When Michael Houser started playing hockey at 5 years old he was forced to play goalie due to being born with a foot deformity. Nineteen years later, Houser was named the Canadian Hockey League Goaltender of the Year.
“I had feet problems growing up so I couldn’t skate well,” said Houser, who was born with bilateral clubfeet. “My dad thought I might be better suited to hang in the crease. It was easier for me. It worked out.”
Worked out is an understatement.
Houser, a Wexford, Pa. native, overcame his childhood obstacle – which required 15 surgeries from the age of 3 days to 3 years old – to record one of the greatest seasons in CHL history.
Houser, 19, led the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League to the regular-season and postseason championships while recording a 46-15-0-1 record, 2.47 goals-against average, .925 save percentage and six shutouts – his 46 wins tied an OHL record.
For his efforts, Houser was named CHL Goaltender of the Year, a finalist for CHL Player of the Year, OHL’s Most Outstanding Player, OHL Goaltender of the Year, OHL First-Team All-Star and Memorial Cup All-Star.
“It’s awesome to be recognized,” said Houser, who is eligible to be picked at the 2012 NHL Draft in Pittsburgh. “There are a lot of great players in these leagues and the OHL. To win those awards is a huge honor.”
Houser, a Knight’s teammate of Penguins’ 2011 second-round draft pick Scott Harrington, led London into the Memorial Cup final. However, London fell in the contest, 2-1 in overtime, to Shawinigan - a loss that still perturbs the uber-competitive Houser.
“I’m still taking the last game in stride. It’s still eating away at me,” he admitted. “When I finally get over the loss I’ll look back on the honors and the great season and know that I’ll never forget it.”
Michael and his brothers Nick (older) and Alex (younger) began skating at a young age in their hometown of Youngstown, Ohio. They grew up Penguins fans, and Michael, being a goalie, looked up to players like Pittsburgh netminders Johan Hedberg and Marc-Andre Fleury.
The Houser family made regular commutes to Bladerunners in Cranberry, where the children played. When it became clear that the boys were going to play hockey in high school, the family moved to Wexford.
“My parents have been supportive all throughout my life and hockey career with anything that I wanted to do,” Houser said. “(Moving) was a big decision for them. My dad still works in Youngstown. It’s a 50-minute drive that he makes everyday because we wanted to play hockey. I owe a lot to him and my mom.”
Houser also played for the Pittsburgh Hornets, alongside Pittsburgh-area natives and NHL draft picks Stephen Johns (Chicago, 2010, 60th overall) and Brandon Saad (Chicago, 2011, 43rd overall).
Soon Houser’s play would catch the eye of London general manager Mark Hunter. He invited Michael and his family to visit the city and gave them a tour of the rink. Houser was immediately convinced to join the club.
“It’s an awesome organization,” Houser said. “It’s very professional. They treat you like you’re in the NHL. When I saw everything it was hard to say no. I’m glad I made that decision.”
The move worked out both ways, as a few years later London, backstopped by Houser, won the OHL championship and came only one-goal shy of taking home the Memorial Cup.
“It was an awesome experience,” he said. “We had a great group of guys that spend all our time together everyday. We were all happy we won the OHL championship and competed for the Memorial Cup.”
Not a bad season for a kid who struggled to walk in his early youth.
“My fondest memory is winning the OHL championship,” Houser said. “That’s something I’ll never forget. Going through it with the group of guys we had, it was so much fun. I played three years with these guys. We had a close team. I’ll never forget this year.”