The angle was sharp, the goalie in great position to make the stop. When the puck shot off his stick, Quinton Howden didn’t know where it landed.
A Florida Panthers teammate threw up his arms. Others followed. “I didn’t see it go in,” Howden says. “It was a bad angle. Kind of a lucky shot.”
Howden played in 18 NHL games last season without scoring. On the day after he was called up from the San Antonio Rampage in March, he scored his first NHL goal in a 5-4 loss to Tampa Bay.
“It was pretty special,” says Howden, a 6-2, 189-pound center who put up three goals and one assist in his first 10 games with the Panthers. “I had a lot of opportunities to score last year but didn’t. It’s funny how things work out.”
Howden is one of 12 Rampage players the Panthers have called up this season. Six are currently on the NHL roster: Dylan Olsen, Colby Robak, Drew Shore, Alex Petrovic, Vincent Trocheck and Howden.
That Howden is playing pro hockey amazes his parents. Neither Sheldon nor Krystal Howden played sports growing up. They know of no one even distantly related who played ice hockey. Then there was that accident in Quinton’s youth, a spill on a tricycle that snapped a femur and made doctors wonder if their son might live with a deformity.
“One of the doctors mentioned that he didn’t know if one leg would be longer than the other,” Sheldon says.
The injury was horrific. At age 5, Quinton skidded on rocks in front of his house in the Canadian town of Cochrane, Alberta. As he fell off the tricycle, his left leg got caught in the frame. The femur broke in two. Alerted by his wife, Sheldon rushed home from work and found his son curled up on the sidewalk, crying.
“He couldn’t handle the pain,” Sheldon says.
Sheldon rushed his son to the hospital. Doctors placed Quinton’s left leg in a cast that went from his pelvis to his toes. They put his right leg in a cast that reached his knee. A bar was attached between both legs to help the bone heal properly.
The prognosis was grim. He had not begun to play hockey. But Quinton, one doctor said, might find it difficult to play competitive sports because one leg could wind up longer than the other.
Quinton wore the cast for nearly two months. “When it came off,” Sheldon says, “he had to learn to walk all over again.”
The boy learned quickly. A year after the accident, he tried his hand at the sport kids across Canada were playing. Quinton seemed a natural on the ice. He was fast. He was smooth. “He was good right off the bat,” Sheldon says.
Mom and dad marveled. Once the femur had healed, Quinton’s legs were the same length. There was no indication he had ever been injured. What surprised them more was his athleticism. “I had no athletic background,” Sheldon says. “We lived on a farm. I always had to work.”
No one knows if there is a hockey gene in Krystal. She was adopted. All Sheldon and Krystal knew is that Quinton was gifted. As he grew, he became a dominant player at every level. His younger brother, Brett, began playing and also excelled.
There was no coaching at home. No stern correction from dad after a poor game. “I just left him alone,” Sheldon says. “I let him play and enjoy it.”
Time flew. One day Quinton was lacing up skates for the Moose Jaw Warriors in the Western Hockey League. Then the Panthers were drafting him in the first round of the 2010 entry draft. He impressed with the Rampage before landing with the Panthers.
“It’s awesome,” Quinton says of the NHL. “I’m just trying to take it all in and enjoy the time. I’m close with all my former Rampage teammates that are here.”
He doesn’t remember much about the accident. The shock of the injury and the passage of time have left him with memory fragments. Over the years, Sheldon and Krystal filled in the details: the severity of the break, what the doctors feared, how he recovered so quickly.
Years later, the family seems to believe the accident may have helped. The fracture forged a spirit of fierce determination in Quinton. He embraced hockey with vigor. He fought through many injuries -- a broken ankle, wrist, hand and thumb, to name a few -- until he began living the wild imaginations of his youth.
“My whole life, I grew up wanting to play hockey,” Quinton says. “I’m very fortunate things have worked out the way they have.”