When Michael Houser was born with bilateral club feet, one doctor told his family he would have trouble walking, much less participating in competitive sports. Nineteen years and 16 corrective surgeries later, Houser is perhaps hours away from hearing his name called during the 2012 NHL Entry Draft.
Houser, a 6-foot-1, 190-pound goaltender from Wexford, is a late-round possibility in the draft, which will be conducted tonight and Saturday at Consol Energy Center. He was named the Canadian Hockey League's goaltender of the year after a season in which he posted a 46-15-1 record with six shutouts for the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League.
Being named the top junior goaltender in Canada is quite an accomplishment, but that achievement pales in comparison to the journey Houser had getting to this point in his career.
Houser endured 16 procedures on each foot. The first 15 occurred when he was between 3 days old and 3 years old. The final two surgeries took place when he was 12.
The latter two are the only procedures he can recall. When the rest of his friends were spending their summer days playing outside, Houser was at home with both feet in casts, propped up in a wheelchair.
By that time, Houser had already overcome steep odds to play competitive hockey with the North Pittsburgh Wildcats organization. Some in the medical profession viewed his condition as a handicap, but his parents searched for a doctor who would not place limitations on him.
"My mother finally found a doctor in Akron who said he could work with them," said Houser, who was born in Youngstown, Ohio, and moved here in the fourth grade. "They're still not perfect, but they're much better than what they were."
Houser still has some limitations, but none that have prevented him from becoming one of North America's top goalie prospects. He is rated as the No. 16 North American goalie by the NHL's Central Scouting Bureau.
Houser played for the Pittsburgh Hornets when he was a student at Shady Side Academy in seventh and eighth grade, but like most elite prospects from this area, moved away before high school to face better competition. He moved in with an aunt and uncle in Detroit and played for Little Caesars hockey before moving on to Iowa to play for the Des Moines Buccaneers in the United States Hockey League in 2008. He played for London the past three seasons.
NHL teams have passed him over in previous years, but he is coming off his best season. He led London to the OHL championship, had a 2.47 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage.
Houser said NHL teams know enough about him by now that his medical condition isn't an issue.
"I've had enough meetings with teams and I've done the fitness testing for teams," he said. "Pretty much everything is normal except my running. Everything else is fine. There is nothing in hockey that I can't do. I can move from side to side in the crease. I can run, but it's not smooth like other people can run."
Houser is one of only four players with local ties who have a chance to be drafted. This comes a year after four local players were selected in the first three rounds.
Other hopefuls include Henrik Samuelsson, the son of former Penguin Ulf Samuelsson who moved away from the area when he was 2; and Washington, Pa., natives Riley Barber and Travis Jeke.
Samuelsson is the highest-rated prospect followed by Barber, whose family moved to Michigan when he was in the seventh grade in order for him to pursue hockey seriously.
Barber (6-0, 194 pounds) is the son of Don Barber, who played in the NHL for four teams from 1988-92. Don Barber met his future wife, Stacy, a Washington, Pa., native, and settled here after his playing days were over.
As a young player, Riley Barber played with the Pittsburgh Hornets alongside J.T. Miller and Vincent Trocheck, who were drafted in the first and third rounds last year.
Barber, a right winger, has risen in the draft rankings this spring after a strong finish to his season with the U18 national team in Ann Arbor, Mich. Barber is rated No. 86 among North American skaters after a No. 141 ranking last year.
"I didn't get off to the kind of start I wanted to, but toward the end of the year I started to catch fire," said Barber, who finished with 20 goals and 15 assists in 56 games for the Team USA U18 squad. "My strengths are my shot and my speed. I'm a really good skater. I know how the game is played and how to make plays. Now, it's all about my consistency game in and game out."
Barber will play next season at Miami University in Ohio. His family will remain in Michigan for his younger brother's hockey career, but other family members remain in Washington.
Despite moving to Red Wings country in middle school, Barber remained an ardent Penguins fan. He was in attendance at Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup final and saw his favorite team win the Cup.
Barber hasn't had much contact with the Penguins, but he heard through the grapevine that they like his game. Being drafted by the club would be "a dream come true," he said.
Jeke (6-4, 205 pounds) is a late-blooming offensive defenseman who made the switch from forward two years ago while playing for the Northwood School in Lake Placid, N.Y.
Jeke is a skilled offensive player with good hands and vision. His main drawback is his lack of experience on the blue line. In 43 games last season for Northwood, Jeke scored 10 goals and had 21 assists with 40 penalty minutes.
Jeke was not considered an elite prospect as a forward, but he has impressed college and professional scouts since moving to defense. He will attend Boston College on scholarship in the fall and has an outside shot at being drafted.
He is rated No. 184 among North American skaters.
Jeke and his family lived in Washington until he was 6 years old. The family moved to Erie and then Livonia, Mich., but has since relocated in Shaler.
Jeke, who turned 19 last week, has tickets to the draft and plans to attend. The only question now is whether he will be a spectator or participant.
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com and twitter @rayfitt1.