The average age for children to start walking on their own is usually between nine and 18 months. By the time they reach kindergarten, they’re running, jumping, and otherwise getting into all sorts of trouble thanks to their newfound mobility and freedom. For Michael Houser, this developmental milestone came between the ages of three and four, far after everyone else.
Occurring about once in every 1,000 births, clubfoot is a fairly common abnormality in which the tissues connecting the foot and ankle muscles to the bones are shorter than usual. This causes the ankles to be rotated inward, and each case is different in its levels of severity. For half the babies born with the condition, it affects both feet and is known as bilateral clubfoot. Males are twice as likely to be born with either one or both feet affected, but with proper treatment, the majority of those affected recover completely during their early childhood or adolescence.
Houser fit the profile, and went into his first of 16 surgeries at just three days old. Though at that age, the career path that he would eventually travel down hadn’t even been a flitting thought, doctors were honest with his family.
“The first doctor that my mom went and saw after I was born said that there wasn’t a good chance of me being able to play sports,” Houser said. “They said walking should be fine, but running and playing sports might not happen.”
Though he played baseball and golf growing up, the skating lessons he took as a kid quickly paved the way to a burgeoning young hockey career. Jumping in on his brother’s team as the goalie proved to be the perfect fit. Struggling a bit in skating lessons, the push-stop movements in the crease were easier to navigate than the quick turns and backwards skating techniques employed by forwards and defensemen.
“You’re in a lot smaller place than a forward or defenseman is, and as long as you can move around the crease at a decent pace, then everything else is just skill work,” he said. “Nothing with my feet or anything like that has hindered me. I guess I lucked out a bit picking goalie, because if I picked a different position it might not have worked out this way.”
And worked out it has. Beginning his hockey career with the Des Moines Buccaneers of the United States Hockey League, Houser posted a 5-18-0 record through 32 games, but went on to a dominant career with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League. In his three years with the Knights, Houser posted a 93-38-5 record through 141 games. As his wins stacked up, so did his playing time as he jumped from 25 games to 54 in his second season.
His last year in London saw him post a 45-16-1 record complemented by a 2.47 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage. His 3,698 minutes played were the highest in the Canadian Hockey League for that season, and his 46 wins tied the OHL record. A workhorse by nature, Houser appeared in 62 of London’s 68 games that season.
Those numbers earned him an OHL First Team All-Star nod, and netted him the distinction of OHL Goaltender of the Year along with the Red Tilson Trophy that is given out each year to the OHL’s Most Outstanding Player. Houser was the first American-born goaltender to receive the Red Tilson, and he was just the second American-born goalie to earn the Goaltender of the Year award.
But despite his standout numbers in the OHL, the Pennsylvania native was passed over twice by the scouts and general managers of the National Hockey League in back-to-back drafts.
“I thought at the time not being drafted was a huge deal,” Houser said. “In my second and third years [in the OHL] especially, I thought that I played pretty well so I figured that it would all work out eventually no matter what. I think that if you keep winning and keep playing well that things kind of fall into place.”
For many hockey players on the brink of making it big, the draft is often looked at as the end-all-be-all. What most tend to forget is that in the grand scheme of things, your draft pick (or lack thereof) means little to nothing if you have the dedication and talent. If hockey wants you, it will find a way.
Current NHL goalies Viktor Fasth, Jonas Gustavsson, Jonas Hiller, and Ben Scrivens were all denied a draft pick. Maxime Fortunus, Chris Mueller, and Cristopher Nilstorp have been integral parts of the Texas Stars, none were drafted. Torey Krug, Brian Rafalski, and Marty St. Louis all went undrafted as well. A fan favorite this year in the Alamo City, Rampage forward Bobby Butler was also passed over. So were Matt Gilroy, Jed Ortmeyer, and Greg Rallo.
Houser attended the Florida Panthers’ development camp in 2012, and the club signed him to an entry-level contract that July. He spent his first pro season with the Cincinnati Cyclones of the ECHL, and despite a few bumps in the road this season, the 21-year-old started to find his groove through 28 games with the Rampage.
“He’s a young kid in a tough, tough position, but his compete level is unbelievable,” said Rampage coach Tom Rowe. “There are teams that like to play in front of certain goaltenders, and he seems to have that ability because he works so hard. I think he’s handled this year pretty good, especially with the adversity he’s faced with his feet and how he’s had to compensate for that. Kudos to him for battling as hard as he has.”
Along with the expansive experience that Rowe brings to the room, Houser cites the sharing of the net with longtime NHL netminder Scott Clemmensen as a major influence.
“He never lets a good goal or a bad goal or anything rattle him or affect him, which I think is pretty cool,” Houser said. “Clem’s good at brushing that off, and that’s something that I’ve learned from him. Just the approach that he comes to the rink with every day, he’s always professional.”
Making it to the professional level in any sport is a rarity, but getting there and becoming a regular while also overcoming a physical deformity is something that doesn’t go unnoticed. Never one to make excuses or place the blame somewhere it doesn’t belong, Houser knows the road ahead will be long. He isn’t afraid of that.
“You come to a league like this and you see all the good players and goalies and if you’re not on one night then it’s going to be tough to keep the puck out of the net,” he said.
“It can be frustrating at times but you have to tell yourself you have to enjoy the ride. You’re with your friends here all the time, and sometimes there might be stretches where it’s not going your way, but you have to take it day by day and everything will work out.”