Rockford, Ill.—Sometimes, hockey appears to be a game that hinges on chance. Contests between well-matched opponents can come down to a single bounce, deflection, or ricochet off a stick, skate, or post.
For those close to the game, a distinct truth is apparent. The most successful teams and players achieve their privileged status by taking advantage of each chance they’re given.
Jake Dowell of the Rockford IceHogs proves the point; after playing with the Hamilton Bulldogs in 2014-15 on his first non-NHL deal since signing with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2007, the 30 year-old signed a 25-game professional tryout with the IceHogs to start the 2015-16 season.
With his livelihood on the line, Dowell not only earned an AHL deal by the team’s fifth contest, but also the captaincy by the 30th game after the IceHogs original team captain departed for the Blackhawks. His story runs deeper than a simple “up against the ropes” narrative, though. The need to provide for a growing family and the potential of a career-ending medical diagnosis hung over the early months of the season.
Following the birth of his daughter, Elizabeth, in July, Dowell implicitly understood the critical nature of this season. “When your back is against the wall you need to make something happen. My back was definitely against the wall at the start of this year,” he says. “It’s not just me that I’m taking care of anymore. It’s my daughter and my wife (Carly) and there’s nothing more motivating than that.”
“It’s tough enough on guys to have a one-year contract let alone 25-game PTO. I set out to prove to a lot of people that I can play.”
Despite potential contracts elsewhere in the AHL, Jake ultimately chose to come back to Rockford, where he captained the team to a playoff berth the final season of his stint with the team (2007-10). He believed playing for the IceHogs in an organization he was familiar with would put him in the best position to succeed.
Dowell credits Rockford’s coaching staff for providing additional motivation to perform well. “(Head coach) Ted Dent was an assistant coach when I was here before. We’ve always stayed in contact and we’ve known each other for a long time now.” He also played under assistant coach Mark Osiecki at Wisconsin during his college years.
“I have coaches that make me want to play well for them. I want them to be able to tell me that I’m playing well,” he says. “I have a lot of respect for Teddy and Oz (Osiecki) and I want them to feel like I’m fulfilling what they expected of me.”
Dent speaks highly of Dowell, who he has known since serving as the assistant coach in the center’s first professional game as a member of the Norfolk Admirals in 2007. “We know he’s a great person. He’s a good leader and works extremely hard. He’s a great faceoff guy at this level and great penalty killer,” says Dent.
The Eau Claire, Wisconsin native did considerably more than fulfill his intended role of bringing energy and toughness to the lineup. He went on a tear to start the season, ascending to second place on the AHL leaderboard in plus/minus with a +22 rating at the halfway mark. Dowell picked up 15 points (5g-10a) in December alone in addition to a +15 rating. Overall, he shows a team-leading 24 points (7g-17a) through the first 38 games, surpassing his previous AHL season-high in points (23) from the 2009-10 season.
The offensive explosion surprised everyone, including the coach that has been a part of his life for the better part of a decade. “He’s really exceeded our expectations offensively,” says Dent. “I think if you sat and talked with me at the beginning of the season and said ‘Jake Dowell will be leading your team in points through 38 games’ I’d probably be a little surprised at that. It’s been great and he’s had a breakout year offensively.”
Dowell’s reemergence has been similarly dependent upon his teammates. He believes that this season’s IceHogs squad possesses both unique talent and selflessness that has pushed the team to the top of the Central Division. “I’m surrounded by everybody that can play. There’s no one on that team that would rather play with somebody else. Everybody is happy playing with everybody and sometimes that’s a rarity.”
“I think I’ve been saying for a while if I get a little bit of an opportunity to play with guys that can also produce that I can produce a little bit too,” Dowell explains. “There’s always been a lot of things I’ve done that don’t always show up on the stat sheet. To be able to add that to what I already do with penalty killing, face offs, and being a good shutdown center, it’s been kind of rejuvenating and gives me a little more energy. I’ve been saying it and now I’ve actually been able to do it.”
Despite the inspired play that earned him a contract, Jake still faced the specter of Huntington’s disease, which claimed his father and currently affects his older brother. The neurodegenerative genetic disorder afflicts 30,000 Americans and typically begins to afflict victims in their thirties. Victims typically lose muscle coordination and mental ability before succumbing to complications within 10-30 years of its onset.
Prior to the season, Dowell had chosen not to get tested for Huntington’s, which he had a 50/50 chance of inheriting. Following the birth of his healthy daughter, though, he had to know.
“I was looking at my daughter and wondering whether I’m going to be around in future years, if I’m going to have good years with her, how many good years I’ll have with her,” he says. “That stuff really crept up on me a lot and I just couldn’t keep looking at her and wondering and questioning so I needed to get it done.”
Dowell got tested before Thanksgiving and waited three long weeks for the answers to his questions concerning his daughter and his professional future. Hockey provided a welcome distraction and kept his mind off the impending diagnosis.
Dowell remembers those days as adrenaline-fueled, and when his doctors called to inform him that he had tested negative, he says he crashed. “We had a game that night and I felt like I could hardly keep up with anything out there. I was so tired and I think my body was finally shutting down from the stress in the three weeks leading up to it.”
His perseverance and continued success earned him an honor nobody would have expected entering the season. With the IceHogs appointed captain, Brandon Mashinter, on an extended call-up to the Chicago Blackhawks, Ted Dent felt the need to place the “C” on another jersey. He chose Dowell, bestowing the letter upon him prior to Rockford’s contest versus the Milwaukee Admirals on Dec. 26.
To the unfamiliar observer, the move might have seemed simply hockey related. The honor holds special meaning, though, for a motivated man who has capitalized on his chances this season.
“To go from being on a tryout to being captain is an accomplishment I’m proud of,” says Dowell. “I didn’t foresee that coming.”
Just as he has with every other opportunity this season, Dowell has taken advantage of his clean bill of health and newfound status as team captain. He tallied six points (1g-5a) over seven games following his negative diagnosis, capping off the calendar year with a three-point game and game-winning assist in a 5-2 victory over the Chicago Wolves on Dec. 30.
Don’t expect his motivation to cease, though. Dowell wants to captain his team to the playoffs again and prove his ability as a player by finishing off a statement year.
Like many of his peers might, Dowell cites the NHL as his ultimate driving force as a hockey player.
“I’m focused on trying to get back in the NHL now that I’ve been there and back here. It’s a process and I need to prove myself down here before anybody is going to give me a chance up there.”
There is one more piece of motivation that he holds onto as the father of a baby girl. “I’d like my daughter to reach an age where she can remember watching me play,” he admits.
“That’s the next thing that drives me. I want to have some time where I can look back and have times where she came to games and we can have those memories together.”
Based on what Jake Dowell has accomplished this season, there’s no reason to think he won’t achieve both his NHL goal and his dream as a father.