The history of hockey is rife with stories of junior hockey superstars that came into the pro ranks with great expectations, only to find that they couldn’t come close to matching their junior exploits at the pro level.
It’s a big jump, and when the goals and points do not come as easily as they did in one’s past career, it’s very easy for a player to get down on himself.
The Hartford Wolf Pack’s Nigel Dawes certainly fits into the category of a star junior player. He was a two-time Western Hockey League First-Team All-Star, won the Memorial Cup with the Kootenay Ice in 2001-02, and put together two 47-goal seasons and a 50-goal year in the WHL.
Since he has joined the Wolf Pack, though, Dawes has shown no signs of being unable to make the transition to pro. The Winnipeg native was held without a point his first four games of the season, but took off after that and was challenging for the team scoring lead as the calendar turned to December.
“Definitely the goalies are better (in the AHL) and the opportunities that you get aren’t as clear cut as they were in junior,” Dawes says about making the jump from the WHL. “So you definitely have to bear down on your chances and really capitalize when you do get those good scoring chances.
“Ever since I came here at the start of the year I’ve been getting adjusted to the speed and the new league, and I think I’ve done that pretty well and I’m getting more and more comfortable every game.”
One hurdle that poses a challenge to Dawes is his lack of size. He is 5-foot-8 and 190 pounds, quite small by pro hockey standards. Clearly that is not something that held him back in juniors, and he says he has never considered it an impediment to success.
“I don’t think it’s something you think about,” he says. “I think the way that I play the game might be a little different than somebody who’s bigger, but you’ve got to be able to play the game and think the game as well. It’s not just what you do out there, it’s how you think the game. And something that I always try to do is out-think the opponent.”
Of course in the pros, everybody thinks a little bit faster. Dawes has plenty of confidence in his offensive instincts, and continues to view his play away from the puck as his most important point of emphasis.
“I think my last couple years of junior I really tried hard to work on my defensive game, and I think it’s really helped now that I’ve turned pro,” he says. “It’s something that I wanted to work on and round it out and not be a liability out there, and I think it’s coming along really well.”
In addition to being a high-profile player in the Western League, Dawes also got a chance to get plenty of experience on the international stage. He twice helped represent Canada at the World Junior Championships, losing in the gold medal game to current Wolf Pack teammate Al Montoya and Team USA in 2004 and then winning the tournament last year in Grand Forks, North Dakota.
“I think it’s huge,” says Dawes of how the World Junior experience helped his development as a player. “It’s something that everyone back in Canada dreams of as a kid, to play for your country in the World Juniors. And it was great, the players that I got to play with are probably some of the best in the world and I think it really helped my game.”
Dawes is certainly not alone among first and second-year players looking to advance at the pro level with this year’s Wolf Pack team. This season’s club is dominated by youth, and for much of the early season Dawes has played on a line with fellow youngsters Colby Genoway and Dwight Helminen.
“I think we’re all getting a feel for each other, and ever since Dwight, Colby and I have been together, I think we just have that chemistry, kind of know where each other are,” Dawes says. “We try to keep it pretty simple, just get the pucks in deep and try to get the cycle going. We’re all very good skaters and offensive-minded, so I think we really complement each other.
“All the veterans are good players as well and they’ve been good to the younger guys and really helped us out. That makes everything a lot easier.”
Being that Dawes is usually one of the smaller players on the ice, and a guy who can do so many things offensively, you would think that the way the game is being called this year, with its emphasis on opening up more room for offensive creativity, would play right to his strengths.
“I think for everyone, big, small, fast, slow, it doesn’t really matter, opening up the game has definitely created a lot more chances,” Dawes says. “It’s just given everyone a chance to show their skills a little more than all the clutch and grab that was going on before.”
With a higher premium being placed on offense, and young players league-wide getting a solid chance to make an impact in the NHL, it would seem that Dawes has come along just at the right time. He has seen players like Dominic Moore, Jed Ortmeyer and Ryan Hollweg graduate from the Wolf Pack and make significant impacts with the parent Rangers, and hopes he can be among the next wave to take the step up.
“I think just consistency,” is Dawes’ response when he is asked what he is looking to improve on here in the AHL in order to get a shot at the Big Show. “It took me about three or four years to find it in junior, it’s something that’s hard to find.
“But you’ve got to be prepared every night. I’m sure that’s something that a lot of first-year guys are looking for, the consistency in their game, and I think that’s the thing I’m trying to work on the most.”