Monica Houser was on the phone with a customer service representative Monday morning in her Pittsburgh-area home when a text message flashed across the screen that filled her with pride, joy and a sense of urgency.
Her 28-year-old son Michael, a professional goaltender whose National Hockey League dream never wavered while competing for eight different minor-league teams across nine years, sent a three-word message: “I’m starting tonight.”
Monica apologetically interrupted the conversation and explained why she had to hang up: her son was making his NHL debut with the Buffalo Sabres.
“She probably thought I was nuts,” Monica joked.
Monica frantically awoke her 26-year-old son Alex, a doctorate student at the University of Michigan, and began to pack a bag for Buffalo. She soon learned fans were not permitted to attend the game inside KeyBank Center against the East Division’s third-place New York Islanders, but the Houser family still had a day they will never forget.
After some difficult moments to begin his first game at any level since March 7, 2020, Michael stopped all 15 shots he faced in the third period, standing tall to help the Sabres rally from a two-goal deficit to defeat the New York Islanders 4-2.
“It’s so exciting,” said Houser, who planned to call Monica and his father, Bill, immediately after his postgame news conference. “I’ve worked my whole life for this. For it to happen and just to play a game is really special.”
Houser’s circuitous journey included three consecutive NHL drafts in which he was not selected and 283 games between the American Hockey League and ECHL.
He was the sixth goalie to appear in a game for the Sabres this season, tied for the most in franchise history (2013-14 and 1988-89). Linus Ullmark, Carter Hutton and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen are unavailable because of injury. Dustin Tokarski did not play while dealing with a “family matter,” according to interim coach Don Granato, and Jonas Johansson was traded to the Colorado Avalanche in March.
With no additional goalies on an NHL contract, the Sabres were granted an exception by the league to add Rochester’s Stefanos Lekkas on a professional tryout to back up Houser. This unprecedented goalie situation is one of many calamitous moments in a trying season for the franchise.
Yet, for all that needed to occur for Houser to finally receive his NHL call, he never doubted this day would arrive.
Houser’s story of perseverance began long before he joined the Sabres organization ahead of the 2018-19 season. He was born with bilateral club feet, a congenital deformity that affects a child’s bones, muscles, tendons and blood vessels. Houser underwent a series of corrective procedures before the age of 2, followed by one more at around 12 years old.
The condition was rarely discussed in the Houser family. His doctor inspired confidence and hope by reminding Houser’s parents that it would have no impact on his quality of life or ability to perform any activity. The diagnosis was rarely discussed by the family, unless a young Michael had questions. It also had no bearing on his ability to perform on the ice, but Michael described his beginnings as a source of motivation.
“It’s kept me going, for sure, it’s made me work I think a little bit harder knowing that I have to keep up, that I’m not as naturally I guess gifted as some others in terms of maybe footwork or height for sure, but it’s definitely made me work harder,” Houser said.
Houser went on to have an outstanding junior career for the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights. He was the rock for a 2011-12 team that reached the Memorial Cup and included multiple future first-round draft picks. He was named the OHL’s Most Outstanding Player and became the first American-born athlete named the Canadian Hockey League’s goalie of the year.
For all Houser accomplished in the top junior league, he was never drafted by an NHL team. Houser bounced around the minors with stops in San Antonio, Ontario, Manchester, Cleveland, Tucson, Fort Wayne, Rochester and Cincinnati. He hasn’t played more than six AHL games in any season since 2014-15.
There were long bus rides to small rinks for scarcely attended games across North America while hoping that dedication and success would get noticed by decision-makers around the NHL. But no matter where Houser played, his family always made trips to watch in person.
“He had that passion, that goal, that maybe someday, maybe, he would get there,” said Monica, who planned to watch the game at home with Bill and Alex. “And here’s that someday.”
With two notable prospects in the pipeline, the Sabres signed Houser to be what Cincinnati Cyclones coach Matt Thomas called a “competitive mentor.” They wanted Houser to push for the job while mentoring young goalie partners such as Johansson and Luukkonen. Thomas recalled Houser always being first on the ice for practices or morning skates, routinely arriving at the rink early with a request for Thomas to construct team drills that would help him improve a specific area of his game.
Houser was the backbone of the Cyclones during a 2018-19 season in which Johansson missed significant time with a knee injury. He had a .922 save percentage in 41 games and earned the title of ECHL goalie of the year.
“Man, the hardest working guy,” Thomas said. “I’ve never seen a more popular player as a goalie. All the guys love him. He’s so well-liked. He’s got that great balance of making sure he’s keeping everybody working. He’s just a leader. I’ll tell ya right now, I think JJ and UPL owe a lot to Michael Houser. … He showed them how hard you have to work every day to get to the NHL.”
Patience can be difficult for a player in Houser’s position. He was talented enough to pursue a more lucrative opportunity overseas. Houser, though, earned enough on AHL contracts to have financial stability, which allowed him to spend his summers training rather than working a second job.
He remained resolute in his pursuit for an NHL opportunity and, until this season, continued to hone his craft by working with Sabres goalie development coach Seamus Kotyk, whom he described as a mentor.
“Every year, I thought he would leave for a job overseas and Michael would say, ‘I’m not ready,' ” recalled Thomas. “He always believed all he ever needed was a chance.”
Houser savored every moment, but he wasn’t simply happy to be in this position. He regretted both goals against, although his 34 saves gave Buffalo its first win over the Islanders this season. But after Sam Reinhart’s two goals completed the comeback and time expired, the Sabres’ bench cleared to congratulate Houser.
Granato stopped in his tracks to watch the celebration from the bench. The dream isn’t over. Houser is expected to start against Tuesday night, another chapter in his tale of perseverance.
“What an opportunity and an incredible job to seize an opportunity,” Granato said. “Very special night. Special person. … What a moment.”