Q & A: Ontario Reign's Nic Dowd Recounts His Unlikely Hockey Journey
For most of his life, Nic Dowd was one of the last people you'd expect to make the NHL. He recounts how a 5'3" freshman from Alabama blossomed into a Hobey Baker finalist.
Jewels from the Crown: Let's talk about Huntsville. (JFTC note: Dowd was born in Huntsville; he's the first Alabama native ever drafted by an NHL team.) What's surprising is there's a real hockey tradition in Huntsville that few people know about.
Nic Dowd: I'd say it's a little bit similar to Southern California in the way that people always ask, "There's ice out there??" and stuff like that. I don't think people realize it until you actually get to Alabama, which a lot of people don't get to Alabama.
Growing up, we had a really strong youth organization, the Huntsville Amateur Hockey Association.
They've always had a professional team there. It's been a Southern Professional Hockey League team. There was another league that was in there when they were the Channel Cats. They've always had the university. When they were DIII, they won a lot of championships.
There's a lot of hockey there. I wouldn't say there was a lot of high-level hockey once you get to 16, 17, 18 years old unlike Minnesota or Michigan, places like that. But growing up, there's a lot of youth hockey. And the university as well as the AAA team down there, Thunder Hockey, they've done a really good job promoting hockey for kids.
JFTC: I'm sure football is king in Huntsville. (Huntsville is actually home to the only NCAA Division 1 hockey team south of the Mason-Dixon line, the University of Alabama in Huntsville Chargers.) But with the local youth and college programs, do people pay a little more attention to hockey there?
ND: I don't think hockey will ever beat football or baseball ever. The tradition down there for those two sports is so well rooted. If you look at it, there's really no professional [sports] team in Alabama. University of Alabama and University of Auburn [football] are the teams. People support them like they are pro teams. They're treated like they're professional athletes.
JFTC: You ever get jealous of all the attention football players would get?
ND: No, no, never. I think they deserve it. Those kids are 18, 19 years old, and they're specimens and they're playing in front of hundreds of thousands of people on ESPN and stuff like that.
Obviously in college, playing in St. Cloud State, you get a little jealous of the publicity that the Division 1 football teams get because they just get so much more funding than hockey teams get. But you know, that comes with the sport that you play. And football is much more in the media than college hockey is.
JFTC: How did you get into hockey as a kid? Was it because your older brothers played?
ND: Yeah, I couldn't exactly tell you the day that I picked up a hockey stick. But I know my two older brothers played, Josh and Matt. They're 10 and 12 years older than me. Josh was a goalie and Matt was a forward. They played through the same [youth] organization I did.
We had what would've been a rink if it was cold enough out back. It was a nice little concrete area fenced in. My dad used to play goalie. They always encouraged it. I just fell in love with it.
JFTC: With that age difference between you and your brothers, at least you weren't forced to wear the goalie pads in games with them!
ND: I did have to play goalie a couple times, especially when my brothers' friends would come over. We'd play with our mini-sticks down in the basement and everything like that, just like most kids do. I loved playing goalie, but never got into it on the ice. Thank God.
JFTC: Growing up, you were friends with Brice Geoffrion. Did you ever happen to meet Boom Boom? (Bernie "Boom Boom" Geoffrion was Brice's grandfather. He was a six-time Stanley Cup winner with the Montreal Canadiens and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1972.)
ND: I did meet Boom Boom a couple times. I've been over their house several times.
[Boom Boom's son Danny has] four kids. I played with Sebastian and Brice when I was younger. I went to high school with them in Culver Prep. I know Blake too. Their dad was actually one of the head coaches of our AAA team my 13-14 age year. So I know that family pretty well.
JFTC: Any impressions of Boom Boom?
ND: Yeah, he's obviously a legend. He invented the slapshot. That's pretty incredible. I think at that age, it didn't set in quite as much, as it would've now if I met somebody of that stature.
JFTC: Did being friends with the Geoffrions or meeting Boom Boom make the dream of making the NHL seem closer? (Danny also played in the NHL, as did Blake.)
ND: I think just as general, as a kid, everybody wants to play in the NHL. You don't understand how difficult it is. You don't understand that it's a job. It's something everyone expects to do when they're little and they're playing hockey in their basement. I don't think the dream ever seemed to be too far away. Ignorance is bliss in that case.
Almost there but still a long way to go.
JFTC: Being from Huntsville, which was your NHL team?
ND: I supported the Predators. The Thrashers were on TV too. We definitely went as a treat, me and my dad, my brothers or my mom, we'd go to a couple Predators games a year, especially when they played Detroit or Colorado, Shanahan and all those guys.
Bridgestone Arena is awesome. Downtown Nashville is great too. It's a great place to watch a game, we had a lot of fun doing that.
JFTC: When you were 15, you went to Culver Prep in Indiana to play. Your mom once told you, "I didn't have you to leave my house when you were 15." Does she still say that to you?
ND: Yeah, I think she's still a little bitter about it. Just being away from my home for the last 10, 11 years now...Both my older brothers left when they were 18, 19, but they stayed in the state to go to college. But she never held me back.
JFTC: Now you're on the doorstep of the NHL, does that make it easier for her?
ND: Yeah, I think so. I think having them spend the amount of money and spend the time and the effort to get me to boarding school and stuff like that, I think it's a little sweeter now I am getting a little of my dream and just that close to getting where I want to be. To their credit, I've never heard them once complain about the money and stuff like that. I was really fortunate.
JFTC: After Culver Prep, you tried out for the Des Moines Buccaneers of the USHL. You were cut, and you said you thought about quitting
ND: I did, yeah. Looking back, if I could go back and look at my younger self as I am now, I'd tell him, "Suck it up and quit being such a baby."
In the heat of the moment, I was pretty upset. I thought I played really well. I thought I deserved to be on the team. At that time, coming from Culver, there were so many kids I was surrounded with that had made and were drafted by USHL teams...When everybody does that, it's tough.
And then the North American Hockey League, I had never known anything about it, and everybody said, "Oh, you don't want to play there, you want to play in the USHL." That was also being ignorant about something I didn't know. I was really fortunate. I got cut from [the USHL], and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I bounced around and ended up in Wenatchee [of the NAHL].
JFTC: When you were cut by Des Moines, how did you get yourself out of funk?
ND: I think it was a combination. It was the people around me. My billet families that I was living with. Then everything happened so quick.
I also got a call from a guy by the name of Lloyd Donnelly. He was a graduate from Culver, and I'd never met him before, and he said, "Hey, I'm a Culver alum. I'm from Minnesota." We talked for a while. I told him, "I'm thinking about quitting." And he said, I should give it a chance, I should go out to Wenatchee and see what it was...I went out there, and I fell in love with place, the arena, the billet family.
JFTC: You were a late bloomer. You entered St. Cloud State at 20. (Dowd found out about being drafted by the Kings in the seventh round in 2009 via text and on the way back from Wal-mart.) You had your breakout year as a junior. (Dowd scored 39 points as a junior after 24 the previous season) What do you attribute that breakout to?
ND: I would just say my offseason training. I think the summer before my junior year was the first time I actually took training seriously for hockey. I worked out every summer up until then, especially my freshman and sophomore years. But it wasn't anything compared to what I did the summer before my junior season.
JFTC: At St. Cloud State, you majored in biomedicine. What was your emphasis?
ND: My emphasis was veterinarian medicine. I graduated with a biomedicine degree, but I took a lot of animal behavior classes.
JFTC: After you retire, do you plan on becoming Dr. Dowd?
ND: I don't know. It's a long way to go. It's another 3, 4, 5 years...to become a doctor. I always wanted to be a vet, so we'll see.
JFTC: You mentioned before that you're your biggest critic. What's between you and the NHL right now?
ND: Obviously, everybody wants to get better everyday. I know the way that I'm going to make the NHL, I know that it's going to be as a responsible player on the ice. It's going to be good at faceoffs, penalty killing, chipping in offensively when I can. So I know the things I have to do.
JFTC: Is there a particular area you need to work on?
ND: I'd say size. I think getting stronger would help a lot. But it's challenging because I feel really comfortable playing at a lighter weight than what I [weigh] coming into the season. It levels itself out.
I think if I could have a little bit more upside offensively. And if I could continue to move forward in the D zone and neutral zone and be responsible, I could give myself a shot.
But it's challenging. To be so close, yet so far...
JFTC: When you say size, do you mean specifically strength? (Dowd is 6'2".)
ND: Yeah, just strength. Obviously, I'm not going to grow anymore.
JFTC: I read that you were 5'3" when you were a freshman at Culver Prep.
ND: Yeah, as a freshman and a sophomore. But I think a little more mass, and above all else, leg strength and endurance. Right now, I'm fortunate, I'm getting to play a lot of minutes. I think that helps. That helps anybody.
But it's being able to be consistent through a 60, 70-game season is huge. People always talk about grading yourself. And you're going to have your A+ games every now and then, which is great, but you can't have your D+ games. Peaks and valleys, you have to avoid those.
JFTC: Speaking of faceoffs, does the team track your faceoff winning %?
ND: We were just talking about that on the ice. I don't think they do. I know there was a guy last year in Manchester that had his own system, but we rarely ever saw it. I'm sure if that's something we really, really wanted to get done—which me and Crescenzi were just talking about on the ice—but I do track it in my head. I know how I'm doing during a game. I may be one or two off. But you know, it's not something that we see after the game. I would love to.
JFTC: Someone should do that.
ND: Someone should definitely do that.
JFTC: How are you doing this year in your head?
ND: I think I'm doing well. Obviously, you have those games for whatever reason, you just can't seem to win a draw. It's one of those things where unless you focus on it a lot, a lot of players don't ever get any better at it. You have guys at the AHL who are just professionals at it, it's just a part of their game. But a lot of players, especially in the AHL I've seen, it's not something that's worked on a ton. But we're fortunate, LA Kings development staff does a great job.
JFTC: Are you over 50% in your head? (After this conversation, I started tracking Reign faceoffs here and here. I'll be doing this the rest of the season.)
ND: I would hope so. 50%? I would be shooting more for 60%. I mean, if I had to give myself a percentage, I'd guess I give myself a 55%. I could be more, I could be less.
I definitely think I'm better this year already than I was last year. I think towards the end of the year, I definitely got a lot better. But at the beginning of the year to the middle of the year...it's challenging because guys are pretty good in this league.
JFTC: Who's better at faceoffs, you or Nick Shore?
ND: Yeah, Shoresy's really good at them. I could still learn stuff from him, and he could still learn stuff from me. But everyone has their own unique style. Some guys take them certain ways, like Newbury. If you ever see Kris take a draw, it's pretty entertaining, but he seems to win a lot of them. I think everyone has their own style, and that's kind of what you have to stick to.
JFTC: In camp, did you get a chance to watch faceoff experts like Stoll and Richards?
ND: Yeah, Stolly especially. If you want to talk about a guy that has a unique style. His is totally different from a lot of players'. But yeah, I try to watch those guys a lot. I happened to meet Stolly this summer. I talked to him a little on the ice during one of the skates. I try to watch Kopitar. He's obviously great at it. And Carter too. Like I said, it comes down to, you have your own unique style. You have to perfect it.
JFTC: Speaking of Richards, when he played in Manchester last year, did he have any positive impact on you?
ND: Yeah! For the situation he was in, I thought he handled it terrific. I was lucky, I got to sit next to him in the locker room. I didn't bother him too much, but I got to listen and talk to him a little bit every day. The guy really handled himself like a true professional that he was, which didn't surprise me. I mean, he's won everything in the book. He's been around for a long time.
JFTC: So now you're here in Ontario. Are you rooming with fellow SCSU alum Gravel and Brodzinski?
ND: No, no, I'm living with my girlfriend. This is the first time I haven't lived with Gravs in four years. So it's a little bit of a change. My girlfriend moved out here, which is great. And we have a puppy now, starting our own family...
JFTC: I hope Kevin's not jealous.
ND: No, he's living with Mike [Mersch]. We lived with him last year, me, Mersch, and Gravs. Tell you the truth, they're probably happier with two than three. Just a little less work, a little less people.
JFTC: Who does Brodzinski live with?
ND: He's living with Kempe and Zykov.
JFTC: Have you started beating Brodzinski at ping pong? (Dowd on Brodzinski in a previous interview: "He loves ping pong, too; loves his ping pong!")
ND: Oh, man. I wish we had a ping pong table. He does think he's pretty good. But we haven't played in a while.
JFTC: Is he the best on the team?
ND: No way. Not a chance.
I can't tell you who is. I can see [Budaj] for some reason being really good at ping pong, for whatever reason.
JFTC: The reflexes.
ND: Yeah, I know, he's a pretty athletic guy. But he's getting a little old, but maybe his senses are a little slow.
JFTC: I can quote you on that, right?
ND: Just don't tell him before a game.