The puck stops with Knights’ Houser
At this point, there’s not much more Michael Houser can do.
His stats are stellar and the goaltender’s performance thus far has helped the London Knights claim the distinction as the top-ranked team in the Canadian Hockey League.
And yet, as he stood outside the visitors’ dressing room after a win against the No. 2-ranked Mississauga Majors this week, Houser spoke about being the odd man out.
That is, undrafted, unsigned and, in his mind, unwanted by USA Hockey.
“Hopefully I get noticed, that stuff is in the back of my head,” said the native of Wexford, PA. “The [NHL] draft isn’t important to me, but world juniors would be nice. If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. It seems like USA Hockey already had their team picked a while ago.”
The 19-year-old has attended two junior camps in the past, but missed the final cut. The past two seasons, the American team has gone with Windsor Spitfires starter Jack Campbell, who helped backstop the Americans to gold in 2010. Since the Spitfires, one of London’s biggest rivals, also plays in the Western Conference, Houser has been able to scout out his competition for a world junior roster spot.
“There are a couple other U.S. goalies in the [OHL] with Campbell and [Kitchener’s John] Gibson, so my competition is right in front of me,” said Houser. “I think I’ve played just as good as they have, but sometimes it doesn’t work out for you.”
This season Houser is 8-2-0 with a 2.50 goals-against average and a .935 save percentage entering Friday night. He’s another year older and the Knights are collectively a better team than the squad he led to a playoff berth with a 34-29-5 record in the tight Western Conference last season. As far as Jim Johannson, USA Hockey’s assistant executive director of hockey operations, is concerned, Houser is still in the mix to make the 2012 team despite being left out of a junior team evaluation camp in August.
Johannson points to players such as Kelowna Rockets grad Mitchell Callahan, who made the 2011 team despite having never attended a camp outside of the final one in December.
“There’s guys who pop out of the woodwork all the time,” said Johannson, who is also general manager of the 2012 U.S. world junior team. “For us the evaluation is always ongoing and as far as our camp, we have not decided specifically on goaltenders – whether we’re going to bring in more than two goalies to that camp or not, it’s kind of a wait and see.”
At the August evaluation camp Campbell and Gibson joined Portland Winterhawks goalie Mac Carruth and Cornell University’s Andy Iles on the invite list, though Michigan State sophomore Will Yanakeff replaced an injured Carruth at the camp. Iles was Campbell’s backup at the tournament last year when they won bronze in Buffalo, N.Y. so Houser has his work cut out for him if he wants to earn a spot.
Houser’s London teammate Jared Knight also took part in that August camp, despite having publicly criticized USA Hockey for being left out of the previous year’s evaluation, saying that USA Hockey held “a grudge” against him because he had chosen to play in the Canadian Hockey League instead of the National Team Development Program and the NCAA. It’s a cry heard before, most notably in 1996 when the U.S. passed over Detroit Jr. Red Wings star Sean Haggerty who had been leading the OHL in scoring at the time.
It’s a sentiment Houser can relate to, though he’s not going to use it as a crutch if he doesn’t get the call for his country.
“I think there’s definitely some politics in USA Hockey, but that’s out of my control,” said Houser when asked if he felt shunned by USA Hockey because he plays in the OHL. “I think that they definitely favour college kids over OHL kids, but I think if you play well and show what you have on the ice then it’s going to be hard not to notice you.”
Using the “continue to work hard” cliche is all good until you mention the fact that he has, in fact, been playing very well.
“Yeah, I know,” said the 6-foot-2, 192-pound goalie with a smile. “It’s a little bit frustrating.”
As far as Johannson is concerned, the notion that he and his staff are going to overlook talent based on where they’re playing – or aren’t playing - is no longer valid.
“It’s an old way of thinking and it’s an excuse,” said Johannson from the USA Hockey offices in Colorado Springs, Colo. “It’s pretty clear if you look at our rosters. I’m charged with putting the best team on the ice and we go everywhere to watch guys play. People are always going to, I don’t know if criticize is the right word, but people are always going to think somebody should have been on the team and somebody shouldn’t have been on the team… we pick our teams for a reason and we don’t necessarily look at every stat and say, ‘This guy’s scoring he better be on the team.’ We have so much depth now that we’re looking for guys to fill specific roles within our team.
“Where they’re playing has had no effect on the decisions that we make and for that matter we’ve even told the players several times that however they’re playing with their team – go play, however the coach wants you to play, go play – we might be looking at them in a different role and that’s OK.”
On last year’s bronze medal-winning side, six of the 22 players on the team had played or gone on to play in the Canadian Hockey League. At the August camp, 15 of the 44 players participating had either played or would go on to play in the CHL. Those numbers are much better than those of Hockey Canada who only had two players with NCAA experience – forwards Jaden Schwartz and Louis Leblanc - on their final roster, though Canada arguably has the deepest talent pool in the world.
“The players are always going to have a strong opinion and I don’t mind that,” said Johannson. “But I think if they are using that as an excuse or as a crutch then I don’t think there’s anything to support it, especially if you look at our rosters over the past years. The reality is our player pool is deeper than it’s ever been and more and more spread out.”
For Houser, finally wearing the stars and bars of the U.S. would be nice, but it’s not the be-all and end-all as far as he’d concerned. He went to NHL camp in the summer with the Philadelphia Flyers and on Wednesday night after outdueling Mississauga goaltender JP Anderson in a 6-3 win, he’s reminded that Anderson too went undrafted only to get a phone call and eventually a contract with the San Jose Sharks.
“That’s for sure the end goal of my junior hockey career – to get a contract,” said Houser. “I’ve had dreams about playing pro hockey and that’s what I want to do with my life.”