BRANDON — Isaac Howard thought he’d be a first-round draft pick two years before it happened, and he wasn’t afraid to tell people.
He was 16 and had just been invited to the USA Hockey National Team Development Program when he started training during the summer at Royalty Sports Performance outside Minneapolis. It wasn’t long before he was bartering with his trainer, Carson Fossum, who also has a clothing line, for free gear.
“He was like, ‘Carson, can I get a free hoodie?” Fossum said. “I’m like, ‘Ike, why would I give you a free hoodie?’ and he said, ‘Don’t you want a future first-rounder wearing it?’
“And I’m like, ‘Ike, you’ve got a lot of work to do before we get to that point,’ He’s like, ‘Carson, don’t worry, man, I promise, you want first-rounders wearing this stuff.’””
The Lightning selected Howard this month with the second-to-last pick of the first round, but the 18-year-old stole the spotlight by taking the stage in a white suit straight out of Miami Vice, complete with a gaudy American flag belt buckle. He said the best-looking guy in the room needed to dress like it.
“Every once in a while, he’d get a good suit going or something,” said Lightning prospect Dylan Duke, who played with Howard in the U.S. National Team Development Program. “It’s good stuff. He loves it, so I’m in for it. I’m not gonna wear it myself, but I’ll take a look at it and get a good smile out of it.”
Howard certainly has swagger. He also thrives on competition, whether it’s battling for bragging rights with his brothers, playing for one of the top prep hockey programs or competing alongside the country’s top junior players on the U.S. developmental team.
He is fueled by a determination to win — and a desire to tell you about it.
‘Everything’s a competition’
Howard grew up in Hudson, Wisconsin, as the third of four brothers. From the time he could walk, his father, Tony, said, Isaac wanted to be on the ice. He’d beg to go to his older brothers’ hockey practices just for an opportunity to be around the rink, so much so that his father started calling him “Iceman.”
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“He just was obsessed with it,” Tony Howard said. “Even in diapers, he’d run around our house in skates, and if you tried to take the skates off he started crying before he could talk real well.”
Growing up with three brothers (older brothers Anthony, 23, and Mason, 20, and younger brother Eli, 16) everything became a competition. And Isaac never liked to lose.
“With my dad, we had five boys in the house, ton of fights, ton of competition, all that stuff going on,” Howard said. “I think that’s where it stems from, because any time one of my brothers beats me at something, I’d get pretty mad, so I don’t really let it happen anymore. … Pretty much everything’s a competition. That’s the beauty of having three brothers, tons of two-on-two games. Everyone wants to be stronger than one another, beat each other up.”
Howard took that competitive edge to Shattuck-St. Mary’s, an elite hockey prep school about an hour away from Howard’s hometown that produced NHL stars such as Sidney Crosby, Zach Parise and Jonathan Toews. Playing with some of the best players in the country, he upped his game, overcoming a groin injury during his Under-16 season to score 31 goals and 64 points in 38 games. He went on to play in the Youth Olympic Games, scoring a tournament record seven goals as the U.S. won the silver medal.
“He’s very dynamic,” said Shattuck coach Rich Metro. “He was one of those guys that when he wanted to go and he could get a step on somebody, boom, he was gone. He really thrives on grabbing that extra gear and putting it under the bar, and you could see it. I don’t know if we ever thought he would be a first-rounder, but we also thought we definitely thought he had a lot of talent and he had the ability to be one.”
‘Nobody outworks him’
The summer before Howard was slated to report to the U.S. National Team Development Program in Michigan, gyms were shut down in Minnesota. But Fossum let him borrow equipment to make a home gym in the Howard garage, complete with trap bars, barbells, plates and dumbbells.
“He did every single workout in his garage that I gave him,” Fossum said. “And that’s when I knew from a work ethic standpoint that he wasn’t going to let COVID stop him. ... I would say out of all the athletes I’ve ever trained, nobody outworks Isaac. He’s gonna make sure that nobody outworks him.”
From the time he was a kid, Howard was told he was too small, and at 5-feet-10, he’s not the biggest player. But he’s become an elite skater for his age and has a knack for quickly finding the soft spots on the ice to score.
“It hasn’t hurt him yet,” Tony Howard said of his son’s size. “He still gets into the tight areas and doesn’t have a problem driving to the net with it. He’s got(ten) really strong on his skates, which helps, and he’s always kind of played up even when he was a young kid, so I think that really helped him playing with bigger guys.”
Again surrounded by elite players with the NTDP, Howard became the program’s top scorer last season, totaling 82 points (33 goals, 49 assists) in 60 games for the U-18 team. He also led Team USA with 11 points in the U-18 World Championships.
Coincidently, he again earned the nickname “Iceman” from his teammates.
Just a few days after hearing his name called on draft night, Howard was getting his first taste of professional life during the Lightning’s development camp. Next week, he’ll go to Michigan to compete for a spot on the U.S. national juniors team, then play his freshman season at Minnesota-Duluth. He said he could turn pro after one or two seasons there.
“I genuinely love the game,” he said. “It’s the only thing I want to do for my career and, you know, I think I’ve always been confident in myself. I believe in myself, and I know what I’m capable of. If you make it this far, you’ve got to have confidence, for sure.
“And I just like to have fun with it. I’m a pretty relaxed guy, even in the biggest moments. Not many people get to experience that, so I just kind of have that fun aspect of it. I want to make it fun.”
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