SACO – More than six years ago, Jimmy Howard departed the University of Maine in pursuit of a career in professional hockey.

Before he left, Howard set a school record with 15 career shutouts, set national single-season goaltending records in goals-against average (1.18) and saves percentage (.956), and he helped the Black Bears to the verge of winning the 2004 national title.

Then, in 2005, Howard left Orono after his junior year to join the Detroit Red Wings organization and embarked on a path to the NHL that took more than four years with Grand Rapids of the AHL.

Now, Jim Nill fully believes Howard has paid his dues. The Red Wings’ assistant general manager describes Howard’s ascension to the NHL not as a fast-paced footrace, but as a measured journey. Howard persevered, emerging as one of the league’s top young goalies.

“It comes down to the fact that you’re challenging yourself,” Nill said. “You go to the minors, and this after you leave college, when you’re one of the top college players in the nation. You find out it’s a long, slow grind to get to one of the best leagues in the world.”

Last weekend, Howard, 27, returned to Maine to participate in the Michael T. Goulet Traumatic Brain Injury and Epilepsy Foundation’s charity game that included current and former professional, college and high school players. Howard was the marquee name at the event, but admitted it was the first time he’d put on skates and pads since May, when the San Jose Sharks eliminated the Red Wings from the Western Conference semifinals in seven games.

Since then, he’s returned to Maine, where he spends the offseason living in Dedham and training in Orono.

“It’s going good. I’m working out, and it’s a good fit,” Howard said. “I like to come back here, where life is pretty simple, because the season is so hectic.”

An NHL team’s training camp begins in September and the season, for some teams, can go into May and June, in some cases extending to 100 regular-season and playoff games. The Red Wings played 93 games this season, and after the Sharks eliminated them from the playoffs, Howard went nowhere near the ice. In fact, he took two weeks off in which he did nothing athletic. He went on vacation to Florida with his wife, Rachel, who grew up in Hampden. He relaxed at his home in Dedham, about 15 miles southeast of Bangor.

“To be able to get back here, kick back and relax, it’s nice,” said Howard, who added he won’t start skating again until August. “It’s nice just to be able to get a break and to mentally refresh.”

Howard works out five days a week at the University of Maine with Terry O’Neill, the Black Bears’ strength and conditioning coach. He not only has used the facilities at the Shawn Walsh Hockey Center, he’s also contributed to them. Maine Coach Tim Whitehead said Howard recently made a significant donation to assist with renovations of Alfond Arena, a move that Whitehead said spurred other former Black Bears, including St. Louis goalie Ben Bishop and Minnesota defenseman Mike Lundin, to contribute.

“For someone to make that kind of donation, it’s an indication of how much he appreciates the opportunity he got at Maine,” said Whitehead, who did not disclose the amount of Howard’s donation.

“For a young man to step up like that and donate back to the school, maybe on behalf of the next Jimmy Howard, it’s really neat to see that.”

This season, Howard finished third in the NHL with 37 wins, behind Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo and Montreal’s Carey Price (38 wins), with a 2.79 goals-against average and  a .908 saves percentage. In February, Detroit and Howard agreed to a two-year, $4.5 million contract extension.

“It was just a great fit, and I didn’t want to go anywhere else,” said Howard, who would have become an unrestricted free agent on July 1 had he not re-signed. “My agent and I, we talked about that and we both said it’d be best to stay in Detroit, and that’s what I wanted.”

With Osgood’s retirement Tuesday and the Red Wings’ signing of former University of New Hampshire goalie Ty Conklin, Howard’s place in the Red Wings’ pecking order is clear.

“He’s the No. 1 goalie for us,” Nill said, without hesitation. “We want to make the playoffs and we want to make a strong run to win the Stanley Cup. We’ll have the pieces in place to be one of the top teams in the league, and to do that, Jimmy Howard has to be strong in net.”

Howard takes the pragmatic approach in discussing his development.

“Each year has been a step in the right direction,” he said. “I’ve just got to keep refining my game and keep working on the fundamentals. Keep focusing on an even keel and not get too focused on those high peaks, or those low valleys.”

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

rlenzi@pressherald.com

Twitter: rlenzi