It’s always a joy to see an ex-Knight or London and area player realize their NHL dream.
The Michael Houser graduation, though, stands out because of the journey.
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The 28-year-old finally got his shot Monday because the Buffalo Sabres officially run out of other options due to injury and availability. He delivered with a 34-save, first-star performance in a 4-2 victory over the New York Islanders.
This is hardly a David Ayres-beats-the-Leafs emergency situation, though. Houser has been a professional goalie for nine years and one of the better ones at the ECHL level.
Before that, he established himself as one of the best netminders in Knights history. The workhorse owns the franchise wins record and backstopped the club to the 2012 Memorial Cup final on the heels of an OHL MVP and Canadian Hockey League award-winning season.
Houser never got picked in the OHL or NHL drafts. He was routinely ignored by USA Hockey.
Not a lot of people believed he would make it as far as he did. But he overcame being born with club feet to make a career out of the game to now earn the crease at the highest level.
“It’s an absolutely fantastic example that if you stick with it and work hard, you’ll finally get your chance,” said Bill Dark, the Knights goalie coach when Houser was here. “He has continued to be a soldier who has gone back between the ECHL and the American league and keeps going.
“You’re proud and excited to see a former player get this sort of opportunity. Your chances sometimes come out of the craziest situations.”
It was an unenviable one, for sure.
The Sabres threw him in net despite having not played a single game all season. His last real contest was March 7, 2020, before the pandemic started, and he boasted only 29 minutes of action above the ECHL level since 2016-17.
The organization originally expected him to provide depth for their American league affiliate in Rochester, so he didn’t get any time there or in Buffalo as the third-string goalie mostly assigned to the taxi squad simply because the roster rules in the COVID-19 era demanded it.
As the injuries mounted, Houser’s first chance to back up was at home in Pittsburgh with parents Monica and Bill in the stands. The only thing that would’ve made this better would have been the chance to play there.
But this is a major win for anyone who works diligently at their craft and has enough pride to keep at it when there doesn’t appear to be any more ladder rungs left. Houser’s competitive thirst perfectly fit with the approach of Mark and Dale Hunter — a quality shared by 2016 Memorial Cup champ Tyler Parsons and current Knights goalie Brett Brochu.
Houser was the best goalie in the OHL in an era when his foes included John Gibson, Jack Campbell, Matt Murray, Petr Mrazek, Mark Visentin, Garret Sparks, Malcolm Subban and Scott Wedgewood.
“It’s the top class of goalies that have ever played in the OHL at the same time,” Dark said.
There are a lot of NHL stoppers in that group.
Now, Houser is counted among them — and deservedly so.
And who knows where this goes?
He will start in the rematch with the Isles Tuesday and go for win No. 2.
AROUND THE PROS: Houser’s old goaltending partner Igor Bobkov was part of the KHL champion Omsk Avangard that hoisted the Gagarin Cup last week. The big Russian had a 2.01 goals against average and .928 save percentage this season, but yielded the net to Simon Hrubec in the march to the title . . . Knights grad Billy Moskal made his pro debut Saturday with Cleveland in a 5-2 American league loss to the Texas Stars. His Monsters teammates in the game included Will Lochead and Cliff Pu. Brandon Crawley is also on board. Liam Foudy piled up three goals and 16 points in 11 games with Cleveland before rejoining the struggling Columbus Blue Jackets . . . Jeff Carter has fit right in offensively with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He should be a lethal option in the tightly contested playoffs . . . Former Knights co-captain Alec Regula was called up to the Chicago Blackhawks. He’s up after ex-mate Adam Boqvist was shut down for the season with a broken wrist.