Cholowski making significant strides

Photo: Sam Iannamico

by Mark Newman | AHL On The Beat

“Take nothing on looks; take everything on evidence. There’s no better rule.” — Charles Dickens in Great Expectations

As a first-round draft pick of the Detroit Red Wings, defenseman Dennis Cholowski has learned what it means to live with expectations. Three years into his professional career, he has found serenity in the silence of an invisible crowd.

He knows there will always be cynics who will find satisfaction in squabbling about his supposed shortcomings, but they might as well be whistling in the wind.

“You’ve got to block it out and do your best to control what you can control. And what you can control is the way you play,” says Cholowski, who is in Grand Rapids again after playing 88 games with the Red Wings over the past two seasons.

The fact is Cholowski, at age 23, is enjoying his time with the Griffins. Pandemics and quarantines aside, he is embracing the experience as a way to bolster his continuing development.

Hockey is fun again, like it had been when he was growing up in Langley, British Columbia, not far from Vancouver.

Following in the footsteps of his older brother, Fred, he remembers the exhilarating emotions he felt whenever he put on his skates. His brother was 2-1/2 years older, and he always did his best to keep pace.

“I always loved skating,” he said. “I loved skating fast, that feeling of the wind across your face. When you’re a kid, you don’t think about the little things in hockey, doing this or doing that. You just want to shoot the puck and skate. That’s what I loved.”

From the start, Cholowski wanted to play defense.

“We were always good backward skaters and my older brother was a defenseman, so I just followed whatever he did,” he said. “When you’re young, it’s always about beating someone 1-on-1 or toe-dragging somebody, and I was good at stopping people, so I just stuck with it.”

Although John and Natalie Cholowski had never played hockey themselves, the couple supported their boys’ love of the sport, which included taking turns to attend NHL games to watch the Canucks.

“As long as I can remember, my dad had season tickets to the Canucks and I always loved going to the games,” Cholowski said. “Obviously, we had the Sedin twins, who were probably among my favorite players. And I remember watching the line of Brendan Morrison, Markus Naslund and Todd Bertuzzi, which they called the West Coast Express. We saw some wild games with them together.”

“We had that big (Stanley) Cup run in 2011 and we were watching the whole way, so that was pretty cool, too. We were always there for fun, but my dad would say, ‘Watch this guy’ or ‘Watch that guy.’ I was like only 10 years old, so it probably didn’t matter that much, but I would watch all the same.

Photo: Mark Newman

“A lot of good defensemen came through Vancouver [with visiting teams]. Scott Niedermayer was probably my favorite defenseman. I liked the way he skated. He was so smooth. And of course, there was Nick Lidstrom, probably one of the smartest players I’ve ever seen. He skated really well, was super efficient, and had a great stick.”

By his teen years, it was becoming evident that Cholowski could have elite talent. At age 15, he attended the Yale Hockey Academy, a prep program dedicated to developing the finest student-athletes.

“That was a good year,” he recalled. “Our high school was connected to the rink, so we would go to class and then end up at the rink and practice almost every day, which was good for my development. When you’re that age, it’s all about developing your skills and they did a really good job at that.”

After a year at the academy, Cholowski “graduated” to the British Columbia Hockey League, where he played with the Chilliwack Chiefs for two seasons at the Junior A level. He refers to the time as his “growing up years.”

“I was probably 5-foot-7 or 5-8 when I started in Chilliwack,” he said. “By the end of my second year, I was 6-1, so that was my big growth spurt. I know some guys say it can hurt your skating, but it never really affected me. My second year there was my draft year, which was both hectic and exciting.”

It was during his second season in Chilliwack that Cholowski significantly strengthened his status for the draft. He gained notice for his performance at the World Junior A Challenge where he helped Canada West win all four of its games against Russia, Canada East, the U.S., and the Czech Republic.

“I had a really good tournament, which gave me confidence,” he said, noting that being measured against some of the better players his age was essential for someone who was a late-bloomer.

He returned to Chilliwack to have a strong second half, including registering 15 points in 20 playoff games. But the draft, he insists, was never his focus.

“You can’t think about it. If you do, you’ll just end up worrying about it,” he said. “When I came into the second year, I didn’t think I was going to be on anyone’s radar. The first time I was exposed to it was when the Central Scouting Bureau came out with their list. When I saw that I was ranked, I thought it was cool.”

By the time of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft in Buffalo, Cholowski knew that there was a good possibility that he might be a first-round pick. When the Red Wings selected him at No. 20, he was thrilled.

“It was the coolest thing ever,” he said. “I remember walking down to the stage and being so nervous that my knees were shaking when I shook Gary Bettman’s hand and everything. It’s every young hockey player’s dream to get drafted, especially by the Red Wings because it’s such a storied franchise.

“The Red Wings were my brother’s favorite team growing up. We used to play the NHL 11 and NHL 12 video games all the time and he would be the Red Wings every time. He loved all the players there, probably ever since they won the Cup in 2008, so for me to get drafted by the Red Wings was just the coolest thing ever. He was so excited. It was like, ‘That’s my team!’”

Photo: Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images

Intrigued by his 6-foot-1 frame, skating skill and puck-moving ability, Detroit knew that Cholowski still had room to grow, so the organization blessed his decision to attend St. Cloud State the following season.

“I had looked at other schools, but I got to watch a game when I visited St. Cloud,” he said. “They were playing Minnesota, so it was a packed crowd and they ended up winning the game. At the time, they had a really, really good team with a lot of good players. I based my decision off that experience.”

It was almost a given that he was going to pursue the college route. His father is an engineer; his mother is a lab technician at Dairyland, one of the top regional brands in Canada.

“Everybody in my family has gone to college,” Cholowski said. “My parents always stressed education, so that was a big part of it, for sure. I had to be a good student, even if I didn’t want to be. We had to have good grades.”

Attending St. Cloud was an adjustment. “It was a learning year, playing against older guys, but I still had fun,” he admitted, suggesting that he still felt that he had a “pretty good” season.

Maybe the best thing that came out of the year at St. Cloud was that it was where he met his girlfriend, Brooke Kudirka, who was playing for the women’s ice hockey team there. She has been his confidante ever since.

“She’s really involved – 100 percent,” he said. “She’s watching my shifts with me after games and she’s telling me this, telling me that. She’s played hockey her whole life, so she knows what’s going on. She’s still super involved and she loves it.”

One year into his collegiate career, Cholowski decided to leave school.

“The original plan was to go back for another season of college hockey, but then I got a call from the Wings and they said, ‘Hey, think about moving to the WHL. We want you to play more hockey. You’ll develop more because you’ll be on the ice more often and get more games in.’

Detroit sweetened the deal by offering a contract to the young defenseman. Even so, he knew he had to talk to his parents before he could make such a major decision.

“Obviously, I was leaving school and they wanted me to be in school,” he said. “At the end of the day, they told me to follow my dream. ‘This is what you wanted to do.’ So they were 100 percent supportive.”

A season in junior hockey would mean that Cholowski could play nearly twice as many games as he would in college.

“(Playing junior hockey) is as close to a pro hockey schedule as you can get,” he said. “You play a lot more games, so I think it definitely helped to play three or four times a week instead of just weekends.”

Cholowski split the 2017-18 season between the Prince George Cougars and the Portland Winterhawks in the Western Hockey League. He tallied 13 goals and 26 assists in 37 games with the Cougars, then added one goal and 26 assists in 32 games with the Winterhawks.

“We had a lot of good, young players in Prince George, but we could never really bring it all together,” he said. “Halfway through the season, I got traded to Portland and that team had a lot of talent, so it was a lot of fun playing with those guys.”

In the playoffs with Portland, he netted five goals and added two assists in 12 games. It was becoming increasingly evident that he was getting ready to take the next step, and he made his pro debut by getting in one playoff game with the Griffins. He came out of the following summer with the notion that he might have a realistic chance of making the depleted Red Wings team out of training camp.

“In my head, I didn’t know,” he said. “I felt I had to go out, just play my game and do my best. I needed to play with confidence. That’s the biggest thing. You’ve got to have confidence when you’re out there.”

Cholowski was over the moon when he learned he had made the team and would be making his NHL debut against the Columbus Blue Jackets in Little Caesars Arena, joining fellow rookies Michael Rasmussen and Christoffer Ehn.

The Red Wings helped Cholowski mark the special occasion by flying in his whole family, including his girlfriend and his aunt, Carrie Light, a personal trainer who had helped him with his workouts during his formative years.

“That whole day was cool, right from the morning skate because I had my whole family there, watching,” he said. “I had played exhibition games before, but going out for the first real game was pretty cool. It was a night I will never forget.”

That Cholowski scored his first NHL goal at the 7:46 mark of the second period made the night even better. The moment will be forever etched in his memory.

“We had won a battle in the corner and I snuck into the middle of the ice and nobody saw me,” he said. “(Dylan) Larkin got the puck on his backhand and I just drifted into the slot and he threw me a nice backhand pass.

“As the pass was coming to me, I remember thinking, ‘Holy crap, this is my first game and I have a chance like this, I better not miss!’ I just whacked at it and luckily it went in. It was pretty cool.

“After scoring my first goal, honestly the rest of the game was a blur.”

If there is any doubt, there is a video clip on YouTube that captures the moment.

“Whoa, what a bullet wrist shot by the kid!” declares Red Wings TV color analyst Mickey Redmond. “Wow! He never handled the puck. It was off his stick as quick as it got on his tape… Bang! He popped that baby into the back of the net like nobody’s business… a bang-bang play. That’s what Cholowski can bring!”

Cholowski continued to show his hot hand into the early portion of the 2018-19 schedule. He notched two goals and three assists in his first six games, matching the five points that Lidstrom recorded at the start of his career.

Not surprisingly, his play began to level off as the season wore on.

“Playing a lot of games against more experienced guys, it was a learning experience, that’s for sure,” he said. “Just being around it every day, getting used to the grind of pro hockey, was fun to learn as well.”

It was a heady experience for a 20-year-old kid.

“There were definitely moments during my first year where I was coming off the bench and the other team is changing and I saw Patrick Kane hopping on the ice or Crosby or Ovechkin or somebody like that. You might think about it for a brief second, but you just try to play.”

Knowing that he was not far from the scrawny kid on the St. Cloud campus, Cholowski decided to stay in Detroit during the offseason, staying there so he could train with Barwis Methods every summer. “I feel bigger and stronger now,” he said. “Going there has helped me a lot.”

Cholowski might have fallen victim to the dreaded sophomore slump last season as statistics suggest he may have struggled. “I never really felt that way,” he said. “I went into camp with the same attitude that I had the year before. I felt fine. In fact, I felt good.

“As the season went on, I started worrying about what everybody was saying. I was trying to live up to expectations too much and when you think about it too much, you get in your head and everything crumbles from there. You lose confidence.”

He ended up splitting the 2019-20 season between Detroit and Grand Rapids. In 36 games with the Red Wings, Cholowski registered two goals and six assists. He played 30 games with the Griffins, scoring three goals and adding 10 assists.

Coming into 2020-21 and a season that was truncated by the ongoing pandemic, Cholowski was determined to be more assertive. He was convinced that he would make a positive impression.

Photo: Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images

Assigned to Grand Rapids from the start of the AHL campaign, he has shined with eight points (three goals, five assists) in the Griffins’ first eight games to rank among the AHL’s top-scoring defensemen. He appears stronger than ever.

“I feel confident and I think that’s the biggest thing,” he said. “I’m trying to play with confidence everywhere – in the D-zone, in the O-zone – and I’m jumping into the play when possible. Mentally, I’m blocking everything else out and just playing.”

He is doing his best to learn from veteran teammates like Brian Lashoff, Dylan McIlrath and Joe Hicketts.

“You’re always trying to learn from those guys,” he said. “They’ve been around forever, so they’ve seen everything. I’m talking to the veterans a lot, learning their little tricks on the ice.

“It might be talking to Lashoff about going into a battle in the corner and how to control an opponent with your stick on his hips. You’re always trying to learn from those guys on the D-side.”

The Griffins coaching staff has helped guide his development, providing suggestions for improvement as well as offering words of encouragement.

“I’m watching video after every game,” he said. “I’m seeing clips in terms of what was good or what needs more work, whether it’s having a better gap or being in a certain position in the D-zone. I’m watching video all the time.”

Cholowski wants to be a trusted defenseman in all situations. He knows that he needs to balance his offensive instincts with his defensive responsibilities. He wants to prove that he can be a shutdown defender just as much as he can quarterback the power play.

“I’ve started to figure it out over the last three years,” he said. “I think this year it’s all coming together as far as balancing it out – being responsible on the defensive side while keeping up my offense.

“I want to make sure that I win my battles and make myself hard to play against defensively and, so far, I think I’ve done a good job of it. At the same time, when I get the puck, I want to have the confidence to make the right play and be up in the rush, too. It’s all about sticking with it mentally and staying positive.”

Although he obviously would prefer to be playing with the Red Wings right now, Cholowski is making the most of his time in Grand Rapids. It helps that the Griffins have been playing well as a team.

“It’s always fun to win,” he said. “Everybody wants to win. When you have a game as we did in Rockford (which the Griffins won 9-4 on March 3), that’s good for morale. It’s nice to be around a winning dressing room. Everybody is happy when you’re winning. It makes everything more fun.”

Cholowski is doing his best to contribute to the positive atmosphere. He shows up every day at Van Andel Arena in a different pair of sneakers, choosing one from his collection of footwear that is quickly approaching triple digits.

“It’s something that started my first year pro,” he said. “My girlfriend introduced me to Yeezys, which is the Kanye West shoe, and it just took off from there. I started reading about the history of Jordans and then really got into it. I was always into sneakers, but nothing like now.”

His stockpile of sneakers even includes a pair of custom-made sneakers featuring the likenesses of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, a gift from his girlfriend. “I’m not a huge basketball fan, but I like their whole story,” he said. “I’ve watched all the documentaries, plus I have a book that I’ve probably read four times.”

When it comes to fashion, Cholowski is not afraid to show his true colors. “Your shoes are 95 percent of your outfit – it’s the first thing people look at,” he said. “I’ve got to keep everyone guessing, so I usually try to wear something new.”

And if people talk behind his back, he is not listening. As far as he is concerned, negative comments about his choices, whether on the ice or off, are pure white noise.

Simply put, he’s happy to be playing again.

“I think everyone in hockey has a greater appreciation for this opportunity,” he said. “The quarantine was a weird time for everyone, and we were all coping with it in different ways. Now that we’re back, it’s a relief to be able to play games again.

“For me specifically, the biggest takeaway from last year was the importance of staying with it mentally, staying positive, and always playing with confidence. At the end of the day, you’re just going out and playing and having fun.”