The tank rolls on
Mason Howard has come a long way in a relatively short period of time.
The 17-year-old London native came into camp with the Niagara IceDogs assured of nothing and worked his way on to the opening night roster.
“To be totally honest in the summer, I thought he might have to go back for another year of junior B,” IceDogs head coach Billy Burke said. “He came in and performed well in training camp and that allowed us to move Daniel Nardi and he’s continued to provide good depth for us.
“He rarely gets beat. He’ll battle and block every shot. He’s the kind of guy you need on a team. He is a 100-per-cent true gamer.”
Howard, who was selected in the 10th round (185th overall) of the 2017 Ontario Hockey League draft, spent his first season of junior hockey with the Thorold Blackhawks where he excelled in a variety of situations and got the ice time he needed to develop.
This season, the hefty rearguard has more than held his own as a rash of injuries depleted the IceDogs’ depth on the blueline.
“With all the injuries he’s been able to play a lot — maybe more than we all thought — but you can see real strides in his game from the start of the year to now,” Burke said. “His confidence has grown and he knows what he is, which is great.”
At 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, Howard is a classic stay-at-home, rugged defender who punishes opposing forwards. His body checks are so devastating a group of season ticket holders have begun to refer to him as, ‘The Tank.’
“He’s big and strong and he’s a heavy hitter. Even though he’s only in his first year, guys around the league are starting to take notice when he’s on the ice,” Burke said.
Howard is happy with his progression.
“It’s been going good so far,” he said. “I think I’m getting more confident in every game I play. It’s a big jump from junior B to the OHL but I think I’ve handled it pretty well so far.
“I just have to play my role to be successful here. I have to play big and play like I play.”
Howard said after he made the team out of camp, he quickly began to feel at home.
“After a few weeks, I finally figured out it’s not as hard as I thought it would be. Obviously, there’s a lot of great players but I think I can handle myself in this league,” he said.
Burke appreciates Howard doesn’t try to be something he is not.
“You see it all times when guys come in. They think they have to rush the puck and be flashy but a lot of times it goes backwards on guys, but not Mason. He’s a strong first-pass defenceman and he continues to work on his skating and he’s smart enough to recognize when to pull out and put himself in good situations where he’s not getting exposed.”
Burke chalks up Howard’s success and improvement to his smarts as well.
“I think his hockey IQ and hockey sense are underrated,” he said. “He’s a smart player, a safe player who understands defensive zone coverage.
“He has underrated skills. He proved last year in Thorold he could put up points given the opportunity. He hasn’t been put in many offensive situations for us but he’s got a big shot and good enough hands that he is able to help us.”
Howard’s issue has always been his foot speed and mobility, something he is working on diligently.
“I think my feet have gotten a lot better. It’s improved a lot working with my skating coach and even in practice,” he said. “It’s just work on my stride and getting lower in my stride.”
Burke has noticed the difference.
“He’ll never be Elijah Roberts. It’s very difficult to work on in season. It takes a big commitment in the off-season,” Burke said. “It’s a lot of muscle memory and repetition and training your body to be used to staying low.”
Going forward, Burke feels Howard could be in line for a bigger role in the future if he continues to progress with his skating.
“I’m sure Mason has it in him. It’s going to be a big summer for him. He’s going to get a huge opportunity to be a top-four next year but he has to improve his body and skating so he can come in and be able to handle the top-four minutes.”
The IceDogs, who have won six straight to improve to 30-10-7-2, are second in the Eastern Conference with 67 points, seven in arrears of the Ottawa 67’s.
The IceDogs take on the 67’s Saturday in Ottawa. They also host the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds Thursday and travel to Kingston Friday.
“The plan is to win all three. Anything less than that would be a little bit of a disappointment, but we can’t get ahead of ourselves,” Burke said. “We have a huge game Thursday against a high-powered offensive team with some real super stars.
“It’s going to be important we play well Thursday and set the tone for the whole weekend. We don’t want to try and be finding our game Saturday in Ottawa. We want to feel good heading into that one.”
In injury news, defenceman Jacob Paquette is day to day and could play this weekend. Forward Andrew Bruder is listed as week to week while winger Ivan Lodnia is expected back in about a month.
On the right side of our web site, you will notice a yellow SUPPORT US button.
We are asking anyone who finds value in our work and is able to financially help us to click on the button and contribute whatever amount you feel is appropriate and can afford. There is no set amount. Any amount is appreciated.
The funds collected will be used to enhance and offset the expenses of running the web site.