Michael Houser authored an exceptional story of perseverance when he signed a three-year entry-level contract with the Florida Panthers on July 11.
At that moment, three years of mind-warping frustration caused by being passed over in three straight NHL Drafts was instantly wiped away thanks to four days of hard work -- and one golden opportunity.
Shortly after his name went uncalled in last month's draft, Florida invited the 2012 Ontario Hockey League Goaltender of the Year to their development camp.
Knowing this was the break he had been waiting for, Houser told the Panthers he was coming not to occupy empty space, but to earn a place on the depth chart.
Displaying the focus and intensity he had during the OHL playoffs, and with an excellent showing in the camp's final scrimmage, Houser proved to the Panthers he was a hidden gem.
He was so impressive, in fact, they simply couldn't allow him to go to the Winnipeg Jets' development camp. Florida locked him up by offering the 19-year-old a pro contract.
"I talked to my agent pretty quickly after the draft, and there were a couple of teams that wanted me to come to their development camp," Houser said. "We sat down and figured out which team had the best situation for me, and we decided that Florida had the best opportunity. I wanted to go there and earn a contract, not just fill a net and take shots. They understood that, and so I went down there and played pretty well, and everything came together for me."
Houser was born with bilateral club feet. With numerous doctors saying he would struggle to walk, much less play competitive sports, the native of Youngstown, Ohio, endured 15 surgeries on each foot in the first three years of his life, then two more when he was 12, to correct the issue.
To say he overcame long odds during his midget and junior career (with Little Caesar's, then with the Des Moines Buccaneers of the United States Hockey League) would be a colossal understatement.
He not only achieved surprising success at those levels, but he continued to improve all the way through the major-junior level with the London Knights. He stuck with his slightly unorthodox skating and puck-stopping approach, brushed away the naysayers, and capped his OHL career by leading London to within one win of the Memorial Cup title a few months ago.
"Of course I like to be in position and make the easy save, but no matter how far I am out of a play, I always try to battle and get something on the puck," Houser said. "I think that comes from always having a solid work ethic growing up during practices, and that transfers to a game in terms of never giving up on a puck."
Houser was awarded the Red Tilson Trophy as the OHL's Most Outstanding Player. He also earned the CHL and OHL Goaltender of the Year awards.
"I've had great support in the past, not only in junior hockey but throughout my career. Especially during my time in London, there were a lot of ups and downs, but this past season was mostly ups," Houser said. "When the draft didn't work out for a third straight year, I knew that if I kept staying the course, that it would eventually work out for me. I never got too down on myself and never got too high, so I just tried to stay even-keeled and it finally paid off. I'm glad I finally got noticed by Florida, and I'm really excited to join them."
Houser's reputation as a risky draft choice extends from the way his legs and feet developed, which could have scared off teams off when it came time to select him. But aside from a running pattern and skating stride that isn't considered to be as smooth as everyone else's, he's very much an elite athlete.
On the ice, he simply worked hard enough to stop the puck.
"Effort is the word to always keep in mind," Panthers goalie coach Robb Tallas said. "The guys that put forth the effort and refuses to be beat -- those are the guys that get noticed and those are the guys you want to reward. And you know what? I think Michael did that this past week at camp, and now he has three years to grow, to refine his skills, and to become a better goalie in an organization that really likes him."
Many of Houser's former teammates will say they fed off his drive. Eventually, those players were more willing to sacrifice by blocking shots and boxing out opponents in the slot, and it brought his team together by improving its chemistry and camaraderie.
"Growing up, I've always taken pride in my work ethic both on and off the ice. I always thought to myself that in the long run, the key is to work hard no matter what you're doing," Houser said. "I always had that mindset and that mentality, so obviously it definitely transfers to games and to my team."
The Panthers believe that will happen for them too.
"His character is unbelievable, and no one's really given this kid a chance," general manager Dale Tallon said. "He just finds a way to stop the puck. He impressed the heck out of us at rookie camp last week and I just like what he brings to the table: his attitude, his approach, his desire to prove everyone wrong. He's a real battler, and I like that in a goaltender, and I like that in a player."