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Catching up with Lightning prospect, World Juniors hero Isaac Howard

TAMPA — Lightning prospect Isaac Howard has been back on Michigan State’s campus for about a week and a half, returning with a shiny gold medal the 19-year-old earned while leading Team USA to first place at the IIHF World Junior Championship in Sweden.

Howard, the Lightning’s first-round pick in 2022 (31st overall), tied for the tournament lead with seven goals, including two in the gold-medal win over Sweden. He was named player of the game.

Now, Howard returns to his breakout college season at Michigan State (15-4-3), ranked No. 7 in the nation in both major polls. Playing for his former U.S. National Development Team coach, Adam Nightingale, Howard has 20 points, including five goals, in 20 games in his first season with the Spartans. His 15 assists rank eighth in the Big Ten.

This weekend, Howard will play his first series against cross-state rival Michigan, a team that includes fellow Lightning prospect Dylan Duke as well as former Team USA linemates Gavin Brindley and Frank Nazar III.

In the stands will be Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois, who plans to watch both games between the Spartans and No. 15 Wolverines Friday and Saturday to see Howard and Duke play.

“I haven’t seen him in person yet this year,” BriseBois said of Howard. “Looking forward to chatting with him after the game, but it was great to see the USA win the Olympic World Junior gold medal, great to see Isaac win it and play such an important role on the team. So, really positive development, I think, in his career, and now he can look forward to the next challenge.”

The Tampa Bay Times caught up with Howard this week to talk about winning gold, his new college home and what he’s gained from his experiences. This Q&A has been edited for space and clarity.

You had so many big moments at World Juniors, from your game-winning shootout goal against the Czech Republic to two goals in the gold-medal game against Sweden. What were the biggest things you took away from the experience?

It’s a really cool experience and opportunity. It’s like a solid month of just chasing that gold medal, and it kind of teaches you the traits of how to become a team. In not a long time, you’ve got to come together quickly and learn how to win.

I think it was just going in there and playing my game. I had two great linemates (Nazar and Brindley), and I kind of knew that if we’re jelling we’re all going to be successful all the while, and we all kind of just fed off each other and all had good tournaments, which is fun. When you get on a team like that, you know, everyone’s so good and so skilled, it’s kind of like a powerhouse team. So, just learn how to play and make yourself better, make others around you better. It’s kind of a win-win for everyone.

How big was it to win gold by beating the Swedes, a team a lot of you have had a history against in international play?

That was kind of everything for us. Going into that tournament, we knew we wanted gold or nothing, basically. That’s definitely what we wanted, and that was our mindset. We played those guys in under-18 worlds and we lost to them, so it was kind of a redemption to get that win. It was unbelievable and just so fun.

It’s surreal putting that jersey on, and you kind of just feel like you’re playing for something bigger. And you always want to go out there and represent your country well and play your best. The moment where it hit me was right when we got back to the hotel with all the parents, the families there, and you just let it sink in, talking to them, and you realize that we just won a gold medal and how much pride everyone takes in winning that gold medal.

Now back at Michigan State, what’s been the key to your success with the Spartans in your first season there? You transferred from Minnesota-Duluth, and you’re playing again under your former USNTD coach, Adam Nightingale. Has the experience lived up to what you had hoped?

It’s been a great year so far. I think the part I’ve loved about this school so much is just the development aspect — workouts, on the ice — it’s really similar to how things were at the national team for me, which is really good. ... Everyone on the team just gets better. And I think that’s important, and then the success we’ve had on the ice has been awesome to be a part of, and I think we have a really, really deep team and I can see us making it far at the end of the year.

I think it’s just a different vibe (than Duluth), different culture, and one that I fit into a lot better. When you’re having success on the ice, it’s like our whole team is just going, and when you’re part of that it kind of just makes everyone’s individual game better.”

How do you think you’ve gotten better as a player over the past few months since we last saw you in development camp?

I think I’ve just matured a lot on all aspects of the game. I think I’ve been good defensively throughout the whole season, and I think offensively I’ve been good. It’s just just kind of playing a more mature game and taking care of pucks. I’ve gotten bigger, faster, stronger. (Howard said he’s added six pounds) I think that’s all credit to how we do things here, just working out and battling on the ice, and I think that’s all important stuff.”

The Lightning obviously have kept tabs on everything you’ve been doing this year. How has your interaction been with them during the season?

I’ve stayed in touch with pretty much the whole staff throughout the season, just text messages or phone calls or whether they’ve come in and watched me play. I always appreciate when they come watch, and it’s always good to talk to them and catch up. The skating coaches, I worked with one of them during the summer. She came out to Michigan, so I got to get that in. It’s obviously a great staff, so anytime I get to talk to them, it’s good.”

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