By Daniel Fung
When the Vancouver Canucks claimed Jeff Cowan off waivers from the Los Angeles Kings in late December, it was a move that managed to slip under the radar for most.
Although pundits were quick to supply the standard stock answer, labeling the move as little more than something for organizational depth, for the Orangeville, Ontario native, a return to Western Canada represents the next step in his NHL career. A step he hopes will allow him to re-capture the production level he has found at every level of the game.
It also represents a chance for him to contribute to his, and also his team's ultimate goal - a goal that has managed to elude him thus far in his NHL career. LATE BLOOMER
"I was probably about seven years old when my dad started to teach me how to skate in my backyard rink in Orangeville, Ontario," he said. "My parents always told me I was born with a hockey stick in my hand. I just started skating when I was seven and didn't start playing organized [hockey] until I was about 10-years old, so I'm a bit of a late bloomer that way."
Perhaps better known today by some for his fisticuffs than his finesse, Cowan's role was much different when he broke into the Ontario Hockey League.
"I wasn't really known as a tough guy,' says Cowan. "I'd get into a few fights but not as much as I do these days. Back then I was counted on to produce and score goals."
Although not a reputed goal scorer, hard work and dedication were key reasons why Cowan's point totals jumped from 17 (10-7-17) in his second year in the OHL to 52 (38-14-52) in his final year of junior when he joined the newly-established Barrie Colts.
Cowan admits, however, it was mostly being put in the right situation that allowed his game to grow.
"I think the biggest factor was probably the confidence the coach had in me," said Cowan. "Bert Templeton was my coach in Barrie. It was a new team, an expansion team, and it was my last year in the league so I was called upon as a leader on that team. I think the confidence the coach instilled in me followed through in my game, it was a real positive time in my life." REALIZING THE DREAM
Despite being undrafted, Cowan's progress in the OHL was enough to catch the attention of the Calgary Flames who promptly signed the 19-year old to a contract and assigned him to the minors.
Much like he did in junior, Cowan's game developed and his point production steadily improved. There were times when Cowan had doubts as to whether his big break would ever come.
"I played in the ECHL for a little and I played in the AHL for the Saint John Flames. I played there for 3-and-a-half years before even getting one call up to the Calgary Flames," said Cowan. "I started to look into schooling and I started to take some courses while I was in the minors. After three years thinking, 'who knows if I'm ever going to get this chance?', finally the chance came. I got called up, played well, and ever since I stuck."
Cowan was actually on pace for a career year with the AHL's Flames before getting summoned to the big leagues.
And he hasn't looked back since. He notes part of the reason he was having so much success was the fact he was finally entering a comfort zone.
"I think every league I've been in there's always been an adjustment period and a maturing period in that league. I've been able to produce more with continual maturing and experience."
After being dealt from Calgary to Atlanta, and under the tutelage of the newly-hired Bob Hartley, it appeared as if Cowan had finally turned the corner and began to reach that level of maturity in the NHL.
"When Bob [Hartley] came into Atlanta, he was something the team really needed. He was a very good teacher of the game, the fundamentals; the stuff sometimes you forget about. He was very influential in my NHL career," said Cowan.
It was this influence which saw Cowan record a career high 11 goals and 27 points despite being dealt late in the season to the Los Angeles Kings. HOLLYWOOD STORY
Injuries would limit Cowan's ice-time the following season, although he still managed to put up eight goals in 46 games.
With former Canucks head coach Marc Crawford, Cowan hoped it would be a sign of more responsibility and a more productive year.
"In pre-season this year, I went into camp really looking forward to it. I had an excellent preseason, scored six goals," Cowan recollects. "I was looking forward to playing more minutes. It just didn't work out for me there and I'm just glad I was able to move on from there and become a Vancouver Canuck."
Already in just over a month with his new team, Cowan can sense a much different approach between Crawford and current Canucks coach Alain Vigneault.
"I think Coach V treats you like a professional. We're all men here and you know if you've had a bad game or you're not playing well," says Cowan. "Alain is good for not getting too hard on guys and just letting guys try to be confident and play hockey and have fun, but also making guys realize we've got to be better on the following days if we have a bad loss. He's fairly relaxed and I think he keeps the guys loose in here and that's a good thing." LOOKING FORWARD
Although Cowan realizes that much like he has at every level, his maturity as a player, personally, means contributing more offensively for his new club. However, that also means individual goals remain strictly on the backburner.
"Personal accomplishments are all secondary. When you're on a winning team, everyone's looked to as a good hockey player," says Cowan. "My ultimate goal is to get into the playoffs. Once you're into the playoffs...anything can happen. From there the ultimate goal would be to win a Stanley Cup with this team. It's a great bunch of guys in here and what a fun time that would be."
For Cowan however, making the playoffs would not only be the ultimate team goal but would help scratch a personal itch of his own. Cowan's last foray into the post-season was with the Saint John Flames in 1998-99 and he has yet to taste Stanley Cup playoff action.
"I've never been in the playoffs. It's one thing that I really want. I know that [I can be that] type of player that can score a big goal in the playoffs [or] be that type of guy that can create a big hit to get something going. That's what the playoffs are all about. I've been waiting for the opportunity."