Every summer, hundreds of undrafted and unsigned teenagers get invited to NHL prospect development, conditioning, and training camps. By now, almost all of the NHL teams have held their preliminary prospect camps, used mainly to introduce new draft picks to the NHL style of training and get an in-person look at the progress of their old draft picks.
A little over a thousand prospects have attended these camps this summer, with nearly 250 of those being invitees hoping to catch the eye of someone in the organization. It’s tough to get exact numbers on invitees, as not all teams publish their camp rosters and many invitees will attend multiple camps. When training camps open in September, some of these invitees will return, joined by more hopefuls eyeing a spot on an NHL depth chart, no matter how far down.
Of these hundreds, a tiny fraction will earn NHL contracts. Every single one of these invitees is an underdog: a player has to be damned impressive at a prospect camp to get management to take their attention away from their prized draft picks. That said, there’s usually a reason a player warrants an invite to camp in the first place: some spark of potential, or an impressive playoff run, or an outstanding season as an older player in junior.
Michael Houser was invited to prospect camps based on all three of these things over the last three years: this summer, he finally beat the odds and got his NHL contract with the Florida Panthers. But beating the odds is nothing new for Houser.
On Saturday, NHL.com ran an excellent article detailing exactly how long Houser’s odds were at becoming an elite athlete:
Houser was born with bilateral club feet. With numerous doctors saying he would struggle to walk, much less play competitive sports, the native of Youngstown, Ohio, endured 15 surgeries on each foot in the first three years of his life, then two more when he was 12, to correct the issue.
That’s right: Houser has overcome a birth defect that caused both his feet to rotate inwards at the ankle, meaning he would walk on the sides of his feet without treatment. To fix this, he had 17 surgeries before he became a teenager. He will never be a runner, but hockey gave him the opportunity to still become an elite athlete, as he settled naturally into the goaltending position. He still had a few more obstacles to overcome, however.
I first became aware of Houser when he was invited to the Canucks’ 2010 development camp, where he was the youngest prospect. At the time, he was coming off a decent season as the London Knights’ backup, but scouts had noticed potential in the young netminder: Central Scouting ranked him 11th overall among North American goalies. This wasn’t enough to get him drafted, but that was nothing new for Houser; he wasn’t drafted into the OHL either, getting passed over two times before the Knights picked him up as a free agent.
I kept an eye on Houser after his stint at the Canucks development and prospect camps: he went back to London as the Knights’ starter in 2010-11 and posted solid, if unspectacular, numbers during the regular season. He appeared in 54 games with a 3.32 GAA and a .904 SV%. It’s worth noting, however, that those numbers were drastically better than those of his backup and his performance was enough to be named the team’s MVP.
It was the playoffs where he really made his mark, posting a .940 SV% in a 6-game series against Owen Sound while facing upwards of 41 shots per game. While impressive, it still wasn’t enough to get him drafted, even though he was still only 18 years old. It did, however, catch the attention of the Philadelphia Flyers, who invited him to their training camp. While he performed well, it apparently wasn’t enough to earn him a contract. At least one scout was apoplectic.
There was only one thing Houser could do: dominate.
In the 2011-12 regular season, Houser won 46 games while posting a 2.47 GAA and .925 SV% with 6 shutouts, then led the Knights to the OHL championship and overtime of the Memorial Cup Final. In all, he played 85 games for the Knights and seemed to suffer no ill effects from the heavy workload. For his efforts, Houser was named the OHL and CHL Goaltender of the Year and won the Red Tilson Trophy as the OHL’s Most Outstanding Player.
In the 2012 draft, a bevy of older players were selected, including Tanner Pearson, who was picked by the LA Kings in the first round and will be 20 by the start of next season. And yet, not a single team took a chance at drafting the best goalie in major junior hockey at the same age.
On the plus side, Houser could afford to be a bit more picky about which training camps he would attend. He accepted invitations from two teams that had gaps in their goaltending depth – Florida and Winnipeg – but only needed to attend one camp. The Panthers snapped him up before the Jets could get a chance to see him in person. He is expected to play in either the ECHL or AHL this season.
From overcoming a series of surgeries to going undrafted a total of 5 times between the OHL and NHL, Houser has persevered. I, for one, will be cheering for him as he takes on the new challenge of working his way up the professional ranks.