Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard (35) stops a Philadelphia Flyers shot in the first period of an NHL hockey game in Detroit on Dec. 4, 2013. Detroit Red Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard had no doubt when he suffered a knee injury that he would be able to come back to play in the Winter Classic. He has been looking forward to this for a year and a half. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP - Paul Sancya
When the Detroit Red Wings visited the Toronto Maple Leafs last week, they had so many injuries that three folding chairs were set up in the locker room because there weren't enough stalls available.
One of those chairs belonged to goaltender Jimmy Howard, who has been out since Dec. 10 with a strained medial collateral ligament in his left knee. As he sat in it after the Red Wings' morning skate, Howard was wearing his vintage brown pads made for the Winter Classic and making no secret of his desire to make it back in time for that game on New Year's Day.
"It's been a year and a half of just waiting for it, the excitement," Howard said with a hopeful smile. "I really don't want to miss it."
Howard's initial time frame of being out two to four weeks put the Winter Classic in danger. His plan was to play Dec. 30 at the Nashville Predators, but his major target was being able to face the Leafs at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor.
"The goal all along was to get back for that game," Howard said.
If everything goes according to plan, Howard will be able to back-up ex-Toronto netminder Jonas Gustavsson on Saturday. Last week Howard estimated there was a 75 per cent chance he'd be able to play in the Winter Classic.
The event, which was originally scheduled for Jan. 1, 2013, but had to be cancelled because of the lockout, seems to carry a special importance to the Syracuse, N.Y., native. There's a personal element to that.
"I'm looking forward to sharing the whole experience with my family and friends," Howard said. "I got about 50-plus coming in to Michigan and Detroit. I'm looking forward to just having all them enjoy themselves."
Of course Howard's job is hockey, so just being in uniform wouldn't mean the same as playing in the "Big House."
"I plan on playing," Howard said. "But at the end of the day I realize I don't make that decision. Babs makes the decision who starts in net."
If Howard is fully recovered from this knee injury and doesn't experience a setback, it's hard to envision coach Mike Babcock going with Gustavsson or rookie Petr Mrazek during the NHL's signature regular-season showcase. Gustavsson has played well this season but also gave up four goals on 23 shots against the Leafs at Air Canada Centre, as the Red Wings won in a shootout.
Howard spent that game working out, and in the process of rehabbing from this injury insists he hasn't been worrying about making the U.S. Olympic team. A graduate of the U.S. National Team Development Program, the 29-year-old took part in the 2002 under-18 world championships and 2013 world juniors and most recently the 2012 world championships.
Beyond the clear-cut top two—Ryan Miller of the Buffalo Sabres and Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings, who has been out with a groin injury—Howard figures to be in the discussion to represent the U.S. in Sochi. Cory Schneider of the New Jersey Devils, the surprising Ben Bishop of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Tim Thomas of the Florida Panthers, who returned with the intention of playing in the Olympics, are Howard's competition.
In a conference call in mid-December, U.S. general manager David Poile complimented Howard as a goaltender who has "played so well for Detroit on a consistent basis over the last few years." Based on his body of work, which includes a career .918 playoff save percentage, Howard has to be considered the front-runner for the No. 3 goalie spot.
Despite the International Ice Hockey Federation pushing the roster deadline back to Jan. 7, the U.S. will announce its team at the Winter Classic. On Jan. 1, 2010, that happened at Fenway Park in Boston and Thomas got to enjoy a special moment as he was named to the group that went to Vancouver.
Howard hasn't thought about the possibility of that happening for him this time around.
"That's the farthest thing from my mind right now, my man," he said. "The farthest thing from my mind."
—Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter at @SWhyno.