Great expectations

Minnesota hockey signee Mike Howe is spending another season with the River City Lancers of the USHL before joining the Gophers in 2004. This year, coaches are looking for the talented Howe to not only provide leadership for the team, but to become one of its most potent offensive weapons.

With only five players back from his Clark Cup runner-up team a year ago, River City Lancers coach-GM Mike Hastings doesn't mince words about Mike Howe's oh-so important role this season.

"Instead of being one of the go-to guys, he's going to be leaned on every single night," said Hastings of his second-year sniper.

It's a new challenge for Howe, 19, but one he relishes.

"It's different for me, because I've always been the younger guy looking up to others," he said. "Not as much was put on my shoulders last year. This year, I'm going to have to be one of the guys that lead the way."

Howe can't afford not to shoulder the responsibility - and shoulder it with conviction - because there's an even bigger challenge waiting for him at the University of Minnesota, the school the St. Cloud, Minn., native has committed to for the 2004-05 season.

"He's going to have to pay the price if he wants to play at that university," said Hastings.

For Howe, who grew up rooting for the Huskies but admittedly switched his allegiance to Gopher gold when Minnesota wrestled St. Cloud, there was only one place he thought of playing.

"I always wanted to be a Gopher," said Howe, who also took official visits to St. Cloud State and Notre Dame. "It's not anything the other schools didn't have; it was just the Golden Gopher thing. I'm nothing but excited for it."

But the dream is on hold for now. Not only do the two-time defending champs return all their forwards from last year, but there's still a lot to learn in River City before auditioning for a lead role with the Gophers.

"It was a better idea for me to stay and progress more instead of going up there and not playing much," said Howe. "If I went in this year, I don't think I'd be mature enough, physically and mentally."

"It was something Minnesota and Mike discussed, but Mike's got a pretty stable idea of what goes on at that program and the quality of hockey players there," said Hastings. "I think if he would have pushed, they would have taken him, but I think Mike said, ‘I need another year to be leaned on as a leader and to get bigger and stronger and be one of the best players in the USHL.' It's an expectation we have, Mike has and Minnesota has."

Minnesota coach Don Lucia knows a good thing when he sees it. As soon as he arrived in Minneapolis five years ago, Lucia threw the Golden Gophers' hat in the United States Hockey League recruiting ring - a practice balked at before The Don's appointment. This season, 18 former USHL stars are chasing a dynasty at Minnesota

One of them is former Lancer Chris Harrington, a hometown friend and confidant of Howe. Harrington, who influenced Howe's decision to come to River City, played two seasons with the Lancers under Hastings. Harrington's double dose of seasoning in the USHL paid off; as a freshman last year, he was a top-four defenseman for the NCAA champions.

"I've always looked to him for answers," said Howe.

Howe's ability to put pucks in the net is unquestioned. He scored a team-high 25 goals last season (tied for 12th in the USHL). It's his "shoot now, ask questions later" mentality that fuels Howe's productivity.

"I give him heat for it, but I always tell him he hasn't seen a shot he doesn't like. He doesn't mind putting up the ‘three' from half-court," joked Hastings. "He's got that goal-scorer's mentality that [the puck] can go in from anywhere - and it can."

Howe posted four goals for eight points in 11 games in the postseason, which ended in a Game 4 loss to Lincoln in the finals.

"His ability to get rid of the puck in a small area - and quickly - allows him to score goals," said Hastings.

To make an immediate impact at Minnesota, Howe needs to continue to challenge himself – on the scoresheet, in the locker room, in the weight room. He could quite possibly be heading to a program staring at a four-peat, and cracking that lineup won't be easy.

"He needs to be an unsatisfied hockey player. He needs to be real greedy, especially as a goal-scorer," said Hastings of the 6-foot, 185-pound NHL draft-eligible. "Going into Minnesota, the bar's set pretty high. He's going against some pretty good hockey players.

"Minnesota's not going to back off; they're going to continue to recruit the best kids in the country," said Hastings, noting heralded recruits Ryan Potulny and Dan Irmen, both of whom lit America's Tier 1 league on fire last season. "He's got to put up those kinds of numbers, he's got to put that kind of dedication into [his game] to continue to be successful - that's what Minnesota is planning on."

Howe knows it, and he welcomes the opportunity.

"I want to make sure I get better every day, and make sure I move forward as a leader," he said. "I'm looking forward to it."

Brian McDonough is the Editor of USA Junior Hockey Magazine.

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