Joe Howe was supposed to be the future between the pipes for the Victoria Grizzlies.
But, after a shaky start, the 18-year-old rookie from Barrie, Ont., is proving the future is now for the B.C. Hockey League club.
Grizzlies general manager and head coach Craig Didmon recruited Howe out of Upper Canada College in Ontario and planned to ease him into the BCHL behind 20-year-old Junior A veteran Liam Souliere.
Those plans abruptly changed when Souliere, who was the Central Canada Hockey League’s goalie of the year last season with the Brockville Braves and is bound for the NCAA and Penn State next fall, was injured in preseason. That forced Howe between the pipes for the rough 8-1 loss in the Grizzlies’ season opener at Cowichan Valley. And, with Souliere’s lower body injury slow to heal, Howe has played every minute since, including a 6-1 loss in Prince George before back-to-back wins in Merritt and West Kelowna last weekend that helped even the Grizzlies’ record at 2-2.
“Joe has been thrown into a real tough situation, having to start so many road games with a young team in front of him,” said Didmon, whose team is back on the road this weekend with games in Vernon tonight against the Vipers (2-1), Saturday in Salmon Arm (3-0) and Sunday in Trail 0-4-1).
“It took him a bit to adapt to the pace of the game in the BCHL, but the last six periods he’s shown us why so many U.S. colleges are so high on him. He’s been huge for us already.”
Howe was a little shell-shocked after his first two games, allowing 14 goals in lopsided losses at Cowichan Valley and in Prince George against the defending champion Spruce Kings. But he was named a star in the victories in Merritt (5-1) and West Kelowna (3-2 in overtime).
Howe’s 4.21 goals-against average and .889 save percentage are nothing to write home about, but as of Wednesday he was second in the league in minutes played with 242, just three back of overall leader, Wenatchee’s 20-year-old Daniel Chenard’s 245 minutes.
“It was a little bit of a rude awakening in those first couple games, but don’t forget that those were two very good teams, Cowichan and P.G., so it was tough for all the new guys,” said Howe, whose a big, agile netminder at 6-foot-2, 185 pounds.
“And then I think I found my game in the second half of that game in P.G. and I think I’ve gotten better each game after that and I just hope to keep improving each game.”
Not only has Howe had to get used to playing a lot, even three games in three days, which he did last weekend and is expected to do so again this weekend with Souliere expected to be out another week, but he has also had to get used to the gruelling early travel the Grizzlies are facing thanks to the Mann Cup having been played at The Q Centre this month.
“It has been a lot of travel, but I travelled a lot last year back in Ontario so I’m pretty used to it,” said Howe.
“And it’s given us a chance to come together as a team with the long hours on the bus and at the hotels and I think that has really helped us because of all the new players we have.”
Howe came west to secure an NCAA scholarship in a couple of years and those plans seem to be right on track.
“I’ve had a few schools start calling me now and hopefully I can continue to get better in these next few weeks and then have a good [BCHL] Showcase and hopefully things will work itself out after that.”
Souliere thought he might be ready to go last weekend and travelled on the road trip, but his injury is still hampering him so he’ll remain home this weekend with an eye on returning to game action next weekend.
“I’m going to stay home this weekend, rest and rehab, and then have a good week of practice and hopefully be ready for the [Sept. 27] home opener.” said Souliere.
“It’s still early and Joe had an unbelievable two games last weekend so I’m just going to make sure I’m 100 per cent when I come back.”
LOOSE PUCKS: Souliere’s injury has forced the Grizzlies to add a third goalie to their roster. On Thursday Didmon aquired Blake Wood from the Nanaimo Clippers for a player development fee. The 18-year-old Wood played one game for the Clippers this season and will accompany the Grizzlies on this weekend’s road trip.