KALAMAZOO, Mich. -- All those times teammates marveled at Scott Howes' mesmerizing excellence these last two months, they left unspoken the pain he endured to perform.
It is hockey's code to do so, particularly in the postseason -- an ailment is an "upper-body injury'' or "lower-body injury,'' which sounds benign.
Turns out Howes, the 23-year-old left winger who Saturday night was named the ECHL Kelly Cup playoffs Most Valuable Player after the Alaska Aces captured their second Cup in six seasons, has been playing in pain for months.
He has a torn labrum in his left shoulder -- he has for months, and wears a brace beneath his No. 13 sweater -- and will undergo surgery soon.
Howes, who missed Game 3 of the Finals, which incidentally was the Aces' lone loss in 13 playoff games, has also been feeling off-kilter after absorbing some wicked hits early in the series with the Kalamazoo Wings.
"He was walking around in a haze,'' said linemate Brian Swanson. "(In Game 4), he basically played a period, and he dominated. He deserves that trophy. He stepped up and earned it.''
In Game 4, Howes in the first period absorbed three violent hits yet righted himself and basically played keep-away with the puck and left K-Wings defensemen in his wake at every turn.
Howes led Aces scorers with seven goals, 12 assists and 19 points in 12 games. He forged three game-winning goals. He scored at least one point in each of his first 11 playoff games -- Saturday's clincher was the only time he was held off the score sheet -- he led the team in plus-minus (plus 11), tied for the lead in shots (50) and led by example.
Howes became the first non-goaltender to be named playoff MVP, selected by the media, since Aces captain Mike Scott, likewise a winger, won it after helping Alaska win the Kelly Cup in 2006.
"He pole-vaulted our offense in the playoffs,'' said Aces coach Brent Thompson. "He was the catalyst in every aspect. He killed penalties for the first time and he played with his heart all season.''
And to think that Thompson acquired Howes, a third-year pro with sublime skills and an endearing nature, from Stockton one week into the regular season for something as inconsequential as "future considerations,'' which in the ECHL usually means $100 or $200.
Placed on the first line with Swanson, the 35-year-old former NHLer, and Wes Goldie, the 32-year-old who was league's regular-season MVP and Howes' roommate, Howes flourished, not just on the ice but in personal growth.
"He really appreciates what he has,'' Swanson said. "His career has really come a long way. He doesn't take it for granted.''
Howes said he was simply thankful Thompson and the Aces provided him a place to play, and that Goldie and Swanson have mentored him so patiently.
"I couldn't have been around anyone else to make it better,'' Howes said. "I was given an opportunity and a home.''
He pointed out that Swanson was playing on a broken left toe, a sprained left ankle and a neck that was killing him.
"I knew if I played banged up, other guys were banged up too,'' Howes said. "Everyone owed it to everyone to play.''
Now, Howes can rest and prepare for surgery and the months of rehabilitation that will follow.
"A few months relaxing and I should be OK,'' he said.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
By DOYLE WOODY