Nick Cousins always enjoyed playing hockey, but during the 2012-13 season the rink also provided refuge for him.
Cousins, a 2011 third-round pick (No. 68) of the Philadelphia Flyers, threw himself into the game, and the payoff was a breakout season when he almost led the Ontario Hockey League in scoring.
"With all the off-ice issues it was tough mentally, emotionally, physically even," Cousins told NHL.com. "It was tough, but going to the rink every day, it was my escape from all that other stuff, all the other distractions. … It helped my game, and my play sort of shows with that."
Cousins and two teammates from the Ontario Hockey League's Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds were arrested in August 2012 and charged with sexual assault. The charges were dropped in April 2013 when the prosecution asked that the charges be withdrawn, citing "no reasonable prospect of conviction."
"It was a big eye-opener for me and a reality check," Cousins said. "No player wants to go through that sort of stuff. It's how you deal with it. It's what makes you a better person. I'm going to learn from it. I'm going to learn from my mistakes. If you want to be a professional, you have to act like a professional, and I'm going to try to do that for the rest of my career."
Cousins, a 19-year-old center, started the season with points in his first nine games and hit the end of the calendar year with 56 in 38 games. He continued to roll through the 2013 portion of the schedule and had a league-high 98 points in 58 games when he was suspended for four games following a checking-from-behind incident against the London Knights on Feb. 22.
He had five points in six games after his return to finish third in the league with 103, six behind the leader (Vincent Trocheck of the Plymouth Whalers). Cousins' 76 assists were second (Charles Sarault of the Sarnia Sting had 86), and his 27 goals were tied for second on his team (Brandon Alderson, 28).
"I was fortunate to play with really good linemates and they gave me the opportunity to put the puck in the net," Cousins said. "If I set them up, it was in the back of the net. I was fortunate to play with very good players [and] playing with them, on the power play, it almost comes easy. I had a really good season from start to finish and I'm very happy with it."
"Last year he had a great year," Flyers development coach Ian Laperriere told NHL.com. "He got suspended at the end of the year, and if it wasn't for that he would have won the scoring title."
The 2012-13 season marked the third straight time Cousins raised his point total from the previous season. One number that held steady, though, was his penalty minute total of 83, down a bit from 88 he had in 2011-12. At 5-foot-10, 169 pounds, Cousins isn't going to intimidate anyone physically, but is known for playing an aggressive, abrasive style reminiscent of Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand.
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"He gets under people's skin with his mouth," Laperriere said, "[but] he had two majors in his junior career, didn't fight much, but he's got a lot of [penalty minutes] because he talks a lot out there and he takes penalties like that. But he's all skills."
As any player who enjoys stirring things up on the ice learns, there's a fine line between using that skill in a positive way and taking unnecessary penalties.
"Every team loves to have that guy on their team," Cousins said. "I want to help my team as much as I can rather than hurt them. I think I know where that line is. I think you can't cross that line, [and] you have to be extra careful if you want to play at the next level. You have to play with that fine line and if you cross it you're not going to play. I'm well aware of that and it's just a matter of keeping my emotions in check and going out there and playing my game."
Cousins made the trip to Flyers development camp in early July, using it as a first step to jumping into the NHL in 2013-14. Even though the Flyers have Claude Giroux, Vincent Lecavalier and Sean Couturier penciled in to center the top three lines, Cousins will be bringing an eraser to training camp in September.
"I'm a real competitive guy," Cousins said. "I'm not going to come into training camp expecting to get cut. I'm going to try and steal a job or open up some eyes, get them talking about me. I'm going to come into camp in the best shape of my life. Anything can happen in camp. I'm going to come into camp, work my hardest and we'll see what happens."