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Dana Howard was first introduced to the boy who would become her son through a photo on a website.
"Austin has a smile that can light up the room when he chooses to smile," she says. "There was a picture of him with this smile to melt your heart."
Dana and her husband, Patrick, traveled to Haiti to meet Austin and his siblings, Amy and Andy, in 2007 — and again in 2008.
"I was kind of shy the first time," Austin says. "The second time I was kind of more open. The second time that you guys came and left, I felt like you guys would never come back again. You would just forget us. That was hard."
The adoption process dragged on for more than three years. But on Jan. 12, 2010, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake hit Haiti about 15 miles west of the capital, Port-au-Prince. It killed hundreds of thousands of people and leveled tens of thousands of homes. More than 2,200 miles away in Sauk Rapids, Minnesota, Dana and Patrick Howard knew their time to help had come.
"If the earthquake had not happened, it could have been another six months — it could have been a year," Dana says.
On Jan. 30, mere days after the devastating earthquake, the three children met their adoptive parents in Miami before boarding a plane to Minnesota. The trip ended with the 70-mile drive to Sauk Rapids.
"We had packed a whole bag of snow things for them," Dana says. "And getting to the airport and coming out into the parking garage and stopping and unpacking coats and mittens and hats. ‘OK, you’ve got to put all this on.’ And having them walk out. They enjoyed seeing their breath."
"Went to the car and drove for a long time," Austin remembers. "And we stopped at my grandparents’ house. There was a lot of snow on the ground. My first reaction was to go jump on it, which I did. That did not feel good. My hands froze, kind of. And we drove to what was going to be my house for the next 10 years or so."
Moving To Minnesota
Besides the weather, there were plenty of other hurdles for the children to overcome.
"Coming from Haiti, learning different rules wasn’t that easy for me to follow," Austin says. "Back in Haiti, there was no rules that the kids had to follow. So then, that was pretty difficult here."
"He pretty much had zero education," Patrick says. "When we picked him up in Miami, Austin had to sign a piece of paper and put his name down — but he didn’t know how to write his name. I think, maybe, one of us wrote his name, and then he had to copy it down."
And, before long, Austin discovered hockey.
I think it will be a big part of my life after it’s over. ... Because I just love the sport.Austin Howard
"At first, I noticed hockey from my computer," Austin remembers. "I was just amazed by it. How can people skate like that with sticks and pucks and hitting each other against the boards? That caught my attention. So then I wanted to try it myself. So I got a pair of skates for Christmas. That was my first pair of skates. I went and skated at Lake George, and that was when I got my first hockey stick."
"An older gentleman was there playing hockey, too, and had this little left-handed stick," Patrick says. "And he let Austin borrow it and then let him keep it. He had a lot of good times playing at the park rink there, for sure."
"Honestly, I was just happy that I was able to skate and have a puck and go around the lake and just skate," Austin says. "I wasn’t thinking about anything else except me just having fun. Yup."
"As soon as it got cold enough, he'd say, ‘Did they flood the rink yet? Is the ice going yet?’ " Dana remembers. "I’d drive by, ‘No not yet.' 'OK, now there’s ice.’ And he’d want to be there. If it’s too cold, the warming houses would be closed. But there would be times when he'd want to go anyways. And I’d swing around 35 or 40 minutes later. ‘Are you done yet?’ Sometimes he’d be done, sometimes he wouldn’t. He just wanted to be out there skating and moving that puck around."
"Before you know it, he was just hanging out with all the kids at the hockey rink," Patrick says. "He was not any different than anybody else in a pretty short order, for sure."
A Love For The Game
If you aren’t familiar with how big ice hockey is in Minnesota, think basketball in Indiana or football in Texas. St. Cloud State University, the college located just a few miles from the Howard family home, boasts one of the country’s top hockey programs.
"Austin would go watch a YouTube video and learn how to do it, and then he’d be practicing it the next day," Dana says. "His understanding of the game. I don’t know where he gets it from. We’re watching a game, and I’m watching the puck, and he's making this observation that’s a bigger picture of what’s happening. Hockey has gotten into him."
After countless hours spent on the outdoor rinks, Austin approached his parents about playing organized hockey. But they wanted to set a few expectations before he could take his game to the next level.
"I guess it was the classic parenting strategy of, ‘Your child wants something really bad, and they have some things they need to work on,’ " Patrick says. "So we put that out there as a motivator for him."
"They told me that I had to get my grades up, work harder in school and my attitude needed to change," Austin says.
Austin dedicated himself to improving his grades and becoming a more mature young man. And one night, while Austin was doing homework, Patrick Howard walked into his son’s room, sat at the computer and registered Austin in the local hockey league.
By the time Austin was old enough to try out for the team at St. Cloud Cathedral High School, he was at a strategic disadvantage. Most of his peers had picked up the sport shortly after learning to walk. And under head coach Derrick Brown, the school had put together a very competitive program, finishing third in the prestigious state tournament in 2014 and 2017.
"I think the speed was so much faster," Austin says. "So I just had to get faster and bigger."
After dedicating himself to training and improving his game, Austin made St. Cloud Cathedral’s junior varsity team as a sophomore. And after a breakout two-goal performance that season, he decided to confront Coach Brown.
" ‘Hey Brown, varsity now?’ " Austin remembers asking his coach. "He said, ‘Yeah.’ I thought he was joking. So I went back to the JV locker room and started getting undressed. Then Coach Brown came to the locker room and said, ‘Hey, what are you doing? You’re sitting varsity.’ The whole locker room was cheering for me. ‘Hey, Howie, yeah!’ That was really pretty exciting."
Howie, as his teammates call him, dressed for one varsity game as a sophomore. After two years playing JV, the 18-year-old senior has earned more consistent playing time with the varsity team this season.
It’s been nine years since Austin was introduced to the unfamiliar, cold territory of his new home. But now, that territory is more familiar — and less cold — thanks to hockey.
"Austin alluded to it a little bit, but high school hockey is almost over," Patrick says. "So do I get to ask a question? What do you think about the end of high school hockey, Austin?"
"Playing hockey, I don’t think about it too much," Austin answers. "But when it comes to the end, I think I’m going to be sad. Maybe I’ll be in tears. Because it’s something I love doing. I think it’s going to be sad to see that sport go away.
"But I think it will be a big part of my life. I’m still going to be involved in it, watching hockey. Maybe someday become a coach. Because I just love the sport."
This segment aired on February 2, 2019.
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