Howard ready to lead
Three days into training camp and Mason Howard is already showing some signs of wear and tear.
The over-age defenceman for the Niagara IceDogs arrived at the morning skate Thursday with his left ankle taped, no doubt the result of a blocked shot or two.
Howard has a well-earned reputation as a skilled shot blocker, something IceDogs head coach Billy Burke said does not go unappreciated.
“When you see a guy sell out and make a big shot block, it energizes the bench as much as a big goal,” Burke said. “It signals to the rest of the team that I’m here and I’m going to do whatever I can to help this team win. If I’m not scoring goals, I’m going to lay my body down and block shots and do some of those uncomfortable things.
“It’s absolutely a skill as it is a will and Mason’s timing is excellent. He understands how pucks come off sticks so there is a lot more that goes into it that people might think. He is probably the best shot blocker in the league.”
Howard, along with fellow over-age defeneman Dakota Betts, are expected to anchor the IceDogs back end this season.
“I want to just be a leader and show the young guys the ropes,” the 20-year-old London native said. “It’s making them feel comfortable as a rookie and not getting on them and being a good guy and a teammate.”
Howard singled out former IceDogs Jonathon Schaefer and current Boston Bruins forward Jack Studnicka as two players who helped him earlier in his career.
“It’s about being a presence for them and teach them the ways here and hopefully one day they can be in my spot and help some younger guys out.”
Burke has no doubt Howard has the necessary intangibles essential for a veteran.
“He has an opportunity to earn a letter,” Burke said. “We’ll see how the rest of the month goes. He definitely has a lot of leadership qualities so it wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility something like that would happen.”
Howard has been impressed with the talent level on display in camp so far.
“It’s exciting. It’s been a long time off obviously and you have two draft classes and all these young guys are putting us to work. They are pretty skilled and quick,” he said.
Howard is also grateful simply to be back playing after the COVID pandemic wiped out the end of the 2019/20 season as well as the entire 2020/21 campaign.
“It’s was obviously tough with what’s happened in the world so far and having our season cancelled on us two years go now. We thought we were coming back but we’re ready to go for this year and hopefully bring a championship to Niagara,” Howard said.
Howard was a 10th-round selection of the IceDogs in 2017. He spent a season at the junior B level with the Thorold Blackhawks before making the jump to the Ontario Hockey League as a 17-year-old.
“At 17, he was not expected to make this team,” Burke said candidly. “We weren’t sure if his skating was going to be good enough or his hands were going to be good enough. He came and willed his way on to the team. He proved us wrong with his skating, proved us wrong with his hands and his hockey IQ is through the charts.”
Howard can’t believe he is entering his final season.
“When you first get in the league, the overagers always tell you to have fun with it because it goes by quickly. You don’t really believe them and then I’m in my fifth year now. It’s been the quickest five years of my life.”
Ice cubes: The annual Red/White scrimmage was held Thursday night at Meridian Centre. A number of cuts were made afterwards but Burke indicated the staff would need more than just this week to make the final roster decisions.
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