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Pro hockey: Howard ready for challenge ahead

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Jimmy Howard took a moment to think when asked about the last time he didn’t pull on a team sweater and play a competitive hockey game in the month of December.

“Wow, that’s a good question. It must have been when I was 5 or 6 years old,” the 28-year-old Howard said in a telephone interview on Wednesday, one day after the Detroit Red Wings’ first scrimmage for the 2013 season that will be reduced to 48 games because of the 113-day National Hockey League work stoppage.

Howard — a former goalie at Ogdensburg Free Academy — and rest of the NHL players will have no worries about another labor dispute in the near future as the prolonged negotiations produced a 10-year contract with the league’s franchise owners.

By that time, Howard’s 15-month-old son, James, will most likely be skating for the colors of his youth hockey association.

The opportunity of spending extended time with his son and his wife, Rachel, was the stabilizing factor in Howard’s anxiety-shadowed life for the past few months during the agonizing mood shifts of the contract negotiations, which were finally settled by a federal mediator.

“A lot players went overseas to play hockey and I had that opportunity. But I didn’t want to miss my son’s first birthday and see him walk for the first time. So I stayed here and trained with a group of my teammates at a rink in Troy (Michigan),” said Howard, who now needs all his lateral quickness to keep up with his son.

“Right now he is just wild. He is all over the place and he never stops until he drops.”

Keeping up with reports during the negotiations were also a hectic experience for the All-Star netminder, who fashioned a career-best 2.12 goals-against average in 57 games last season.

“It was just an emotional roller coaster, and things were played out in the media. Sometimes it seemed that we were going to get back to playing and then talks were pulled out. By Christmas time, I was just fed up with everything ” Howard said. “But what was really scary was the thought that we would lose the whole season.”

Those thoughts have passed, replaced by what Howard called “nervous excitement” as he approaches the uncharted frozen waters of playing in a condensed 48-game season that includes 12 back-to-back games.

“After all you just don’t know how quick you are going to get to the top of your game. It will just go game-by-game to see if the goalies or the scorers will have the edge,” said Howard, who came out on the losing end of a 4-2 in the Red and White Scrimmage, but came away in a totally positive frame of mind.

“It is great to get back to your routine and to get back with the guys on the team,” he added. “After the scrimmage I feel a lot better. The toughest thing was following the puck on power plays with a lot of players in front of the net.”

The season will unfold with the same speed tonight as the Red Wings play at St. Louis, followed by a Monday game at Dallas and Tuesday’s home opener against Dallas.

“I really haven’t thought much about the season schedule right now,” said Howard, who is backed up by Jonas Gustavsson heading into the season. “There are a lot of snares to this season and I am taking a wait-and-see attitude. I hope to play as many games as I can. But how many, that is all up to coach (Mike Babcock).”

Howard was sidelined for 15 games last season with a strained groin and a broken finger. He feels that the condensed season makes injuries even more of a critical factor.

“Sixteen teams will make the playoffs and avoiding the injury bug will be so important. You just hope that the best 16 teams make the playoffs,” Howard said.

n NOTES: The Red Wings were enthused by fans’ response in an overflow crowd for the Red-White scrimmage that was played at Plymouth, Mich., because Joe Louis Arena in Detroit was booked for an auto show. ... .The Red Wings officially came home on Wednesday holding their first practice at the “Joe” since April 19. ... .Howard expressed his appreciation to the Ogdensburg Minor Hockey Association, which honored him as the 2013 recipient of the Mike Hazen Memorial Service Award.

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