‘Everybody needs opportunity’: Michael Houser making most of NHL chance

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The 2012 NHL Draft was set up nicely for Michael Houser.

The event was taking place in his Pittsburgh, where his family moved when he was 11, and the London Knights goaltender was coming off a season where he was named the Ontario Hockey League’s Most Outstanding Player and helped his team to the league title.

Houser was the 16th-ranked goalie according to NHL Central Scouting, so it wasn’t guaranteed he’d hear his named called over those two days. His agent, Paul Capizzano, told Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman this week they did not attend but had plans to go to the arena should he be picked.

Two-hundred and eleven players were selected and Houser and his agent did not need to make the drive to downtown Pittsburgh that weekend.

Almost nine years later, Houser will have good reason to take the trip to PPG Paints Arena as he’ll be making his third straight start for the Sabres Thursday night against the Penguins.

“Things do have to fall your way sometimes,” Houser said this week before his NHL debut. “You need chances because of an injury or a call-up or what have you. I’ve just been kind of waiting my turn, and I’m making sure that when it does come I’m ready for it.”

It’s been quite a few days for the 28-year-old Houser who, before this week, had not played a single minute of hockey since March 7, 2020. 

After the Cincinnati Cyclones opted out of the ECHL’s 2020-21 season, Houser was assigned to AHL Rochester but was behind Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and Dustin Tokarski on the depth chart and did not play. Injuries afforded this opportunity, one that he’s waited a long time for, and one that was achieved through sheer perseverance.

Overcoming challenges since childhood

Houser’s story is even more remarkable when you go further back and learn of the challenges he faced after being born with bilateral club feet, a defect that occurs in about one in 1,000 births. He needed over a dozen surgeries on his feet before he was three years old and two more in his early teens.

He found a home in goal after wanting to join his older brother Nick on the ice. Houser wasn’t the greatest of skaters, so throwing him in net seemed like an ideal solution. 

“It’s never been easy for me,” he told CBS Pittsburgh in 2012. “I’ve never really been given anything in terms of hockey at least and I’ve always had to work for what I’ve gotten and I think if things do work out eventually that that will make me a better hockey player for it.”

The journey to the NHL

Houser had to earn his NHL chance. After going undrafted in 2012, he signed with Cincinnati and began his rollercoaster career between the AHL and ECHL.

That minor league journey of 283 games took him to Cincinnati, San Antonio, Ontario, Manchester, Cleveland, Fort Wayne, Tucson, and Rochester. It was a long build up to his NHL debut. The door was opened and Houser has not disappointed.

During a 4-2 win over the Islanders Monday, Houser stopped 34 of 36 shots. Twenty four hours later he made 45 saves in regulation and overtime and three more in the shootout during a 4-3 win to sweep the back-to-back with New York.

Houser is the Sabres’ sixth goaltender this season, and before this week his NHL experience had been limited to watching from a suite as part of the taxi squad and dressed on the bench as backup.

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“The amazing part of the story is how he persevered for the number of years he has being on the cusp,” said Sabres interim head coach Don Granato. “He was an accomplished goalie coming out of the OHL and was on a great team there. Everybody needs opportunity. When you look at the NHL, we throw hundreds and hundreds of players in the NHL every year that can’t seize the opportunity and that’s the end of it for them. Michael has prepared for his opportunity, just like every other player that’s been able to seize it.”

No matter the level, Houser has never changed. Considering his road here he hasn’t taken this opportunity for granted. He may never play in the NHL again after this week, and wherever his hockey journey takes him he’ll continue doing what he’s always done to get himself to this point.

“That’s always been my job ever since I turned pro when I was 20, I’ve just been working for this moment,” he said. “The work never changes based on where you’re playing, whether it’s Cincinnati, Rochester or Buffalo. It’s always the same work, I practice the same way and just have different players playing against me and in front of me.”

Ending the season at home

The Sabres have two games remaining in their season, both in Pittsburgh. Houser will be in net Thursday to face off against the likes of Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, and Evgeni Malkin — superstars he watched growing up. It’s a sweet ending to a very memorable week.

Houser said his mom has secured over 20 tickets for family and friends. His Pittsburgh hockey memories include being in attendance when Marian Hossa nearly forced Game 7 during the 2008 Stanley Cup Final and when Chris Kunitz’s double overtime goal in Game 7 of the 2017 Eastern Conference Final helped keep the Penguins’ repeat hopes alive.

Now the Houser family will be able to have a new Pittsburgh-related hockey memory to top them all.

After all that the franchise has been through, who would have predicted that the feel-good story of the season would have been provided by the Sabres?

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.