The Comeback Kid: Gretchen Howard Overcomes Adversity to Become the League’s Best Goaltender

Gretchen Howard in net at the Conference All-Star game Saturday at Salem State.

Gretchen Howard in
net at the Conference
All-Star game Saturday
at Salem State.

When Gretchen Howard underwent reconstructive surgery on her left hip, the road to recovery and a return to the Winthrop girls hockey team seemed like an awfully steep challenge for the talented goaltender.

But after seven months of extensive rehabilitation and physical therapy with trainer Fallon Cadigan, Howard not only returned to the ice, but she has risen to the top echelon in the league, earning All-Conference status with six shutouts, a 1.27 goals against average, and 11 victories in net for Anthony Martucci’s red-hot team that begins its quest for a state title Saturday.

Along the way to Howard’s best-in-the-league status were a 34-save masterpiece in a 1-0 shutout of Beverly and a thrilling victory over defending Division 1 state champion St. Mary’s High School. There was a league championship to celebrate with her teammates as well.

Howard put on the skates and the goalie equipment for the first time for the Winthrop Youth Hockey U-10 girls team that won a championship. At the age of 11, she made her debut for the Winthrop varsity team. This season, the 14-year-old, 5-feet-7-inch freshman is being compared to her brilliant predecessor in the Winthrop/Lynn nets, Katie Burt, who is now playing for Buckingham Browne and Nichols and heading to the Division 1 Boston College women’s hockey program.

The hip problem, which hindered Howard’s mobility in her seventh and eighth grade seasons, is not the only physical obstacle in her career. Howard also suffers from celiac disease, which is a disorder of the small intestine and dramatically affects her digestive system and daily diet. To complicate matters, Howard will need surgery on her right hip following this season.

Lisa Howard said her daughter has already exceeded her own accomplishments – which is saying a lot. Lisa Howard was a star second baseman on a state championship Winthrop High softball team and continued her spectacular career at Division 1 Boston College. Gretchen’s father, Rudy Howard, was a collegiate wrestling standout at UMass.

“I’m proud of her,” said Lisa Howard. “She’s exceeded anything I’ve ever done. Gretchen has that internal motivation, that piece of an athlete you just can’t teach. That drive to get better is something you’re born with.”

Reminded that she is considered one of Winthrop’s best athletes ever with a state championship on her resume, Lisa Howard countered, “Gretchen’s team will get there. They may get there now. They’re in a good position.”

Howard said her daughter has a lot of natural ability and with the daily tutoring and guidance of head coach Anthony Martucci and his staff and the off-season sessions with goalie coach Bob Rotondo, she’s improved her skills each season.

Playing as the backup to former goalie Katie Burt also helped energize Howard.

“Watching Katie was definitely motivational for Gretchen,” said Lisa Howard. “Katie is the most humble women’s athlete I’ve been around. Bar none, Katie is the most talented kid I’ve seen athletically.”

Gretchen received the Mike Eruzione Award for exceeding the expectations of her teammates and coaches as a seventh grader. She is a high honor roll student.

The freshman phenom puts team before self.

“It’s definitely been our best season and I have a strong defensive and offensive team in front of me,” said Howard. “A lot of people deserve recognition.”

Asked what has catapulted her in this breakout season, Gretchen replied, “I think it’s just my motivation, drive, and focus to play and get better. I love being the goalie. I look up to Katie Burt as a goalie. I watched the Olympics and it was a tough game to lose to Canada [3-2 in overtime] for the gold medal.”

Howard is confident that her team can make a strong run toward the Boston Garden and the state finals.

“I think we can go pretty far, depending on how we play and how focused we are and how well we can play together,” said Howard. “We’re all very close as a team. Plus Mr. Martucci is an amazing coach. I definitely would not be where I am right now without him.”

Anthony Martucci said Howard is already a 20-game winner in her career in net.

“Gretchen has improved incredibly in all aspects of her game,” said Martucci. “She’s made a remarkable comeback from her hip surgery. She’s technically sound and a real battler in the net. Our goalie coach, Sandra Ciambria, works with Gretchen over the course of the season and has seen a lot of improvement. Gretchen is the best goalie in the league.”

Martucci said Howard’s performance in the league all-star game Saturday was sensational.

“She played the first half of the game, had a dozen shots, and stopped them all,” said Martucci. “But Beverly is her team to play against. She had 34 saves and shut them out and then had 32 saves in the second game. She was lights out in both games. She plays her best in the big games.”

As the Lady Dawgs’ tournament opener approaches, Gretchen Howard can count on the continued cheering from her siblings, Christian, 22, Ashlyn, 19, and Declan, 6. Of course, there’s also the support of her grandfather, Town Council President Peter Gill, and her grandmother, Maureen Gill.

“My father has become a hockey parent,” said Lisa Howard. “He’s not the biggest sports enthusiast but he’s always been positive and encouraging. He knows the game of hockey now. And he doesn’t miss one of Gretchen’s games.”

“I’m proud of my grandfather – it’s good to have him at my games,” said Gretchen.

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