By Kyle Shohara
Believe it or not, it’s been six seasons since Cam Fowler made his NHL debut with the Ducks back on Oct. 8, 2010 at Joe Louis Arena. It was a full-circle moment for Fowler, since it came in the iconic building he used to frequent as a youngster growing up in the Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills.
He idolized Nicklas Lidstrom, the Hall-of-Fame defenseman who patrolled the Red Wings blueline for 20 seasons and served as team captain for the final six of those storied years. Lidstrom is considered one of the greatest defensemen of all time, having won the Norris Trophy seven times and the Stanley Cup on four occasions over the course of his career. Respected by peers and revered by fans, Lidstrom was a leader in every sense of the word.
There’s a phrase that goes: If you want to be a leader, start acting like a leader. And in hockey, that can be translated into being a good teammate, leading by example on and off the ice and showing the confidence in knowing what needs to be done will, in fact, get done.
Fowler isn’t a baby-faced 18-year-old rookie anymore. He’s an NHL veteran at 23 now, having played 345 games over the course of five NHL seasons (this being his sixth). He’s been through four Stanley Cup Playoffs and knows the anguish of seeing a postseason cut short three consecutive years (all in Game 7s). The most recent, of course, was an elimination at the hands of the eventual 2015 Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference Final at Honda Center.
It makes you feel good when they want you to take on a bigger role." Cam Fowler
With a revamped Anaheim roster that includes the additions of Kevin Bieksa, Carl Hagelin, Shawn Horcoff, Anton Khudobin, Mike Santorelli and Chris Stewart, and another season with game-changers Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Ryan Kesler, Fowler knows how fortunate he really is to be playing on a team of this caliber.
“I’ve been so lucky and blessed to be here with this great organization, and to be in such a great place to live,” he says. “It’s gone by really fast. I’ve enjoyed my time here. We feel like we have a great team again this year. That’s another great thing about being here. We always have a competitive team. I’m happy. I’m trying to take every day one day at a time.”
The still fresh-faced Fowler is closer to a grey beard on paper, at least in terms of overall games played among Ducks defensemen. Of the seven active d-men on the roster, Fowler ranks second – yes, second – in games played. Only the 34-year-old Bieksa, acquired last June from the Vancouver Canucks, has more experience (597 games entering the 2015-16 season).
Fowler says one of the focal points of his end-of-year interview with management last summer involved him coming into this season with a new attitude. Not cockiness, arrogance or even “swagger.” Rather, the confidence and desire to take the next step, and to be among those Ducks head coach Bruce Boudreau considers his “leadership group.”
“It makes you feel good when they want you to take on a bigger role,” Fowler says. “It’s not necessarily being the guy who steps up and says something in the locker room. We have tons of people who are more qualified to do that than me. But on the ice, I’m trying to be a little more consistent.
“I’m trying to develop better practice habits. That’s one thing Bruce preaches. He wants us to be the guys who push each other. If people see that, they’ll follow. I really take that to heart, and I’m trying to do that to the best of my ability.”
Fowler reflected on his time spent with the USA Hockey National Team Development Program from 2007-09 and his formative years playing midget hockey for Detroit Honeybaked. Fowler wore the ‘A’ with the NTDP before playing a season with the eventual Ontario Hockey League champion and Memorial Cup champion Windsor Spitfires.
“It’s a little easier when it’s showed to the other players, like, Hey, this guy is an assistant captain,” Fowler recalls. “In Windsor, we had a lot of great players. I wouldn’t say I was necessarily one of the leaders there because I only played there for a season. But growing up and playing on teams when I was younger, I was able to play that role. Obviously, it’s way different when you’re that young, but it’s something I have to learn how to do.
“I have a lot of great people in that locker room that I can look up to. Not that it’s anything major that I have to do, but just trying to take that next step in the right direction.”
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Flashback to the first round of the 2010 NHL Draft, held June 25 at Staples Center in Los Angeles. Entering the draft, Fowler was the fifth-ranked North American skater (second-highest defenseman) and was projected by some to go as high as third overall behind wunderkinds Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin.
“I don’t think I could’ve braced myself for the feeling I was going to have when I walked into that arena, and sitting there waiting for my name to be called,” Fowler said, in a sit-down interview a few months later. “I pictured that day a lot, when I was young, but I don’t think I could’ve ever prepared myself for that day, and what happened.”
Edmonton went with Hall with the first overall selection, and Boston followed by choosing Seguin. Third went to Florida, which chose the No. 1-ranked North American defenseman Erik Gudbranson. Fowler, meanwhile, had a lavalier microphone on and a camera recording his every move. Columbus was next. They chose Ryan Johansen. Then it was the New York Islanders. Tampa Bay. Carolina. Atlanta. Minnesota. New York Rangers. And then Dallas was on the clock, but the Stars selected goaltender Jack Campbell with the No. 11 selection.
“When you have people telling you you’re going in a certain range, and then it doesn’t end up happening, it’s a real shock. It’s tough to take,” Fowler says.
By this time, Fowler was slumped in his seat with a noticeable frown on his face. It was at this time when respected TSN analyst – and former hockey executive – Craig Button leaned in and gave encouraging words to a disheartened Fowler, which were picked up on Fowler’s mic.
“You think back to that ’03 Draft … do you remember who went 3, 4, 5, 6 after Fleury and Eric Staal? You won’t. Let me just tell you Zach Parise went 17, Mike Richards went 24, Kesler, Coburn … all those guys.
“What you do on the ice, that’s what you’re all about.”
Under the guidance – and roof – of one of hockey’s all-time greats, Hall-of-Famer Scott Niedermayer, and his family, Fowler was able to focus solely on hockey, while his other life necessities – including Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal, chocolate syrup and chocolate milk, were taken care of.
Fowler had an impressive 2010-11 rookie campaign, appearing in 76 games while recording 10 goals and 40 points. He was the only defenseman and one of five players from the 2010 NHL Draft to play the complete NHL season, and ranked third among rookies in average time-on-ice (22:07), tied for third in assists (30), tied for fourth in power-play goals (6), and tied for first in power-play assists (17) and power-play points (23). And among rookie defensemen, Fowler ranked second in goals and points, and tied for second in assists, while setting franchise records for goals and points by a rookie defenseman, and assists by a rookie.
That season the Ducks reacquired veteran defenseman Francois Beauchemin, who played in Anaheim until signing with the Colorado Avalanche as a free agent this past summer. Fowler credits both Niedermayer and Beauchemin for molding him into the person – and player – he is, and continues to strive to become.
“Scotty helped with [adjusting to the pro game], for sure, in my first year,” Fowler said. “He’s a quiet person, but his wisdom…When he did talk to me about hockey, it really went a long way for me. As for Beauch, I just saw what he did every day as one of the leaders here. The competitiveness he brought in practice and into the games, he was someone you really wanted to have on your side.
“To me, that’s the definition of a leader. Someone who will stick up for his teammates, will go to war for you. That’s the type of guy Beauch was. It was good for me to play with those people. That helped me out a lot along the way.”
Fowler wears his heart on his sleeve, as evidenced by his emotive postgame interview following Game 7 last May. He’s been through the ups, and he’s been through the downs. And at this very moment, Fowler feels it’s time to take the next step.
“It’s about me realizing I’m not a kid anymore,” Fowler says. “I’m not a rookie. Although I’m still young, I have some good experience in this league. It’s time for me to spread my wings. I’ve been here a decent amount of time compared to some other people, too. It seems like the right time for me to take on a bigger role.”