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Physical challenge hasn’t stopped Komets goalie Michael Houser

Komets goaltender Michael Houser makes a toe save against Kansas City during Fridays game at Memorial Coliseum. (By Blake Sebring of News-Sentinel.com)

Any fan watching Michael Houser play goaltender would never spot something distinctive about his style or physical capabilities. Unless a world-class goalie coach was studying him from the stands, it’s unlikely they would spot anything, either.

“Even the best goalies in the world probably do things faster and more efficiently, but it’s not like there’s any save they can do that I can’t,” he said.

Which really makes his situation all the more remarkable. Houser, 25, was born with two club feet, a congenital birth defect where the baby’s foot or feet are twisted out of position, usually rolled inward and pointing down. According to Mayoclinic.org, that’s because the tissues connecting the muscles to the bone are shorter than usual. It occurs in about one in 1,000 births and usually in half of them it affects both feet.

Houser doesn’t look at it as a handicap — refuses to in fact — simply as a physical characteristic he has to overcome such as a skater who is a half-step slow, a 5-foot-8 defenseman who wishes he was taller or a forward who desires to be 15 pounds heavier. He just works extra hard on that aspect of his body to improve.

“It’s definitely not a handicap at all,” said Komets defenseman Cody Sol who has worked out with Houser the last four summers in London, Ontario. “To have that and still be able to play hockey at this high level is pretty cool to see. He doesn’t make it noticeable and you deal with what you have. He’s found a way to get around it and not let it affect him.”

The condition meant Houser needed 14 surgeries before he was age 3, another pair at age 11 and doctors finally said he was finished with them at age 13. The only way to notice a difference is by looking at his lower body while wearing shorts because he wears smaller shoes than most players and his calf muscles are underdeveloped.

“I’ve done pretty much everything there is to do as far as tissue work, mobility stuff,” he said. “I work extremely hard at that stuff, almost daily. I’ve done enough to understand it’s not in the cards for that to improve. The workouts are not even about getting them bigger or stronger, but making sure they are moving properly.”

Because his feet get tight if he’s sitting down most of the day, he’s always working with them or rolling them around a ball to maintain flexibility. He’s also not the most graceful runner or skater, but he skates well enough to play goal.

He started playing at age 5, using custom figure skates before growing into goalie skates when he was around age 8, and even then he had to get two sizes. (At first, he couldn’t understand why he wasn’t a better skater.) Now he uses custom-made skates that require quite a bit of breaking in before he’s comfortable enough to wear them during a game.

And on the ice, no one opponent can tell the difference with his balance and footwork. He never notices any difference on the ice, and really, neither should anyone else. He doesn’t see it as compensating as much as adjusting just like every other player.

“Maybe my footwork isn’t as good as some of the elite goalies, but the one thing I’m really good at is reading the play, anticipating what might happen and seeing where guys are,” he said. “I have to be really good at that because maybe my footwork isn’t as sharp as the real elite goalies. I think I make up for it by being hockey smart.”

During a five-year professional career, Houser has produced outstanding numbers, playing 99 games in the ECHL and 72 in the American Hockey League. He’s never had a goals against average above 3.00 or a save percentage below .903 for a season.

About the only time he’s ever questioned if his feet are a limitation came after he didn’t get drafted by the NHL.

“Especially after my 19-year-old year I had a really good season, won some individual awards and we won some championships,” he said. “I thought I was going to get drafted for sure, and it didn’t happen. That doesn’t bother me much any more because I ended up signing with Florida a month after the draft. I always wondered if it had something to do with it because I always got asked about it by every team beforehand. I ended up realizing if you go out and play, well, nobody really cares.”

In fact, Houser has played for some coaches who never realized he had the condition.

Among the more famous athletes who have been born with club foot are NFL stars Charles Woodson, LeRoy Butler and Troy Aikman, baseball player Freddy Sanchez, soccer player Mia Hamm and figure skater Kristy Yamaguchi. Houser doesn’t believe it will ever hold him back, either. He’s lived and played with them for so long, he doesn’t consider them a handicap, just a factor.

“If I go out and have 10 shutouts in a season, I don’t think there’s any way I wouldn’t go up,” he said. “It’s all play-based. I don’t think it has affected my status because I have played in the AHL for a while, and nobody ever asked me about it.

“It would be interesting to see what it would be like for a day with strong, stable ankles and feet, but I just work extra hard on what I’ve got. I really don’t think it has held me back too much.”

That’s because he refuses to allow it.

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