Across the state of Minnesota, pond hockey is big.
At St. Cloud State University, senior captain Nic Dowd, who hails from the southern-most NCAA setting of Huntsville, Ala., has hockey roots defined in relation to the biggest "pond."
"Both my parents were born in England," Dowd said. "My dad's from London, my mom's from Birmingham. I was born in Huntsville."
Why did the Dowd family cross the big "pond" that provided the rare opportunity for a southern kid with English roots to ascend to the pinnacle of NCAA hockey in the hotbed of Minnesota, and maybe beyond?
"My dad practiced medicine there and my mom was a nurse, so they met through that connection," Dowd said. "He wanted to practice in the United States, so they decided to move over and take the lead here."
For Dowd, his hockey career began where most tyke-to-titan runs originate.
"I have two older brothers, Josh and Matt," Dowd said. "As any younger brother would say, when they needed a goalie to shoot at, they stuck me in net. But I was blessed to have them pushing me in the right direction."
Dowd's compass took him in many directions -- prep school, then to the USHL and onto the North American League before his current four-year run with the Huskies.
Last season, he made his first appearance in the Frozen Four for St. Cloud.
"When I was 17 or 18, I talked to [University of] Alabama-Huntsville a little bit, but no offers were fielded," he said about an early opportunity to play Division I in his backyard.
"When I was in the North American League, [St. Cloud] coach [Bob] Motzko came all the way up there to Washington to watch me play. A week or two later, I was committed. I talked to Air Force and New Hampshire, but my dad and I met with coach Motzko. I thought, 'if he came all the way to watch me, St. Cloud was a good fit for me.' "
And a good fit it was.
At 23, and drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in the seventh round in 2009, the 6-foot-two, 195-pound wing is ending the best run in school history while honing his skill set to prepare for another NCAA Tournament and beyond.
Entering last weekend, Dowd's 19 points (11 goals, eight assists) was good for No. 2 on the Huskies roster.
"There was some discussion [about leaving St. Cloud last summer]," Dowd said, "but they gave me all the information to make my own decision."
One that also gives a Dowd and St. Cloud a second shot at a first-ever national title in Philadelphia on April 12.
Last April, the Huskies lost their semifinal game of the Frozen Four, 4-1, to No. 1 Quinnipiac. Dowd believes his team is good enough to return this season.
"No doubt, we can get to Philadelphia," Dowd said. "We have a lot of guys back from last year. One of our biggest attributes right now is that we don't have any players that are up in the 30- or 40-point mark. The majority are right around 15-18 points. We're scoring from everywhere right now and great goaltending. It has been a team game for us."
Ten Huskies have reached double digits in scoring. That fact contributes mightily to St. Cloud's current perch atop the newly established National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC), an eight-team morphing of former WCHA powers, sprinkled with a few former CCHA programs.
St. Cloud ended the 2012-13 regular season as the Western Collegiate Hockey Association champion, also a first in team history.
"Playing in the WCHA and now transferring into this new league makes both leagues very comparable," Dowd said. "You're playing elite teams every single night."
Last season's team featured Hobey Baker winner and captain Drew LeBlanc, who has appeared in two games for the Chicago Blackhawks this season. With a "C" now stitched to his jersey, Dowd is proud of his team's ability to rally and/or win tight games.
"The one thing that has really changed on our team since last spring is that last year whenever we scored first, I think we pretty much won every game," Dowd said. "If we didn't score first, we had a hard time winning. This year, we've won a lot of one-goal games going into the third period, and we've also come back from one- or two-goal deficits."
What are Dowd's focus areas to improve his play down the stretch of his senior year?
"Coach has stressed, 'don't be a player that I'm not.' " Dowd said. "There may be a lot of games where I don't come up on the point sheet and box score. That's not to say I can't put up numbers, but there are other facets of the game that push me in the right direction.
"Speed and strength on my feet is a key to the next level; going from playing college to playing against men. Maintaining my body outside the rink the past couple years is key to getting through 82 games at the pro level. Putting my body is the best position to make plays has been a major focus."
For now, though, the main focus is a trip to the Frozen Four, which is less than three months away.
"We're becoming very resilient," Dowd said confidently. "I've been around some very good captains. Hopefully, looking back when I leave, I've left my mark, so St. Cloud can keep pushing in the right direction."