If Abbotsford Heat fans think they’re noticing a little extra swagger in Ryan Howse’s stride these days, they’re not alone.
Heat head coach Troy Ward has picked up on it, too, and he doesn’t mind one bit.
Ward would probably feel differently if he thought the rookie right winger’s current sky-high confidence was borne out of an egotistical self-regard. But in light of the adversity he’s waded through and the hard truths he’s accepted this season, the Heat bench boss won’t begrudge Howse a little swagger.
“He has a swagger right now 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 has been one of the more fascinating narrative threads in the Heat’s 2011-12 campaign.
Last fall, after suiting up for Abbotsford’s first six games of the season, the Prince George native 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 Western Hockey League’s Chilliwack 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 know 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. Since then, he’s been a been a steady point producer while playing predominantly on the third line. In his last 17 games, he has six goals and two assists.
“It’s a great feeling,” Howse said with a grin. “Things have finally turned around, and it’s almost like I’m being rewarded for the things that happened before.”
According to Ward, that’s exactly what’s transpiring.
“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 of late is no coincidence, given his improved fitness.
“Watching clips from earlier in the year, compared to now, I’m just seeing how much quicker I am,” he said. “I’m a step ahead of where I was back then.”
As for Ward’s assertion that he’s got some swagger these days, Howse said his teammates have been giving him a good-natured ribbing about it, too.
“I’m just having fun, that’s what it is,” he said with a grin. “I’m trying new things in practice, and when everything’s going good, it’s going good. You can walk around with a smile on your face, and just love the game you’re playing.”