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Heat rookie Ryan Howse watched from the sidelines for a month, as the team took time to educate him on nutrition and conditioning.
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Howse building a foundation

Ask Abbotsford Heat head coach Troy Ward about the travails of rookie winger Ryan Howse, and a wide smile spreads across his face.

It's a smile, to be quite frank, that seems incongruent with Howse's numbers this season – he's dressed for just 10 of the Heat's 27 games, and has yet to register a point.

Howse's infrequent presence in the lineup is part of a tough-love approach instituted by Ward to address the youngster's shortcomings in terms of nutrition habits and conditioning.

In late October, six games into his tenure with the Heat, Howse's weight was 219 pounds – more than a six-foot-tall pro hockey player should weigh. Ward called him into his office and told him he'd be taking him out of the lineup for about a month.

"I told him basically, 'You've got to change physically before I can play you again,'" Ward said. "We tried to take a real educational approach.

"It takes 21 days to create a new habit in life – 21 days straight to do something right. I told him (Howse) about that, and he was like, 'Wow, that's a long time.' And I said, 'Exactly.'"

In the educational world, Howse's one-month break might be described as a sabbatical – a leave of absence to focus on self-improvement.

The approach is less conventional in the hockey world, and Ward had to sell the NHL parent Calgary Flames on it. Howse, after all, is a well-regarded prospect who was a scoring machine at the junior level, racking up 51 goals in 70 games with the Western Hockey League's Chilliwack Bruins last season.

The Flames signed off, and Howse did not play between Nov. 1 and Nov. 25, nor did he travel with the team. Ward turned him over to strength coach Mike Thompson, who took the rookie under his wing.

"Mike took him into his house with his family and showed him how to cook," Ward explained. "He showed him how to grocery shop. He took him to five restaurants that he likes, and showed him how to order, what to eat, talked about portion sizes."

Howse admits it was tough to deal with not playing, and on occasion he vented those feelings via his Twitter account (@Rhowse22). While his teammates were away on a two-week road trip through Texas and Oklahoma in mid-November, Howse mused about killing time watching the Justin Bieber concert movie, Never Say Never.

But to his credit, Howse accepted responsibility and adopted a blue-collar approach to revamping his body.

"Obviously the first little bit was tough," the 20-year-old Prince George native acknowledged. "But I couldn't let myself get frustrated and start getting mad at management or coaches, anything like that. It's my own fault. I have no one to blame but myself. I took it as a learning step.

"It's a job now, a business, and I take everything seriously. It's starting to pay off in the way I feel and the way I'm playing on the ice."

Indeed, Howse has achieved tangible results – he's carved his weight down to 205 pounds, and Ward rewarded him last Saturday by inserting him on the Heat's second line for a game against the Lake Erie Monsters. (His previous nine games had been spent on the fourth line).

Howse skated alongside Roman Horak, his teammate the past two seasons with the WHL's Bruins, and Paul Byron, and the trio was very effective in a 3-1 Heat win.

"When we stepped out on the ice at the start of the game, I was like, 'Wow, I don't know if I can keep up to these guys,'" Howse said with a chuckle. "I was a little nervous – I didn't want to make a mistake and lose the opportunity. But as the game went on, I felt way more comfortable."

Rather than dwell on Howse's early shortcomings, Ward said his progress has been "one of the great stories this year."

"He deserves all the credit in the world – he embraced it," Ward said. "There's all kinds of ways to develop at this level. There's also a development in life, just of patience. Everything is fast this, fast that. The internet's got to get faster. The iPad's got to get faster. But there's a level of patience (that's valuable).

"There's a lot of hope with this young man."

The mental challenge of sitting on the sidelines for nearly a month might have been even tougher for Howse in light of the fact that Horak, his erstwhile junior linemate, has played to rave reviews as a rookie pro. He's spent the bulk of the season with the Flames – making only a brief two-game pit stop in Abbotsford last week – and has two goals and seven assists in 26 NHL games.

But Howse said that Horak's exploits only serve to inspire him.

"I can't be mad at that, when one of my best friends is succeeding in his hockey career," Howse noted. "I've always known he's a good player, maybe more than a lot of other people.

"I'll always support him, and he's always texting me, finding out how my game's going. That just says a lot about the type of person he is."

Up until this season, scoring goals had come as naturally as breathing for Howse. But with his conditioning now squared away, he's optimistic his first at the pro level is just around the corner.

"I think I've already been through the worst of the worst," he said with a grin. "I'm going to keep working hard and not get frustrated. That's the biggest thing – have fun with it a little bit. That's the way I look at it. Eventually the puck has to go in, I'd imagine."

TEDDY BEAR TOSS ON SUNDAY

The Heat host the Hamilton Bulldogs on Friday (7 p.m.) and Sunday (1 p.m.) this weekend at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre.

Sunday's game features the annual teddy bear toss, where fans are invited to bring a stuffed animal and throw it on the ice after the Heat's first goal. The event benefits children in need through the Abbotsford Christmas Bureau. Fans who bring a stuffed animal can check in at section 101 to receive a free ticket voucher for the Heat's March 7 game vs. the Houston Aeros.

For fans who can't make it Sunday, the wives and girlfriends of the Heat players will be on the concourse collecting stuffed animals during Friday's game.

BULLDOGS STRUGGLING TO SCORE

The Bulldogs, the Montreal Canadiens' top affiliate, have struggled mightily to put the puck in the net this season – with 54 goals in 26 games, they're dead-last in the AHL in that category. They come into the weekend tied for last place in the Western Conference with a 10-13-1-2 record, but they've been on the uptick of late, having won four of their last six.

"I think Hamilton is a good team," Ward asserted. "They're a little bit like us last year in terms of goal-scoring. But they work extremely hard, they play a good system, they get good goaltending and their special teams are pretty good."

WAHL BACK IN TOWN

The weekend set marks the return of former Heat centre Mitch Wahl. A second-round pick by the Flames in 2008, Wahl (pictured below) was struggling to crack the Heat's veteran-laden lineup, and on Nov. 17 he was loaned to Hamilton for the balance of the season.

Wahl is still property of the Flames, though, which puts Ward in something of a unique position – rooting for an opponent.

"I hope he has good individual success, because that's what this business is about," Ward said. "He's just got to develop somewhere else.

"It's odd, but he's still a Flame – I'm giving him a Christmas present this weekend. I'm really looking forward to spending time with him and getting caught up a little bit on how he's doing."

Wahl has been caught up in the Bulldogs' offensive malaise – he went pointless in his first eight games with Hamilton, before registering his first assist of the campaign last Sunday against the Rochester Americans.

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