LOS ANGELES — When you meet Los Angeles Kings prospect Nic Dowd and find out that he is a native of Huntsville, Alabama, the first thought that is likely to come to mind is…
How did this guy become a hockey player coming from the Deep South?
To be sure, hockey is not at all likely to be the first sport anyone thinks of as one played in Alabama, even though Wayne Gretzky’s influence helped propel hockey into the Sun Belt and into several southern states, including Florida, Georgia (Atlanta had two NHL teams in years past), North Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.
Instead, when it comes to sports in Alabama, you probably think of University of Alabama football and kids growing up in the Heart of Dixie gravitating towards baseball, basketball and football.
But hockey has grown in Alabama where there are youth leagues with teams that travel, and now, a product of Alabama youth hockey is on the verge of making it to the National Hockey League — Dowd is expected to make the Kings opening night roster for the 2016-17 season.
Dowd, 26, was selected by the Kings in the seventh round, 198th overall, in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, and has worked his way up through the ranks, playing in the North American Hockey League, the United States Hockey League, four years at St. Cloud State, and then two seasons in the American Hockey League.
With the AHL’s Manchester Monarchs, he helped lead his team to the 2014-15 Calder Cup Championship (Manchester is now the Kings’ ECHL affiliate).
But before all that, how did a kid from Alabama, of all places, get interested in hockey?
“Both my brothers, Josh and Matt, played hockey growing up through the youth hockey association in Huntsville, the Huntsville Amateur Hockey Association,” said the 6’2″, 195-pound center. “They enjoyed it and my Dad was a coach for a little bit. I got into the game because of them playing it in my backyard.”
“We had a driveway area that we played hockey on,” added Dowd. “My Dad would dress up and play goalie and my brothers would play with me. They’re ten and twelve years older than I was, so it was pretty competitive. They didn’t want to lose to a little kid, so I learned a lot. We also played with mini sticks [in the house] downstairs.”
Dowd’s parents hailed from all the way across the Atlantic Ocean, making the odds against him becoming interested in hockey even greater.
“My Dad and Mom are from England,” he said. “They came over here, and he took a job in teaching. He was in medicine. He was a family practitioner. He recently retired. My mom was a nurse. They met at a hospital in England.”
“Hockey wasn’t a big sport in England,” he added. “But after they got over here, my Dad got my brothers into it. Josh was a goalie and Matt was a forward. Once he got them playing, he did some coaching for a couple of youth teams. He could never skate, so he coached from the bench. He did everything he had to to get them to all their games, their practices. When I was old enough, my older brothers had already paved the way, so it was a little bit easier.”
Like so many boys in Alabama, and all over the United States, Dowd played other sports while growing up.
“I did play baseball,” he noted. “I played soccer. I never really got into football. That could’ve had something to do with my Dad being a doctor, but I never really showed a love for football. Basketball—I played a little bit, but I never really showed a love for that, either. Soccer, baseball and hockey were my main sports, and I played those equally until I was 12 or 13, when I switched over to hockey.”
The fact that Dowd’s parents were immigrants may have been a key factor in his choice of sports.
“Baseball and football are extremely prominent [in the South],” Dowd observed. “I think it had to do with the fact that my Mom and Dad weren’t originally from Alabama. I think there’s a tendency—if a family is from Minnesota, their kids probably grew up playing hockey. If your family is in the South and your parents are from there, then you probably grew up playing football and baseball.”
Dowd was good enough to play on a traveling youth team, and improved to the point where he was able to play in a high school league, which opened doors to higher levels.
“I grew up playing hockey in the same league [as his brothers], the Huntsville Amateur Hockey Association,” Dowd noted. “We traveled to Nashville, Atlanta, Memphis, a little bit of Florida, Knoxville.”
“As I grew older, to about 14, my freshman year of high school—the first year was with Total Package Hockey. That was a triple A program for kids from the southeast. I think we had kids from Arkansas, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee—we traveled around, just like all the other teams do in the Northeast and Midwest.”
“Eventually, I found my way to Culver Military Academy,” Dowd added. “I played hockey there from my sophomore year to my senior year, until I graduated. Then, I took the normal trek of juniors into college and pro. I definitely didn’t skip any steps.”
“I would definitely say I’m a late bloomer. But getting to this point in my career, it was necessary for me to take all those steps and develop in the way that I did.”
Was growing up in Alabama a disadvantage for Dowd? Was that a drag on his development?
“That’s a good question,” he pondered. “I don’t think I [was at a disadvantage, developmentally, compared] to players anywhere else. But maybe when I have kids and I’m living in Minnesota, or [another more traditional hockey market], I might see it differently. But I was given every opportunity to play the game.”
“I played outside, just like the kids do here [in Minnesota],” he added. “Granted, we didn’t have ice outside, but I played outside, I played with mini-sticks, I did everything that young kids do growing up. I’d say the biggest disadvantage was not having the outdoor rinks during the winter, where kids can play all day. They don’t realize how much better they’re getting when they’re young. But I got to play a lot of hockey indoors, even during the summer, so I wouldn’t say it was a disadvantage. But I think there are benefits to being in a hockey-oriented city, as opposed to being in the South.”
Without much of a hockey tradition, NHL scouts generally do not spend time in Alabama. But somehow, the Kings discovered Dowd.
“There’s a perfect example—[amateur scout] Tony Gasperini usually pulls one out of the air every year that we have to do some last minute homework on,” said Kings Vice President of Hockey Operations and Director of Player Personnel Mike Futa. “He was kind off the radar, and I remember Tony almost let off the gas when we were going to take Nic. [Director of Amateur Scouting] Mark Yanetti and I were really challenging him at the draft table about Nic, and not because we didn’t like him. We didn’t want to be just typing in a name and hoping. We needed details.”
“Tony let off the gas a little bit, which surprised us, because very seldom does he do that when he believes in a player,” added Futa. “Fortunately, we ended up taking him anyway.”
Given the long journey he’s been on just to get a shot to play in the NHL, it would have been easy for Dowd to get discouraged and give up on his dream. Instead, he became just the third Alabama native to have played in the NHL (five games last season), and is now on the verge of getting the opportunity to become the first impact player at the NHL level from the Heart of Dixie.
Dowd indicated that being asked about how he got into hockey coming from Alabama so frequently can be rather tiresome. But if he becomes an impact player in the NHL, it would seem likely that he would remember being asked those questions with a pretty big smile.