by Stephen Meserve | AHL On The Beat
Justin Dowling did not have the easiest path to where he is today, but the captain of the Texas Stars knows that he wouldn’t be there without the struggle along the way.
“You talk about adversity,” said Stars head coach Derek Laxdal. “You talk about earning everything you get, going through the process. He exemplifies who the Texas Stars are. He’s a perfect fit.”
Dowling was an undrafted center out of the Western Hockey League’s Swift Current Broncos in 2011. He had a fine first professional year splitting between AHL Abbotsford and ECHL Utah, but then the lockout hit hockey.
“The trickle-down effect came all the way to the minors and down to the ECHL as well,” said Dowling, who didn’t have much tale of the tape to sign a contract just when things got tight. Idaho head coach Brad Ralph took a flyer on the second-year forward, and he took off, racking up 46 points in 34 games.
As the lockout was rumored to be ending, agents and general managers alike began working the phones. Dowling signed with Texas just before the end of the lockout and was in Cedar Park, Texas, ready to play the first game back. He credits Willie Desjardins, who had coached against him in junior, with getting him noticed in Texas — along with the obvious affiliation.
“When I came up, right away I had a meeting with Willie, and the first thing he said to me was that he didn’t want me to change my game at all. They were bringing me in for a reason, and that was to help contribute on the scoresheet, to score goals.
“That gave me the confidence to go out and be confident in what I was doing and what I brought to the table. I think it gave me a good jumpstart to my career in Texas. It made me comfortable with who I was as a player.”
Just over a year later, Dowling would be inking a deal with the Dallas Stars in a season where he would also win the Calder Cup with Texas.
After a tough start to the 2017-18 season where Dowling admitted he was “defaulting to a lesser version of himself” due to lack of confidence, everything changed around the Christmas break. Afterwards, he was a point-per-game player and earned his first NHL call-up, nine games in total on the season. In the playoffs, Texas made its quadrennial trip to the Calder Cup Finals with Dowling notching 17 points in 22 games.
He’s rolled that success into a similarly hot 2018-19 season.
“The long run helped have a good start this year,” said Dowling. “You’re coming off having those memories, doing really well in big moments.”
Those big moments also meant big contracts for some of the free agents on last year’s squad, including Texas captain Curtis McKenzie. As McKenzie packed his bags for Vegas, the Stars were on the hunt for their sixth captain in team history. They had many veteran leaders to choose from, including the recently-signed Erik Condra, who had been captain of the Syracuse Crunch for the last two seasons.
“The biggest thing for us, we felt like we were looking for a certain type of leadership,” said Laxdal. “Everyone brings something different. With [Justin’s] evolution as a player, especially over the last year, we felt like he was a perfect selection for our group. It’s not only in the room but also his play. This is his next step as a player.”
Coming back from a call-up to Dallas, Dowling was called into Laxdal’s office. The center thought nothing of it at first, just a chance to catch up on system tweaks from while he was out.
He walked out with a “C” on his chest.
“Obviously Curtis was a great captain and so was Travis Morin,” said Dowling. “Those are big shoes to fill. It’s a great honor.”
Dowling had served as captain in the second half of his final season with the WHL Broncos. He says it’s different to be the captain of a professional team.
“This is people’s jobs, livelihoods and careers. Making sure people understand that, do the right things and come to the rink prepared to work every day. Now that it’s what you do for a living, it’s a lot more meaningful.”
With players eight years his junior coming in completely wet behind the ears, a huge part of the captain’s role is development and good habits. Being a leader includes helping younger players know how to prepare for games and also acting as a sounding board.
Dowling and the rest of the leadership group are like assistant coaches in the room, bringing the pulse of the entire team back to the coaching staff.
Laxdal noted, “They look after [players like] Nicholas Caamano, Adam Mascherin or Denis Gurianov and relay the experiences that they’ve gone through, good and bad times. They’re the behind-the-scenes extension of the coaches. We’re trying to sell a message as a coach, and they’re taking that message and reinforcing it to get the group on the same page. These guys are always helping behind the scenes to make these guys better players.”
And there is no better player on the club to share the ups and downs of a career than Dowling.
“There’s shorter ways to get to the NHL, but I’ve taken the long road and maybe it’s made me a better person for it. It’s shaped me and molded me into the person I am. I think it’s had a lot to do with me becoming captain. In maturing and becoming a better pro over the years, all of it goes into how it’s shaped me and made me who I am today.”
He summarized, “No shortcuts, ever.”
Stephen Meserve is the editor of 100 Degree Hockey, which has covered the Texas Stars since their inaugural season.