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The timing couldn’t have been much worse for Ryan Howse. Just as the ex-Chilliwack Bruin was finally finding his way in the American Hockey League, an injury pushed him to the sideline.
His last game was a March 30 home game against the visiting Chicago Wolves where he recorded one shot on goal.
Since then, he’s been out with an ‘undisclosed’ injury.
But before then, it looked like the pride of Prince George had finally gotten it. Howse had rediscovered the swagger he last had while lighting up the Western Hockey League at Prospera Centre.
Heat coach Troy Ward picked up on it, and didn’t mind one bit. He probably would have felt differently if he thought the rookie’s confidence was borne out of an egotistical self-regard.
But in light of the adversity Howse waded through and the hard truths he accepted this season, the Heat bench boss wasn’t about to begrudge Howse a little swagger.
“He has swagger because of the work he’s done,” Ward said. “He knows he’s paid the price on a couple different occasions to put himself in this position. Once you pay a price in life, you get a swagger, versus drawing from an ego in the past.”
Howse’s development arc was one of the more fascinating narrative threads in the Heat’s 2011-12 regular season campaign.
Last fall, after suiting up for Abbotsford’s first six games of the season, Howse was informed by Ward that he planned to remove him from the lineup for the better part of a month. At the time, Howse tipped the scales at 219 pounds – more than a six-foot hockey player should weigh. Ward wanted to give him a few weeks to focus on building better nutrition habits and fitness under the tutelage of strength coach Mike Thompson, with the goal of being ready to play in the second half of the season.
Ward’s tough-love approach could have been a stumbling block for Howse, who had been a scoring machine at the junior level, racking up 51 goals in 70 games with the Bruins in 2010-11.
But he swallowed his pride and embraced the discipline. When Howse returned to the lineup in late November, he weighed 205 pounds; these days, he’s an even 200.
“He’s a pretty honest guy, Troy,” Howse said. “He told me he believed in me and wanted me to work at it, and I did.
“Obviously there were the hard days, days where you’re frustrated and want to be out on the ice. But if I didn’t learn this now, who knows if I would have learned it later, or if it would have been too late.”
Howse’s second lengthy stint on the sideline was beyond his control – he missed five weeks bridging January and February due to a shoulder injury.
A couple games into his return from that convalescence, Howse’s stat line contained an awful lot of zeroes – 20 games, and not a single goal or assist to show for it.
He finally broke through on Feb. 18 against the Houston Aeros, tipping in a shot by teammate Guillaume Desbiens for his first goal as a professional. From that point on, he was a steady point producer while playing predominantly on the third line. In 17 games before his latest injury, he had six goals and two assists.
“It was a great feeling,” Howse said “Things finally turned around, and it’s almost like I was being rewarded for the things that happened before.”
According to Ward, that’s exactly what transpired.
“It’s gone exactly how I’d hoped it would go on paper,” he said, reflecting on Howse’s enforced sabbatical back in the fall. “He deserves 100 per cent of the credit.
“The biggest difference for me visually is, he smiles,” Ward added. “And that means things are happening internally where he’s excited to be here. A lot of times in life, you’re pretty confident good things are going to happen if you’ve earned them.”
Howse said his improved production was no coincidence and had everything to do with increased fitness.
“Watching clips from earlier in the year, I’m just seeing how much quicker I am,” he said. “I’m a step ahead of where I was back then.”
Once he gets back into the lineup, Howse hopes to pick up right where he left off, and reclaim his status as one of the Calgary Flames top prospects.