Fatherhood helped Sharp, Howard deal with injuries

by Brian Hedger / NHL.com

DETROIT -- One is a goalie; the other has a dog named "shooter" because of his own scoring acumen.

One plays goalie for the Detroit Red Wings, while the other is a star forward for Detroit's Original Six rival, the Chicago Blackhawks. There are plenty of differences that separate Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard and Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp -- but this season they also have more in common than either one might realize.

Not only did both get off to great starts for their teams, but both also went through frustrating injuries that cut short some statistical benchmarks they were on pace to reach. Yet it's what happened off the ice that makes their situations kind of unique as Sharp and Howard prepare to face each other again on Saturday afternoon at Joe Louis Arena (1 p.m., NBC, TSN2) to conclude the regular season.


Muller already sees progress from Canes

By Kurt Dusterberg - NHL.com Correspondent
Carolina gave rookie head coach Kirk Muller a chance, and his influence is already being felt in the team's second-half revival. READ MORE ›

Both men became fathers for the first time during this season -- and turned out to be even more of a blessing for each during some frustrating times.

"I'm one of those guys who thinks about hockey 24 hours a day ... one of those 'hockey nerds' I guess you could call 'em," said Sharp, whose daughter Madelyn Grace Sharp was born on Dec. 9 in Chicago. "I'm always thinking about different things, but to be able to go home and escape that a little bit with Madelyn and my wife is a huge plus. That just makes me that much more excited to come back to the rink."

Howard, whose son James Russell Howard IV was born on Oct. 23 in Detroit, knows that feeling.

"Just waking up in the morning and grabbing him out of his crib or putting him to bed at night, it's really nice to be able to do that," Howard said. "[On the road], I get a photo [sent to me] probably every single morning. That's always a great way to start off your day. And I really appreciate going in there in the morning and grabbing him when he first wakes up, because he's all smiles and he's excited to see you. That's probably my favorite part of the day."

As it turned out, that part of the day became all-too-familiar for both Sharp and Howard at different points because of injuries.

Sharp's happened first, coincidentally in a game against the Red Wings on Jan. 8 at the United Center. After scoring his 20th goal of the season against Detroit's Ty Conklin just 4:19 into the game, Sharp knew that a quick slash delivered by Wings forward Jiri Hudler during the goal was bad news.

Hudler's stick blade caught Sharp's left wrist and caused a fracture that eventually knocked him out of the game and then out of the lineup for about three weeks. It might also require off-season surgery to fully repair. It was the second straight season in which an injury sidelined Sharp at a point when he appeared to be at the top of his game.

Sharp had missed training camp because of an emergency appendectomy, but the wrist injury was even more aggravating.

"You work all summer and at the start of the season to have a great year as a team an individually, and I feel like it was going that way for a while there," Sharp told NHL.com. "Then just to break your wrist in mid-January is a tough time to do it, but there's no excuses. I can still put the puck in the net and be a contributor."

He's proven that much during the stretch run of the season, in which the Blackhawks were trying to secure their spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for a fourth straight year -- all while playing without injured captain Jonathan Toews.

Chicago's remaining stars were forced to pick up the scoring slack and they did -- including Sharp, who's lived up to the 'A' stitched onto the front of his jersey as one of Chicago's alternate captains.

Sharp scored nine goals and added seven assists in the 21 games the Hawks have played without Toews and now leads team with 33 goals.

Saturday will be his 74th game, the same number he played a year ago, when a knee sprain late in the season cost him a couple of weeks. Sharp finished with 34 goals and 37 assists last season, but also had a vexing minus-1 rating that bugged him. This season, he heads into this last game against the Red Wings atop the Western Conference with an impressive plus-27 and hopes to carry that play into the postseason.

He also might lead the NHL in changing song lyrics to fit popular tunes -- which he does just to make his baby daughter smile.

"I just hope no one catches me talking to my baby, because I look like a pretty big idiot singing songs or doing the baby talk thing," Sharp told NHL.com. "I just kind of make [songs] up as I go. I try to take Top 40 songs that are on the radio and just kind of put my own words into them. It's pretty embarrassing, actually. I don't know if she's laughing at the songs or the stupid look on my face, but it's fun either way."

It's fun for his teammates, too.

"I think maybe he's a little nicer around here now," said forward Patrick Kane, who's also watched Marian Hossa enjoy being a first-time father this season. "I know [Sharp's] really excited about his baby. He shows us pictures and tells us stories. It seems real cool. I'm not going to go through it anytime soon, but when that time comes it seems like it'd be pretty fun because he's having a lot of fun with it."

Like Sharp, Howard has found out the hard way how much being a dad can relieve work-related stress. After earning his first invitation to the NHL's All Star festivities, which were held in Ottawa, Howard fractured the index finger on his right hand Feb. 2 while stopping a shot in Vancouver.

He actually picked up the victory in that game, his 32nd of the season, and appeared to be on pace to challenge Martin Brodeur's NHL record of 48 wins in a season. That possibility ended when Howard missed eight straight games because of the finger and then had a nagging groin injury that caused him to leave the lineup twice more for stretches of three and four games.

It's been a frustrating second half for both Howard and the Red Wings, but the bright side was the extra time he got to spend with his son -- who has the same exact name as his father, grandfather and great-grandfather.

"Nobody in this dressing room wants to be injured and nobody wants to get hurt, but sort of the silver lining -- with all the traveling we do -- is that it was nice to be home and be a father," said the 28-year old Howard, who will be looking for his 36th win when he starts against the Hawks on Saturday. "He's already got a better room than I had growing up. It's spectacular. I can't wait until we can make it into an actual bed instead of the crib, so I can actually lay down in it. It's really comfy."

Howard also enjoys watching little Jimmy roll over.

"That's the big thing now," he told NHL.com. "The only bad part is if he goes from his back to his stomach, he's like a turtle. He can't roll back to his back. He gets a little frustrated and starts crying and then you've got to go over and roll him back over onto his back. Then in 10 seconds he's already back onto his stomach."

It's exactly the kind of thing that gives Howard that same perspective on life that Sharp mentioned.

They may have their differences, but two of the main players in Saturday's season-ending clash between old rivals also share a common bond now, as they both get ready for the quest to win the Stanley Cup.

It's not just about fulfilling their own dreams anymore. Now, there's somebody new with whom to potentially share hockey's ultimate prize. The Cup, after all, is the perfect size for babies.