It’s the end of the second period in an early season Atlantic Junior Hockey League showdown and the Washington Junior Nationals find themselves down a goal to the Boston Bulldogs.
The intermission provides a much-needed opportunity for rest and redemption before the final period gets under way. The locker room’s morgue-like atmosphere is suddenly shattered as Joe Howe steps to the middle of the room to address the team.
“We need this game; this is a really pivotal one,” he says. Intense and energized, Howe continues his impassioned plea for the team to “show the league that we are actually the real deal.”
For Richard Brogden and the other players, the pep talk hits home. If Joe Howe believes in us, we need to believe in ourselves as well.
The team storms back onto the ice, scoring two unanswered goals on their way to a, 3-2, comeback victory.
Weeks later, Brogden recalls almost nostalgically “that glare in his eyes” as Howe stood on the bench watching as the players celebrated.
His official role with the team is that of an equipment manager, but he serves as much more. He is an inspiration for these talented teenagers that passion and perseverance can overcome many obstacles. Because hockey to Joe Howe is not just a game; it’s a way of life.
Howe is a 40-year-old developmentally challenged native of Annapolis, Md. He has been abandoned, abused and mistreated throughout much of his life. He has been mocked and ridiculed because of his condition, passed from one group home to the next.
“They would call him stupid, retarded, dumb – every name you could imagine,” said Walter Boydston, Howe’s current guardian.
And then he found hockey. Or perhaps hockey found him. Either way, Howe finally discovered a place where he truly belongs – on the ice.
He was working in the Drydock restaurant at the U.S. Naval Academy when some Naval personnel invited him to join them at the Dahlgren rink for some pick-up hockey. That was all it took for Howe to be bitten by the hockey bug. From there he caught the attention of Mike Hickey, director of the American Special Hockey Association, who encouraged him to join the Washington Ice Dogs.
As a member of the Ice Dogs team, Howe learned a number of valuable lessons on the ice and in the locker room that helped him away from the rink, including responsibility, discipline and confidence.
It was that confidence that inspired Howe to approach Olaf Kolzig, long-time goaltender with the Washington Capitals, at an Annapolis, Md., Safeway store where Howe works as a bagger. Kolzig was impressed by Howe’s passion for the game, and the two quickly became friends.
Kolzig even sent a special congratulatory video message when Howe was named the Disabled Athlete of the Year at USA Hockey’s Annual Congress in 2006.
Howe still practices with his Ice Dogs teammates whenever his schedule allows, but lately his responsibilities with the Junior Nationals keep him pretty busy.
A typical day for Howe entails the usual duties associated with the title.
“I take care of the helmets, tighten the cages, take care of the game sticks, and the backup sticks,” Howe says. “I fill water bottles with half Gatorade and half water. I’ll get the team doctor when a player gets hurt or injured.”
But to the players, Howe does more than tend to their equipment. He lifts their spirits while keeping them grounded.
“I think the experience from the players’ aspect gives them a different perspective on life that otherwise 16- to 20-year-old kids would never have,” says head coach Troy Govig.
And that is exactly what team owner Stephen Lary was looking for when he struck up a relationship with the Ice Dogs program. He wanted his players to learn about the concept of privilege, of community, of giving back as he has done with other local programs such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters and Wounded Warriors.
“He keeps the locker room upbeat and positive,” says Govig, referring to Howe’s additional role as a “morale booster” for the Junior Nationals. “He’s always patting the guys on the back, giving support.”
That’s what teammates do, and Howe definitely considers himself a part of the team. While he admits there is a lot of hard work associated with being an equipment manager, especially making multiple trips between the locker room and the bench, Howe wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.
“My favorite part of this job is traveling and seeing other rinks and watching the Junior Nats compete against other teams,” he says.
The bus rides to AJHL cities around the eastern seaboard offer Howe an opportunity to bond with his teammates, trading barbs and swapping stories of hockey feats past.
“He’s always talking about how many goals he’s scored at practice, how he was the MVP of the league two years ago,” says forward Chris Barron. “He wants to be a coach of the Junior Nats, a player on the Junior Nats, and the owner of the Junior Nats.”
Those are some pretty lofty dreams, but for now Howe is happy seeing his friends and teammates succeed on the ice. His goal is to be behind the bench when the Junior Nationals win the national championship in the spring. If that happens, the man who serves as a daily inspiration for the Junior Nationals players, coaches and front office staff will feel as if he has done his job.
“It’s been good,” Howe says. “It’s a great honor and I’m proud to be a part of it.”
The feeling is more than mutual.