Philadelphia sports fans have always favored the "blue collar" athlete. Here, substance reigns over style. Pure hustle trumps natural talent. An honest, lunch pail effort outweighs flamboyance and celebrity sizzle on any day of the week.
In a town that takes almost as much pride in the historically tough reputation of its hockey team as it does its collective "everyman" mentality, players like Bob Clarke, Rick Tocchet and even Ron Hextall were quickly accepted, and celebrated, as second sons.
Like the aforementioned and many other all-time Flyers favorites, Steve Downie wears his heart on his sleeve. The team's first round draft selection in 2005 (29th overall) is a gritty, win-at-all-costs competitor, now performing in what is all but certainly his final season at the major junior level with the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL).
Downie, 19, does not possess the apparent skill level or high-end potential that former OHL opponents (and current Flyers sophomores) Jeff Carter and Mike Richards enjoy, but he is, nonetheless, one of the most intriguing prospects to pass through the organization in some time.
"Steve is a real gamer, a tremendous competitor," explained Petes Head Coach Vince Malette, of the 5-10, 190 lb. right wing. "He has evolved into a very complete player at this level, and continues to get better and better. He scores, controls our power play, plays on the penalty kill, hits, fights, does just about everything.
"We're obviously looking for big things from Steve this year, but I think he has a very bright future in the NHL as well."A Tale of Tragedy and Triumph
For Downie, success has never come easily. That he was chosen to wear the "C" as captain of the Petes for the current season speaks volumes for just how far he has come over the past year. But, to truly understand where the Newmarket, Ontario native is now, you have to look at the full scope of his journey.
At the age of seven, Downie was involved in an auto accident on the way to an early-morning hockey practice. He walked away from the incident physically unharmed, but his father did not survive. At a very young age, thus, Downie was faced not only with the grips of an unspeakable tragedy, but also with the challenging task of helping his mother at the family farm in Ontario.
In doing so, he would exhibit remarkable character and maturity, all the while continuing to play hockey and excel at the major junior level.
"The impact both my mother and father have had in my life goes way beyond words," explained Downie, who is also deaf in one ear due to a hearing disorder. "Without both of them, their dedication and sacrifice, there is no way I'd be where I'm at now. No way. I owe them so much for everything. I think that goes without saying."
"We knew about Steve's tragedy as a young boy that he went through," said Flyers Assistant General Manager Paul Holmgren, addressing the media following the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. "We did a lot of background work on him. We actually had him into Philadelphia [prior to the draft] for a quick visit. We sat with him, talked with him, and he's a wonderful young man. He just loves to play the game, and that's what really shows when he's on the ice. He just wants to play and compete."
Upon his arrival in the OHL as a 16-year-old with the Windsor Spitfires in 2003-04, Downie was immediately noted for his hardworking, physical style and fiery, competitive edge. Like any player of his age and experience level, however, he lacked discipline. And, on some nights, he allowed his emotions to get the best of him. This led, fairly or unfairly, to a reputation as something of a loose cannon.
Downie emerged as an impact player with the Spitfires as a sophomore in 2004-05, tallying 73 points (21 goals, 52 assists) in 61 games. He earned rave reviews for his relentlessly aggressive play in the postseason, and was acknowledged as the driving force behind Windsor's comeback from a three-games-to-none hole to defeat Jeff Carter's Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in the first round.
"He just never quits," said a clearly frustrated Carter of Downie, following Game Seven. "He's an in-your-face guy who battles and really gets under your skin, gives you no room to move out there. And I'll give him credit - he can score as well. I hope I never have to play against him again."
In early October of last year, Downie was involved in an on-ice altercation with Windsor teammate Akim Aliu. He was suspended for five games and ordered to attend counseling by the team, but with the Spitfires also mired at the time in an embarrassing hazing controversy he returned home and asked for a trade.
Downie sat out for over a month, but eventually received his wish, and was dealt to Peterborough. In the meantime, though, he became the subject of much scrutiny in the media, and was bombarded with a seemingly endless barrage of questions about his disciplinary track record.
"I never worried about that stuff, to be honest," he said. "It didn't bother me. I just wanted to get back onto the ice and play hockey. It wasn't really even a matter of proving myself, because I know what I can do. This is what I love to do and this is my life. When I was [traded to Peterborough], I was so happy, just getting the chance to put everything behind me and get back into the game."From the Sidelines to the Spotlight
Downie's career gained its biggest boost when he lived the dream of every young hockey player by being selected in the NHL Entry Draft in August of 2005. The Flyers surprised just about everyone by tabbing the then 18-year-old with the 29th overall pick, even though he was rated 72nd among North American skaters alone by the Central Scouting Bureau.
"I was stunned," he remembers. "I felt that the Flyers had some interest due to our earlier meeting, but I was not expecting to go so soon. It was just an unbelievable feeling. I was watching the draft on TV in my basement with family and friends and it was something I'll never forget."
The 2005-06 season certainly didn't start the way Downie had envisioned, but once he arrived in Peterborough in November and returned to the ice, everything changed. His acquisition paid immediate dividends for the Petes, as the pugnacious forward fit right in and helped cement the team amongst the OHL elite.
But the highlight of Downie's season - and career to this point - came in January, when he played a major role in helping Team Canada capture its second straight gold medal at the World Junior Championships in British Columbia.
Though he was well on his way to establishing himself as a top player in the OHL, Downie's performance at the WJC proved to be his big coming out party. He notched 6 points (2 goals, 4 assists) in 6 games, and was a dominating physical presence throughout the tournament.
Downie saved his best for last, scoring what turned out the be the winning goal and completely shutting down projected megastar Evgeni Malkin in Canada's 5-0 win over Russia in the gold medal game. Soon after, he was named to the WJC's all-tournament team for his efforts.
"It was an amazing experience, a real honor getting to represent my country and winning the gold medal," he said. "It was just unbelievable. I didn't want it to end. Scoring the winning goal? That was kind of funny, because I didn't even realize it until afterward, when someone pointed it out to me. But, it was such a team effort and just so great to be a part of. It's definitely the highlight of my career so far."
Downie would go on to finish the OHL season strong, building off of the momentum he built at the WJC. He ended up with 50 points (16 goals, 34 assists) in just 34 regular season games for the Petes. He added another 21 points (6 goals, 15 assists) in 19 games during a phenomenal postseason run, in which he helped Peterborough sweep the defending champion London Knights to capture the league title.
Ultimately, the Petes would finish in a third-place tie at the Memorial Cup tournament in Moncton, New Brunswick. But, the season was deemed an overwhelming success, and Downie, despite all of the early season hoopla, had managed to emerge as one of the top rising stars in the major junior ranks.
"Steve's performance this season speaks volumes for the type of player he's become," explained Petes General Manager Jeff Twohey. "He obviously played a huge role in helping our team to an OHL championship and he proved, at least in one game, that he could shut down a world class prospect like Evgeni Malkin. He does very well in high-pressure situations and gives 100 percent every game."Unfinished Business
Though the Petes fell short in their Memorial Cup bid, the good news continued to roll in for Downie. In May, he signed his first pro contract, inking a three-year, entry-level deal with the Flyers.
"Honestly, I was kind of surprised by the whole thing," he recalls. "I definitely wasn't expecting to sign so soon, but I was thrilled that they thought highly enough of me to want to get it done now. It's good to have it out of the way, so all I have to worry about is focusing on hockey."
Holmgren, in making the announcement, praised Downie and his perseverance through the whirlwind season he had. He also noted that Downie would most likely return to Peterborough for one more year, but promised a good, long look from the Flyers in Training Camp.
Downie did enjoy a solid camp, and played well in three preseason games for the Orange and Black. With the Flyers loaded at the forward positions, however, Downie went back to his junior club.
"Yeah, it was kind of a disappointment," Downie explained. "Once you get a taste of the big-time, you want to stay, but the camp was a great experience. I know I'll get my chance next year. It was good to see how everything works and get into a few preseason games. I learned a lot, especially from Jeff Carter and Ben Eager, who I played against in the OHL.
"When I found out I wasn't going to make the team this year, my mind immediately turned back to Peterborough and our goals there. After all, we have some unfinished business from last season, and a Memorial Cup to shoot for."
Downie wound up missing the Petes' first two games before being officially reassigned by the Flyers. Once he did get back into the lineup, he picked up right where he left off last season. Through seven games, he has recorded 13 points (5 goals, 8 assists) and 18 penalty minutes and is playing in all game situations for the 5-4-0 Petes.
"I don't think I can emphasize how important Steve's presence is and what he means to this team," said Malette. "He's such a quality hockey player and all of the young players on our team look up to him. He gained the leadership of the dressing room the moment he [returned from Philadelphia], and everyone here respects him a great deal."
Added Twohey: "Steve is the key to our Memorial Cup hopes, so getting him back for another season is a big deal, no question. Since he came to us in the trade last season, Steve has continued to raise his level of play and take on the leadership role. It'll be great to have him here for an entire season, and I'm sure our young guys will benefit from seeing the effort and example he puts forth every night as well."Looking to the Future
Downie doesn't have too much time to kick back and ponder the distant future these days. Not with the OHL season in full-flight and other teams gunning at his Peterborough squad every night, trying to make names for themselves against the defending circuit champions.
On top of the stated goal of leading the Petes to an OHL title repeat and a return trip to the Memorial Cup tournament, there is also his surefire selection to Canada's entry for the 2006-07 WJC in Sweden to think about. In other words, Downie will have plenty on his plate this season without much down time.
"There's a lot going on, but this is fun. This is what you play for," he explained. "We've got a great team here in Peterborough, and we're a very tight-knit group. We have a desire to win the Memorial Cup, and that is the ultimate goal. The world juniors are also something I can't wait for. It'll be great to get a chance to go to Sweden this year. I'm sure it'll be another experience to remember forever."
And beyond this season?
"Sure, I do think about it a lot," Downie said with a laugh. "Making it to the NHL has always been my dream, and it's something I never lose sight of, no matter what's going on. I have to stay [focused on] my responsibilities here with the Petes, but I can also use my future goals as motivation as well."
Barring some unforeseen event, Downie will be playing hockey in Philadelphia this time next year. Whether he makes the Flyers' roster as a rookie or spends some initial time with the Phantoms in the American Hockey League remains to be seen. As with most players his age, there is also no way to say for certain how smoothly he will be able to make the transition to the pro level, and what type of player he will be when he gets there.
"Steve is a world class player himself, and a definite NHL prospect," stated Twohey. "He has the tools to succeed with the Flyers, and already brings with him a lot of winning experience. He works so hard to improve himself and is an extremely dedicated individual. I don't know that he'll be a top offensive player [in the pros], but he is skilled and could surprise some people. He's a team-oriented guy who is fueled by his passion for the game."
Downie admits that there are still some specific areas of his game that need work before he says goodbye to the amateur ranks.
"I think my skating is the biggest thing, improving my quickness and reaction time," he noted. "The coaching staff has also stressed the importance of going to the net with more consistency and coming back hard in the defensive end. Those are the main things, but I think I'm coming along well. I'm looking forward to whatever the future brings, and will be ready when the time comes."
Added Malette: "He's come a long way and I think he's the type of player the Flyers want. He'll be a real fan favorite once he gets to Philadelphia, for sure."