The journey continues for Nic Dowd, a player who doesn’t see problems, just opportunities – despite growing up in a very non-traditional hockey market like Alabama.
While most people had no idea who Dowd was when he was selected by L.A. in the seventh round of the 2009 NHL Draft, he’s slowly built a name for himself in the time since. After a season with the Indiana Ice in the USHL, followed by four years at St. Cloud State University, there he was last weekend, making his pro hockey debut with the Manchester Monarchs - just a few days removed from signing an Entry Level Contract with the Kings.
Draft day must seem like a lifetime ago at this point.
"I definitely think I'm a completely different player now,” said Dowd. “The biggest thing I've improved over the years is my ability to play a 200-foot game. Obviously when I was drafted, L.A. had done their homework and noticed something, maybe I had something there.”
Whatever it was the Kings scouts saw back then, Dowd more than built upon those skills during his time at St. Cloud. Once thought of as a smaller, up and coming program, they were heavily involved in the college hockey playoffs the past two seasons and won the inaugural National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) regular season title this year.
Much of the credit for the program’s success of late can be attributed to Dowd. He led the team in a variety of statistical categories this season, including goals (21), points (39), power play goals (10), and game winning goals (four). The 23-year-old center also proudly served as the Huskies co-captain.
"Wearing the ‘C’ was something I'll never forget,” he shared. “The leadership opportunity taught me so much. Never in my life have I had to handle so many different personalities and try to make them all happy at once and do the right thing. There definitely was extra pressure. As a captain, senior year, you're not only looked up to by your teammates, but you're under the microscope when it comes to other individuals.”
Being named as one of the initial 10 players up for the Hobey Baker Award, college hockey’s top individual award, was quite an accomplishment. Then, to ultimately be among the three finalists is simply a testament to his commitment and discipline on and off the ice. Dowd was just as committed to his education at St. Cloud (hence being named 2014 NCHC Student-Athlete of the Year) as he was to learning with his skates on.
“It's difficult to turn into a complete well-rounded player, so I will forever be working towards that,” he continued. “I think having the versatility in my game to play any role – both defense and offense – will be beneficial. Another big thing I’ve tried to improve is my consistency. I know at the pro level, it's incredibly hard to be consistent with an 82-game schedule. Early on, I struggled at [St. Cloud] because my points would always decrease towards the end of the year. However, over the past two seasons, I was able to bring more consistency throughout the year.”
Saying goodbye to campus life and his Huskies teammates was an emotional roller coaster for Dowd last week, as that’s been his sole focus for the better part of four years now. In an instant, it was all over though. St. Cloud opened their NCAA playoff schedule with a dramatic overtime win over Notre Dame, but a loss to Minnesota the next day meant he had played his final collegiate game.
“I was fortunate enough to score [the game winner] against Notre Dame – one of the biggest goals I've ever scored in my career. The team was on a high and the boys were feeling good,” he remarked. “Then, the next night, less than 24 hours later, my college career was over. That was probably one of the lowest points in my career. While I was very honored and privileged to sign with the Kings, it’s tough to close one door that you put so much effort and emotion into for four years and open up another one so quickly.”
While Dowd’s St. Cloud roommate (and fellow Kings prospect), Kevin Gravel, eventually joined him in Manchester, the initial shock of joining his new AHL team also came with a few awkward feelings.
"Right away I had Derek Forbort calling me on the phone, and he's my new teammate now,” Dowd joked, referring to when the two were rivals during Forbort’s days at the University of North Dakota. “Same thing with Michael Mersch (who played at the University of Wisconsin), now we're roommates here in Manch, living in a hotel and we're grocery shopping together. I have nothing but respect for those two guys, but it’s definitely strange. To go from wearing the St. Cloud jersey for four years and now wearing a Manchester jersey, I look at myself and it’s going to take a little bit for it all to soak in.”
Of course, having Gravel close by will give him some form of comfort during the transition.
"I can't say enough about the guy,” Dowd proudly boasts. “He was my roommate, one of my best friends; we've been through a lot together. I have nothing but the utmost respect for Kevin. He's my buddy and I love him and I hope the best for him in his pro career. I’m excited he’s here with me because we always thought we’d be doing this together.”
Which leads to the obvious question, how difficult was it to put the Kings organization out of his mind during his days in St. Cloud? For other drafted players, it’s likely easier to focus primarily on college athletics. But, for Dowd, he was playing with two other Kings draftees – Gravel and Jonny Brodzinski. There had to be some looking ahead on occasion, right?
"I'd say most college athletes try and bury that for a while, but it comes up,” he explained. “I came to college as a means to an end, to get an education and to hopefully sign an NHL contract. I've been able to do both."
Kings’ management was also eager to get him into the mix. Dowd could have turned pro last year, but returning to school for a chance to get his degree is something the organization doesn’t begrudge.
“You have to give him a lot of credit for that,” said Nelson Emerson, a key figure in the L.A.’s Player Development group. “The whole thing about going back is to make sure you get something out of it, so we’re real excited about what he was able to accomplish over this last year.”
Along with his development – and a handful of post-season awards - expectations surrounding Dowd have now increased as begins his pro career in Manchester.
“Nic Dowd can play all three forward positions and he can play up and down the line-up. That’s going to be a real positive for him,” Emerson continued. “What he’s going to have to learn as a pro is the stuff in his own end, making sure he’s on the right side of pucks, staying in the middle of the ice, being able to contain and close defensively. We also love the fact he has assets to produce offensively. He’s taken a long path, but we’re excited he’s signed and now a member of the Kings.”
Every step of the way, Dowd has heard ‘next comes the hard part,’ so he’s naturally ready to do whatever it takes to continue his journey.
"Regardless of what round I was drafted in, I remember the day I was drafted. That was a dream in itself,” he said. “Being a kid from Huntsville and having not been exposed to the NHL scene too much, being a seventh rounder was the best thing in the world. I knew that if you got your foot in the door and worked hard, good things would happen and people would notice.”
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