ORONO – Tim Whitehead is quick to recite the legacy that Jimmy Howard left at the University of Maine and assess the reputation he is building in professional hockey.

”He took us to the NCAA tournament, he took us to the national championship game, and Jimmy was just incredible,” said Whitehead, the Black Bears’ coach. ”And he is now a legitimate starting NHL goalie.”

Howard is now in his first full season with the Detroit Red Wings. But Friday afternoon, he returned to the place where he had so much success in three years as a college goaltender.

He is in Maine during the NHL’s two-week break for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, and he helped run a clinic for about 60 youth hockey players.

Wearing black and red Detroit Red Wings warmups, goalie skates and blue hockey gloves, Howard, a 25-year-old from Syracuse, N.Y., gave pointers to pint-sized goalies and tapped the helmets and goalie pads of several players in Detroit Red Wings jerseys.

”When I was here, the community offered me so much,” said Howard, who is spending part of his break at his home in Dedham. ”I enjoyed my time here, I come back in the summertime so for me to get back, it’s good. And I’m glad the kids had a lot of fun out here.”

In three seasons at Maine, Howard set a school record with 15 career shutouts. In 2003-2004, his second season at Maine, Howard set NCAA single-season records with a 1.19 goals-against average and a .956 saves percentage. He helped the Black Bears to the national final that year, where Maine lost 1-0 to Denver.

”Jimmy was just incredible that year,” Whitehead said. ”It was the best season I’ve ever seen from a goalie.”

But after the 2004-2005 season, Howard decided to turn pro, and spent the bulk of four seasons with Grand Rapids of the American Hockey League.

He played in nine games with the Red Wings during that time, and he was part of their playoff roster in the spring of 2008 and 2009.

At the start of this season, Howard backed up veteran Detroit goalie Chris Osgood. But when Osgood came down with the flu in November, Howard took over and has emerged as Detroit’s starting goalie.

In 43 games this season, Howard is 21-13-8-1, has a 2.28 GAA and is fifth in the NHL with a .927 saves percentage.

”Starting off, not even playing one game in three weeks, then all of the sudden, all hell broke loose, I guess,” Howard said, laughing. ”I just got the opportunity and ran with it.”

In that stretch, Howard and the Red Wings won matchups with several of the NHL’s top-caliber goalies, including Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo and Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers.

Howard’s consistency, which once was questioned, suddenly became stronger. So did his confidence. So did his resiliency, a quality that’s a must not just for any goalie but for any hockey player.

”I’ve learned how to let things just roll off your back and (Wings coach) Mike Babcock preaches, ‘You’ve got to bring it every day,’ ” Howard said. ”I learned how hard guys really work and the biggest thing for me was learning how to let things go. For most guys in the dressing room, when the game’s over, it’s over.

”The season’s so long, you’re bound to have ups and downs. You try and keep it as level as possible. Even now, with 19 games left, we’re out of the playoffs (if the season ended today) but there’s still really no panic. Guys in the dressing room know at the end of the day, we’re going to get the job done.”

But after he left the ice Friday, he considered his own legacy in Orono, not just as a player but as an individual.

”My time at Maine was awesome,” Howard said. ”It was very memorable, the three years of my life here. I loved it so much I got a home here. I enjoyed it, and this place was perfect for me.”

Staff Writer Rachel Lenzi can be reached at 791-6415 or at:

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