Game Changer

Jimmy Howard Reinvents Himself To Stay On Top Of His Game

PLYMOUTH, Mich. – The 2015-16 season was the best of times and the worst of times for Jimmy Howard.


The Detroit Red Wings starting goaltender was having one of the best seasons of his career and was named to his second NHL All-Star team when a groin injury in January sent things spiraling out of control. Before he knew it he had lost his starting job to Petr Mrazek and his days in the Motor City seemed numbered.


That offseason Howard ran into Jeff Salajko at a wedding in Niagara Falls, N.Y. In a quiet room away from the festivities Howard asked Salajko, who was working with the team’s AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids, what he thought he needed to do to regain his starting position. Not looking to put a damper on the joyous occasion, Salajko tried to tap dance around the question before Howard told him to give it to him straight.


“I asked him flat out, how do I get my job back,” Howard recalled. “A lot of guys in my situation would’ve started pointing fingers and ask to be traded. I didn’t want to go anywhere else. I wanted to stay in Detroit. This is where it all started for me.” 


As luck would have it, shortly after their conversation, Salajko would be named the Red Wings goalie coach and the two of them began the long process of giving Howard’s game a face lift.


“They say that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Jimmy is proof that you can,” Salajko said. “Even at 32 he’s trying something new every day to get better. And that’s why he’s been able to stay in the league and why he’s considered one of the best goalies in the league.”


That drive was something that Howard learned during his time at the University of Maine, and it’s what has not only helped him get to the NHL but to stay there for 12 seasons.


It’s a lesson he shared with some of the top U.S. goaltenders attending the Warren Strelow National Goaltending Camp. His message was short and simple: it’s hard enough to make it to the top, it’s even harder to stay there. The key, he said, is to keep evolving. 


“One thing I truly believe is that you can learn something new every single day,” said the National Team Development Program alum. “It doesn’t matter how old you are. It’s how you get better.”


He brought that philosophy onto the ice at the USA Hockey Arena where he has joined other college and professional goaltenders working on their craft as they prepare for the season.


“Being at this camp helps a lot because over the course of the summer you can get lost skating with the guys because you’re little more than a shooter tutor,” he said. “Being here with other goalies and goalie coaches from around the league is very beneficial because you can bounce ideas off of them. You try to be a sponge and soak it up.”


Salajko is not surprised to see how well Howard has fit in with other goalies who look up to him.


“Anybody who has been around him and has been on the ice with him knows how hard he goes. He’s the rabbit that everybody’s chasing. He sets the bar high. He’s got that first guy on, last guy off the ice mentality,” Salajko said. 


“Part of my job is to make sure he’s in the best physical and mental shape to get ready to play. So, I have to encourage him to take the foot off the pedal a little bit. Sometimes less is more with the grind of an NHL season.”


In addition to being a tireless worker, Howard is also a student of the game who is always looking for a competitive edge. That’s why after he puts his kids to bed he often tunes in to other NHL games to see what he can pick up from other goalies. 


“There are certain goalies that I like to watch. They’re my peers but I really feel like I can learn things from them,” Howard said. “I think it’s important that as you continue to progress over the years that you continue to learn. That’s how you can make your way in this game and in life.”


Salajko can always tell when Howard is channel surfing around the NHL “because my phone will start blowing up with texts. Or he’ll call me and say, ‘How about we work on this or that?’”


When he came into the league, Howard was fortunate enough to have the support of a talented veteran defensive corps led by Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski. As the Red Wings dynasty slowly began to unravel, Howard discovered holes in his game that his Hall of Fame teammates helped to hide. He also knew he needed to adapt to the new style of play if he was going to survive.


“I knew that I had to evolve my game. It wasn’t suited for the NHL anymore,” he said. “I used to be so aggressive and try to attack the shooters. You can’t do that anymore. These guys are so fast and so skilled now. You have to be patient.”


That meant staying on his feet longer to create the illusion that he’s bigger than his 6-foot-1 frame would indicate.


“We worked on that pretty much every single day,” he said. “Was it easy? No. There were a lot of days when I was so frustrated. But we put in the time and the effort. It took probably three months before I started getting comfortable and incorporating a lot of stuff into my game.”


The results of all that hard work could be seen last season as Howard played 60 games with a Red Wings team in the midst of a rebuilding process. These days Howard is one of those looked upon to provide not only solid goaltending on the ice but veteran leadership in the locker room. Despite his soft-spoken nature, it’s a role he relishes.


“We are in a transition period and have a lot of young guys so there’s going to be mistakes made,” said Howard, who will likely play in his 500th NHL game at some point this season.


“You’re going out there every night knowing it’s going to be a battle. I just love to compete so going out there and playing night in and night out and knowing that for us to be successful that I have to play well. I just love that pressure.”

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