ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Wednesday could be one of the most memorable days of Jimmy Howard's hockey career. Not too long ago, he feared it would not come to pass.
Howard will be the starting goaltender for the Detroit Red Wings in the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium against the Toronto Maple Leafs in front of possibly the largest crowd in the history of the sport. After the game, Howard could be named to the United States team for the 2014 Sochi Olympics. The American Olympic team will be announced at Michigan Stadium after the Winter Classic as part of NBC's coverage of the game. Reports suggest that Howard will be one of the three goalies named.
When Howard left practice 20 days ago with a knee injury, his availability for the game at the Big House was in question and his potential place on the U.S. Olympic roster was cast into further doubt. He ended up missing eight games, but returned Monday night against the Nashville Predators and is ready to play Wednesday.
"Yeah, I'd be lying if I told you I didn't [have doubts about being ready]," Howard said. "When the knee injury happened, it was [projected to be] 3-4 weeks. It would have been three weeks right on the date of the game. You know I have to give a lot of credit to our team doctors and to our trainers. We worked extremely hard to get the knee back healthy and we were able to accomplish that."
Howard's return was far from what he wanted. He allowed five goals on 28 shots in a 6-4 loss, and the rust from not playing for nearly three weeks showed. There was no question for coach Mike Babcock that if Howard made it through the game against the Predators, he would play against the Maple Leafs.
When asked about how he felt Tuesday, Howard flashed a quick smile and said, "Fine."
"The great thing about [Howard] is he's always been good. He usually bounces back good," Babcock said. "We couldn't score enough [Monday] night. That's just the way the game is sometimes. I've been around a lot of good players through the years and they normally bounce back. This is a great opportunity for him. I wasn't pulling no matter what happened last night. He was in there. I thought our team really battled for him. I thought our team really tried to get him out of the situation we were in. We didn't have enough to get it done. He gets a new opportunity [Wednesday]. That's the great thing about life. You can get up every day and choose your attitude."
Howard was in good spirits Tuesday after Detroit's practice despite the loss and his disappointment in his performance in the game. Getting to practice outside at a place like Michigan Stadium certainly helped to change his demeanor.
Getting to skate with his young son after the workout was also a highlight.
"I don't even remember what happened [Monday], so [Tuesday] was just about going out there and getting another practice in and enjoying this whole festivities," Howard said. "Come [Wednesday], it is going to be a lot of fun and a great game.
"It is a pretty neat experience. I've actually experienced several [football] games here, a couple of on-the-field experiences where I've gotten to watch. To see them coming down the tunnel and to see this place erupt gives you goose bumps, especially with all the history that is here at the University of Michigan. To be here and to be part of all this and to play at the Big House it is going to be very memorable. All of it."
Maybe he wasn't alluding to what will transpire after the game is complete by saying "all of it," but that is going to be a big part of the story Wednesday for Howard. Helene St. James of the Detroit Free Press has reported that Howard will be named as one of the three American goaltenders when the 25-man roster is announced by USA Hockey following the Winter Classic.
Howard has not been as consistent in 2013-14 as he was in 2012-13, and certainly not at the level he found while helping the Red Wings upset the Anaheim Ducks and push the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks to the brink in the second round of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Goalie - DET
GAA: 2.76 | SVP: 0.906
If he is the choice, along with Ryan Miller and Jonathan Quick, Howard will have been selected instead of a couple of goaltenders, New Jersey's Cory Schneider and Tampa Bay's Ben Bishop, who have produced better statistics than him.
Neither of those guys have Howard's track record of being a No. 1 goaltender, and maybe more importantly the proven ability to dominate a playoff series the way he did for much of the showdown with the Blackhawks.
That announcement isn't until after the game though, one that very recently Howard thought there was a good chance he would miss. Given the circumstances, it is likely to be one of the most memorable games of his life.
"I think there is going to be enough going on here to keep us focused [on the game instead of the Olympic announcement]," Howard said. "[Tuesday] was a lot of fun. It makes you feel pretty small when you look up and see all the seats and all the skyboxes. I can't wait for it to be 1 p.m. [Wednesday] and see all the people out there."