RIDE 'EM JEFF COWBOY COWAN
After all, his bread and butter is checking; shutting down the top lines, bringing energy, changing momentum, providing a little -- shall we say -- physical discomfort.
With the NHL clamping down on the clutching and grabbing that could be seen among third and fourth line players, Cowan may have been be working with a disadvantage this year.
At first glance, the thing that stands out about Cowan is his size. At 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds, Cowan, who has garnered the nickname Cowboy to his teammates, is a big man. He is certainly large enough to handle himself on the ice, whether the gloves are on or off. But, what Los Angeles fans may not have noticed during his brief stint with the team in 2003-04 is that, despite his considerable bulk, Cowan brings another element to the game: speed. And speed is an element that flourishes under this new NHL.
"He's a really, really good skater," says Kings Assistant Coach Ray Bennett. "I think he surprises people with his speed and agility to get in on the forecheck. He's put some good licks on defensemen so far this year because he's been able to get in, finish on them and create turnovers."
"I've always had skating ability," says Cowan. "That's always been one of my strong points. I think opening up the ice is going to give me more of a chance to use my speed and create opportunities for linemates."
While he may have been carrying that club in his bag, Cowan hasn't always been able to use it. In fact, letting his speed take a back seat to brute force was what got him his first ticket to the NHL.
Born in Scarborough, Ont., Cowan got his initial taste of hockey on the homemade rink in his family's backyard. Unlike many of his young Canadian peers, he didn't really get into hockey at first. He didn't bother to even join an organized team until he was 10 years old, a late start by most standards.
Even with the late beginning, Cowan eventually improved enough to get drafted in the NHL Draft. Or so he thought.
"I was supposed to get drafted (in 1995)," Cowan recalled. "I think I was rated in the fourth round without the Europeans. "So, I was probably going to go around the seventh round. It was held in Edmonton that year and my agent told me he would never take anyone to the draft if he wasn't going to get drafted."
Four rounds came and went. Then seven rounds. Eventually the final names were announced with Cowan still sitting ever so uncomfortably in the stands.
"That was pretty tough," he admits. "There were five other guys that were with me that day, ones that (my agent) represented. All got drafted to different teams and all had their jerseys on after the draft."
Despite the draft-day snub, there was still hope. Even before Cowan got back to his hotel, he had been offered a walk-on tryout with the Calgary Flames.
"I was disappointed that I wasn't drafted but I was also kind of excited that I wasn't walking away with nothing."
Although nervous about taking the ice with the likes of Joe Nieuwendyk, Phil Housley and Theo Fleury at Calgary's training camp that next September, Cowan made such an impression that within the first week he was given a contract.
However getting to the NHL would require more than just signing on the dotted line. After two solid if unspectacular seasons in the minors, he was on the verge of being washed out. He'd even begun to look into giving it up and going back to school. But prior to his 1998-99 campaign with Calgary's American Hockey League affiliate in Saint John, he had a conversation that changed everything.
"At the time, I think a lot of people realized I had some skating ability and had some skill and some hands," says Cowan. "The physical part was there, but I lacked the fighting and what-not. There was a player named Todd Hlushko, who told me, 'You know, you've got everything you could possibly have, but if you take the physical level just to another level and start fighting a little more, I think for sure you'll be going to the NHL.' I took that to heart and the next season, I got in a fight here and there, did pretty well and went with it.
"It just became part of my game."
In 1997-98 with Saint John, Cowan picked up 28 points in 69 games with only 23 penalty minutes. The next season, after his discussion with Hlushko, he totaled just 19 points in 71 games but his penalty minutes shot up to 117. The folks in Calgary took notice. In late February of the 1999-00 campaign, Cowan finally got the call to join the team in Alberta.
"Along the way, there were so many ups and downs. I think I kind of took the hard route to get here," says Cowan. "But, I think that's also made me stronger."
Since joining the Flames, Cowan has never played another game in the minors. He spent a year and a half with Calgary before being sent to Atlanta midway through the 2001-02 season. Getting more ice time there, he excelled with the Thrashers, picking up a career-high 24 points in 58 games for the club in 2003-04, before joining the Kings at the trade deadline in March of 2004.
"It was definitely a shock," he says about being sent to Los Angeles. "The trade came so fast. But I was happy to come to L.A. for sure."
He made an immediate impact with his new coaches and teammates, picking up a goal, assist and fighting major for a "Gordie Howe Hat-Trick" on March 27 against none other than Calgary. Still, because he was with the Kings for only the final month of that season, coming into this year, he admits he still feels like the new kid on the block.
"I got to know the guys a little bit and the system and everything, but it's like being on a new team again, Cowan said. "But, I feel pretty comfortable here with everyone. Any time a team trades for you and wants you, that's where you want to be."
Now, he's just looking forward to getting out there on the ice?¢?Ç¨¬¶the open ice.
"He's so strong down low offensively," says Bennett. "He's a real tough guy to handle, a real load. Again, those defensemen won't be able to hook, hold or get a free hand on him. He can have his way down there."
"Guys can't touch you anymore," Cowan agrees. "When you chip it in behind them and go in on the forecheck, they can't hold you up and get in front of you. If you've got a lot of speed, you can get in there without them even laying a hand on you. That's one of the things I'm going to try and work on this year, using my speed and establishing a good forecheck."