” said Howard.
His counterpart, Jonathan Bernier, agreed that snow would be a unpredictable factor.
“I bet it would. But the biggest thing would be if it were really sunny,” he said.
It’ll be an interesting experience for both players. Then again, they’ve all been interesting times for these two goaltenders this season.
Bernier began the season sharing the crease with James Reimer, having been acquired by Toronto to compete with the incumbent. They traded starts, neither one taking the crease from the other.
But over the last three games, Bernier has seem some separation in the goalie battle. He has a .949 save percentage in those games, and another start in the Winter Classic for the Leafs.
The key for Bernier in becoming a starter for the Leafs was remembering what it takes to become one. He backed up Jonathan Quick in Los Angeles for years. As he told TSN, he needed to relearn the routine of an every night goalie.
"You've got to learn when to push yourself in practice or when to rest yourself, all those little things; when to work in the gym, when not," he said. "You don't want to overwork, but at the same time you need those good practices to get back in the game and feel good about yourself."
Winning the Winter Classic is more than a feel-good moment. It’s a victory in front of 105,000 fans and millions more on television. It would be symbolic validation of Bernier’s ascension to the starting job.
That is, if he can survive the elements.
“We’ll know what those football guys go through,” said Bernier.
Howard’s job as the Red Wings’ starter was never in jeopardy, but his appearing in the Winter Classic certainly was. He injured his knee on Dec. 10 and missed action until his return on Dec. 30 against the Nashville Predators.
Was he concerned that he might miss the Classic? “I’d be lying if I told you I [wasn’t],” he said.
Alas, his return to the lineup was a disastrous one: Howard, rusty, surrendered six goals to the Predators in a 6-4 loss.
“He's a world-class goalie. He's always been good. He usually bounces back good,” said Coach Mike Babcock. “He gets a new opportunity tomorrow, and that's a great thing about life is you get up there every day and it can change your attitude.”
Howard said he was surprisingly comfortable on the rink when the Red Wings practiced on Tuesday, as the dimensions were in sync with the ice at Joe Louis Arena. “It’s what I’m used to playing on,” he said.
But mostly, he said it put him in right mindset.
“There’s been a lot of build-up to it. To be able to be out there today, and just to look around, it brought me back to when I would play on the pond with my buddies,” said Howard.
There’s another factor for Howard in the Winter Classic; or, more to the point, after it. The U.S. will announce its roster for Sochi 2014 following the Wings vs. Leafs game, and Howard is expected to be one of the team’s three goaltenders.
Will that be in the back of his mind during the game?
“Not at all. There’s going to be enough going on to keep us focused.”