TAMPA — Lightning prospect Isaac Howard will return to Michigan State University's campus for about a week and a half, bringing with him the glittering gold medal the 19-year-old won after leading Team USA to victory at the IIHF World Junior Championship in Sweden. I came back.
Howard, the Lightning's 2022 first-round pick (31st overall), tied for the tournament lead with seven goals, including two in the gold medal-winning game against Sweden. He was named Player of the Game.
Now, Howard is back after a breakout college season at Michigan State (15-4-3), ranked No. 7 in the nation in both major polls. Howard, who plays under former U.S. National Development Team coach Adam Nightingale, appeared in 20 games and scored 20 points, including five goals, in his first season with the Spartans. His 15 assists rank eighth in the Big Ten.
This weekend, Howard will play his first series against cross-state rival Michigan, a team that also features fellow Lightning prospect Dylan Duke and former Team USA linemates Gavin Brindley and Frank. Nazar III belongs to it.
Lightning general manager Julien Brisebois will be in the stands, where he plans to attend both the Spartans and No. 15 Wolverines games on Friday and Saturday, as well as watch Howard and Duke play.
“I haven't seen him in person yet this year,” Brisebois said of Howard. “I'm looking forward to talking to him after the game, but it was great to see America win the gold medal at the Olympic World Juniors and I'm excited to see Isaac win the gold medal and play a key role on the team.” It was great to watch. So I think his career is developing in a really positive way, and now he'll be looking forward to the next challenge.”
The Tampa Bay Times spoke with Howard this week about winning the gold medal, his new college home and what he took away from the experience. This Q&A has been edited for space and clarity.
There were many great moments at the World Juniors, from the winning goal in the penalty shootout against the Czech Republic to the two goals you scored against Sweden that won the gold medal. What was your biggest takeaway from this experience?
It's a really great experience and opportunity. It's like a fulfilling month just chasing the gold medal and teaching you the traits that make you a team. In the near future, we must learn how to quickly come together and win.
I think I was just going in there and playing my game. I had two great linemates (Nazar and Brindley), so we motivated each other and had a good tournament. It's fun. When you join a team like that, everyone is so good and has so much skill, it's like a powerhouse team. So learn how to play, improve yourself and improve those around you. It's like a win-win for everyone.
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How big of a deal was it for you to win the gold medal against the Swedish national team, who many of you have played against in international matches?
It meant everything to us in a way. Going into that tournament, we basically knew we wanted the gold medal or nothing. That's definitely what we wanted and that was our mindset. We played against them in the under-18 world and lost, so it was kind of a relief to win. It was incredibly fun.
It's surreal to wear that jersey and it makes you feel like you're playing for something big. And I always want to go out and represent my country and do my best. The moment it hit me was when I got back to the hotel where my parents and all my family were. As I was talking to them and just soaking in the feeling, I realized that we had just won a gold medal and how proud they were of us. Everyone is happy to win that gold medal.
Now that you're back at Michigan State, what were the keys to your success with the Spartans in your first season there? You transferred from Minnesota Duluth and played again under former USNTD coach Adam Nightingale. doing. Was the experience what you expected?
It's been a great year so far. I think the only thing I really like about this school is the development aspect, like training and being on the ice. It was very similar to the situation with the national team for me and it was really good. …Everyone on the team keeps getting better and better. I think that's important. And the success we've had on the ice, it's great to be a part of that. I think we have a really, really deep team, and I can see us getting far at the end of the year.
It's a different atmosphere (than Duluth), a different culture, and I think it's a better fit for me. When you're successful on the ice, it feels like the whole team is moving forward, and everyone's individual game gets better when you're a part of it. ”
How do you think you've grown as a player in the last few months since we last met at development camp?
I think I've grown a lot in all aspects of the game. I think our defense was good throughout the season, and I think our offense was also good. It's like playing a more mature game and taking care of the puck. I got bigger, faster, stronger. (Howard said he gained 6 pounds) I think it all comes down to the way we do things here, just working out and competing on the ice, and I think that's all important. ”
Lightning is clearly watching everything you've done this year. How was your interaction with them during the season?
Throughout the season, I have been in contact with almost all of the staff. Just a text message or a phone call or if they came to watch me play. I always appreciate when they come to watch and it's always good to talk to them and catch up on what's going on. Skating coach, I worked with one of them over the summer. She came to Michigan, so I had to take it in. Obviously a great staff so any time you can talk to them it's always good. ”
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