WEST POINT, N.Y. — There, in the middle of the scuffle, was the familiar number eight with “HOWATT” stretching between the shoulders. But the jersey was not the orange, blue and white of the New York Islanders; it was the black, gold and gray of the United States Military Academy.
In the stands of Tate Rink on the West Point campus, the elder Howatt had to be smiling as the Army and Nebraska-Omaha players continued to swirl around on the ice below.
Not just at the fact that his boy, Brody, had grown to be just like him, 12-year NHL veteran Garry, but that the boy was fulfilling his dream.
Through the injuries which snatched the first two years of his collegiate career, through the long hours of study at one of the top academic institutions in the land, Brody Howatt was finally where he always wanted to be — playing Division I hockey for the Black Knights of Army.
There was never much doubt that Brody Howatt would inherit his father’s love of hockey. As early as age two, Brody was tagging along with dad to the New York Islanders’ practice facility and skating with the stars and their offspring.
“I didn’t even realize when I was skating at the time who I was with; to me, I was just thinking that these were the guys that I grew up with,” explained Brody.
He recalls skating with his godfather, Bobby Bourne, and his sons, as well as Billy Smith and his children. “But I really didn’t know — or realize — until the last couple of years what I did,” he added.
At such a young age, Brody didn’t fully grasp that what his father did for a living was a talent that few had, but many dreamed of acquiring.
Now, his pride in his father’s tenure is evident. “I remember watching his games, but I never took it all in,” said Brody. “I never realized until [now], when I’m 21, what he was doing and what was going on.”
Before retiring in 1984, Garry Howatt would score 112 goals and add 152 assists in a 720-game career, winning two Stanley Cup championships with the Islanders before finishing with the Hartford Whalers and New Jersey Devils. Garry also lists 87 playoff appearances on his resume, amassing 12 goals and 14 assists.
However, it was the elder Howatt’s intense style, aggressiveness and pride for which he is most remembered, all characteristics that have been passed on to the next generation.
Like his father, the younger Howatt admittedly does not possess the talent of some of his teammates — but, like Garry, Brody will do the little things necessary to win.
Said his linemate, junior right wing Jason Choi, “Off of the ice, Brody’s a real quiet guy. But on the ice, he is a super-intense person with a great passion for the game which he shows every time he is out there.”
It would be appropriate to use an old Fred Shero analogy, one that seems to fit even better at West Point: you need foot soldiers to win the war. Brody Howatt would definitely make Fred Shero’s team as an infantryman.
“I’ll do anything for my team and teammates to win — block a shot, take a hit, throw a check,” Brody explained. “I work hard with the guys on my line. We just keep digging the puck out of the corners and try to play smart, defensive hockey.”
While Howatt makes himself sound like just one of the boys, his coaches feel that he is a special player and person.
“Brody typifies what our program is all about: hard work, determination and toughness,” said Army head coach Rob Riley, whose Cadets, as Division I independents, play a rainbow schedule each year — mixing games against traditional eastern powers Rensselaer and Colgate with matches versus lower-division teams such as Villanova and Connecticut and, of course, the annual battle with Canada’s Royal Military College.
“He puts a lot of pressure on himself; but he has developed into one of the guys we can count on in tough spots,” explained the coach, now in his 12th year at West Point.
Assistant coach Paul Haggerty, a 1991 graduate of the academy, says that Howatt’s play can be summed up in one word: toughness.
“He will not give up,” said Haggerty of the 5-foot-11-inch, 180-pounder. “He’s a guy we know we can count on in tough situations to do all of the little things right.”
Howatt’s other linemate, senior center T.R. Coccaro, agrees with Haggerty’s assessment. “Brody’s a real tough guy; real gritty. Jason (Choi) and him are the two guys who do all of the hitting on our line and really make it go,” said Coccaro.
A standout on the ice at both Choate (Conn.) Rosemary Hall and Randolph (N.J.) High School during his secondary school days, Brody was actively recruited by several Ivy League schools.
His reasons for transferring from Randolph to Choate after his sophomore year were twofold: the higher level of competition he could face on the ice and the classwork at the Connecticut school.
Team MVP at Choate in his senior year, Brody was selected to play in the New England Prep All-Star Game in 1995. But, all of the other schools would take a back seat to West Point — thanks to a little help from a friend and a former Army player.
Although one year younger than Brody, Cadet sophomore goalie Corey Winer has been Brody’s best friend on the ice since Howatt started playing organized hockey at age five.
It was when the two were together at Choate that Brody was swayed towards the military academy, thanks to a little nepotism. Winer’s older brother, Ian, was a forward on the Army hockey team and the team captain for the 1995-96 season.
“I grew up with the Winers, so I respected what they said. Ian told me that this was probably the best decision you could make for your life, and he was right. This is the best decision that I ever made,” explained Howatt.
When his father dropped him off at West Point in the summer of 1995, the elder Howatt cried the tears of pride that only a parent can know.
“When I saw him crying, I decided that I was sticking it out at this place and making it no matter what,” Brody said.
But the road to Tate Rink has been bumpy. In each of his first two years, Brody suffered season-ending left knee injuries, the second a dislocation. After the dislocation, Brody elected to have stabilization surgery. The resulting rehabilitation was strenuous, but the knee is now close to 100 percent and Howatt is back to his old, aggressive forechecking self.
The injuries limited Brody to just four games and one goal his freshman year and no varsity action in his sophomore year. In addition to the injuries, Brody also faces a daily obstacle to stay on the ice that is unlike most other Division I hockey schools — West Point’s academic load.
A day in the life of an Army hockey player is like the day in the life of any other Cadet on campus, except that he must also find a way to squeeze those three hours needed for practice into his hectic schedule.
A systems engineering major, Brody is up daily at 6 a.m. Breakfast is at 6:25, and classes begin at 7:15 and run until the midday lunch break. After lunch, cadets attend either a military or academic meeting until mid-afternoon.
For Brody, hockey practice goes from 3 to 5:30 p.m. daily through most of the season, with weight training every other day from 5:30 to 6:30. Dinner follows, and then it’s back to the books to prepare for another day.
“It’s harder here than at most places because we have to worry about the military aspect as well as the academics. The first two years were a struggle, but I’ve figured out how I have to do things,” explained Brody.
In that game against UNO, Howatt’s line played a major role in helping Army to a 2-1 win. The next night, Brody would pot his first goal of the season in the Black Knights’ 4-1 victory over the Mavericks, completing a weekend sweep of the series.
Watching him play over that weekend, seeing Brody and his linemates recklessly hurl their bodies across the Tate Rink surface — giving 100 percent of themselves on every shift — and then seeing the smiles on their faces at game’s end is enough to convince you that Howatt wouldn’t trade his time at West Point for anything in the world.
“Even with all of the tough things that have happened and some of the things that we have to sacrifice, I wouldn’t trade it,” Brody said with a smile. “I’m getting a free education and, from what everyone tells me, I’ll be pretty well set up for the rest of my life.”
Sometimes, good things do happen to good guys.
Ken Kostik covers Army sports for The North County News in Yorktown Heights, N.Y.