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Downie Getting Comfortable

by Bill Fleischman / Philadelphia Flyers
When former NHL enforcer Dave “Tiger” Williams was a young lad in school, he was asked on a form what his career goal was. In large letters Williams wrote “NHL.” Playing in the NHL was all Williams ever wanted to do.

Steve Downie’s career goal was the same as Williams’. “That’s everyone’s goal (in Canada) when you’re (young),” Downie said before a recent Flyers game. “I never wanted to be a businessman or anything.”

A first-round draft choice of the Flyers in the 2005 Entry Draft, Downie has surprised some people by earning regular right-wing duty with the Flyers this season. At 5’11’’, 200 pounds, he’s not that big by contemporary NHL standards. He makes up for lack of size with skill, hockey sense and grit.

About 10 games into his Flyers experience, a veteran hockey observer in the Wachovia Center press perch said, “He doesn’t play like a 20-year-old.”

“I never thought about (hockey instincts),” the soft-spoken Downie said. “I just play. I didn’t have a timetable (about getting to the NHL). My first couple games, I was looking around, but that’s over with now.”

One person who isn’t surprised that Downie is taking regular shifts on one of the Flyers’ top lines is his coach, John Stevens.

“I’ve always liked him as a player,” Stevens said. “I watched him on the world junior stage and saw what a competitor he is. He has a lot of skills. The thing that surprised me is his ability to play away from the puck. He’s a very responsible player. He does the little things well. He doesn’t run around like he’s lost.
Scott Hartnell (left) and Steve Downie celebrate a goal earlier this season. (Getty Images)

“In junior (hockey) when you’re skilled enough, you can take risks and get away with it. But you can’t at this level, especially when you’re on the ice against the top lines every game. (Being responsible) probably comes from playing with guys like Richie (Mike Richards) and (Scott) Hartnell. They play the game the right way.

“The thing he has to work on is his consistency. He’s had a few dips, but he’s getting better all the time.”

Richards has welcomed Downie as he would any talented teammate. During games, Richards has gently tapped Downie with his stick to let the rookie know he is doing well.

“He’s a good player,” Richards said. “He has skills that people don’t give him credit for. He’s a very intelligent hockey guy. As a younger player, we just have to build confidence for him.

“He’s being put in situations where not too many people get the opportunity – at the end of periods, right after power plays and after goals. When you play a lot, it builds confidence.”

When the Flyers were scouting Downie, they noticed his production in the World Junior Championships. During the 2006 tournament, Downie collected six points (two goals, four assists) in six games. Last year, he had five points (one goal, four assists) in six games.

As everyone in hockey knows, Downie began this season with a 20-game suspension issued by the NHL for his body-launching hit on Ottawa’s Dean McAmmond in a preseason game.

“It was a rough start to the year, with the suspension, but it’s turning out pretty good right now,” Downie said. “I achieved one of my childhood goals when I scored my first NHL goal and even making it in the NHL was a dream.

“My confidence is growing with every game. You get more and more comfortable. Confidence means a lot at this level.

“Hartnell and Richie have been really good, showing me the way. They give me advice whenever I need it.”

Downie’s family lives in Queensville, near Toronto. His mother, Ann, is part owner of a drywall company. His brother, Greg, is a year older than Steve. Their father died in a car accident when Steve was eight years old. Steve was in the car, returning from hockey practice, when the accident occurred.

Following the 20-game suspension and some incidents when Downie was playing junior hockey, he has been painted as a combustible villain. That’s not how the Flyers regard him. And it’s certainly not how the family he stayed with when he played for Peterborough in the Ontario Hockey League felt about him.

Earlier this season, Chuck Gormley, the Camden Courier Post’s veteran hockey writer, spoke with Beth Latchford in Peterborough. She and her husband, Ernie, have hosted Downie and other teenage hockey players over the years.

“He was very respectful of my husband and me,” Beth told Gormley. “He volunteered to do things around the house. He fed my dog and played with our one-year-old grandson. When my daughter moved, he grabbed a couple teammates and moved truckloads of furniture to her new house. He helped my husband with cattle on the farm. He’s the first one to open the door for you.
Steve Downie drops the gloves with New York's Fedor Tyutin. (Getty Images)

“He’s been through a lot, but he doesn’t want anybody to feel sorry for him because he’s lost his father.”

* * *

Understandably, Stevens believes the NHL referees were watching Downie closely when he first joined the Flyers.

“He was on the (officials) radar screen early on, but I think that’s subsided,” Stevens said. “As I said, he’s a disciplined player. He doesn’t take any unnecessary penalties.”

Said Richards: “He’s not a dirty player. He plays hard, and everyone is starting to realize that. They’re not giving him as hard a time as they were before. We’re not worried about him doing anything (over the line). He’s going to finish his checks.

“We know he’s going to have our backs, if we need something done, and we’re going to have his back, too. That’s a comfort level we have as a line right now.”

As Downie settles in as an NHL player, that comfort level is certain to grow.

Hextall a hit

Sometimes it takes a few years of separation to remind us how important people are.

When Ron Hextall was stopping shots for the Flyers and occasionally punching or slashing opponents, we all knew he was special. When Hextall’s hockey career ended, he moved into an administrative position with the Flyers.

Now in his second year as assistant general manager with the Los Angeles Kings, Hextall returned to Philadelphia earlier this month for his induction into the Flyers Hall of Fame. Those of us in the Wachovia Center that night never will forget the emotion in the building.

Before the ceremony, I told people that when the video of him charging out of the net and knocking down Chris Chelios is shown, the fans will go wild. An accurate Fleischman forecast. Hextall’s combativeness and his success on the ice makes him an all-time Philly favorite.

Hextall’s always had a terrific sense of humor. As he walked into the pre-induction press conference, I happened to be behind him. I hadn’t seen him since he headed west. When Hextall saw me, I acted surprised to see him. Before I spoke, I made sure he wasn’t carrying a goaltender’s stick. “Have you been traded back here again?” I asked. Knowing I was joking, he just smiled.

It was good to see Hextall back home again.

Please note that the views expressed in this column are not necessarily the views expressed by the Philadelphia Flyers Hockey Club.

Bill Fleischman is a veteran Philadelphia Daily News sports writer. He was the Flyers' beat reporter for the Daily News in the 1970s, and continued to cover games in later years. A former president of the Professional Hockey Writers and the Philadelphia Sports Writers Associations, Fleischman is co-author of "Bernie, Bernie," the autobiography of Bernie Parent. Fleischman also is co-author of "The Unauthorized NASCAR Fan Guide." Since 1981, he has been an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware journalism program.

He is a graduate of Germantown High School and Gettysburg College.
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