Being as skilled a player as Cam Fowler
, there were lots of options for him when he looked into where he wanted to continue his hockey career for the 2009-10 season.
There was the United States Hockey League. He had a scholarship offer from Notre Dame, a rising NCAA power that has won its league title two of the last three seasons. Or, after giving a verbal commitment to Notre Dame at age 14, he would have been well within his rights to choose another college.
"You really can't go wrong with any of those choices," Fowler told NHL.com. "Just sitting down with my family and realizing I have just one year to play hockey before I get drafted, one year to showcase what I can do, Windsor seemed like the right choice for that."
Fowler, a 6-foot-2, 195-pound defenseman who has been compared favorably to NHL All-Star Dion Phaneuf
, chose the Windsor Spitfires, last season's Ontario Hockey League and Memorial Cup champion.
It certainly looks like the right choice. Fowler leads all OHL defenseman with 21 points, and his 19 assists lead all skaters. His plus-18 rating is third in the League.
Projected to be a high first-round pick at the 2010 Entry Draft, Fowler plays in Windsor's top defense pairing, plays about 30 minutes per game, and has teamed with 2009 NHL first-round draft pick Ryan Ellis
to form a lethal power-play combination. Fowler also has played some on the penalty kill.
"His puck movement is excellent," NHL Central Scouting's Chris Edwards told NHL.com. "He sees the ice very well and makes hard, accurate passes. He has been used on the top defense pair as well as both the power-play and penalty-kill units. His puck retrieval is very good, and he transitions very well to offense." Edwards added that he thought Fowler has a strong shot, but he needs to work on finding better shooting lanes to consistently get it through to the net.
The chance to play a 68-game schedule -- about double the length of an NCAA season -- was a check in the OHL column, as was the chance to stay close to home. Windsor is just an hour south of his Farmington Hills, Mich., home, so he can stay close to his parents and two younger sisters.
"Each decision had its pros and cons," said Fowler. "You can sit down and look at it all day. At the end of the day, it came down to I wanted to play hockey and I just wanted to focus on hockey and I have a year to do that. Being able to play 68 games, plus playoffs, that's a lot of hockey -- that did contribute to it."
Now he's learning just what that schedule entails -- double-digit-hour bus rides to and from games, three-games-in-three-nights weekends, and more physical play than he experienced playing in the U.S. National Team Development Program.
"I think the big adjustment to me was playing the three games in three nights, having a road trip like that, just getting your body recovered and ready to play those three games," Fowler said. "You have to bring the same intensity to those games every night. At the (U.S.) program we played two in two sometimes, but we'd usually get a break there with a day off. That, and learning to control my body and just making sure I'm ready to play every night."
Windsor coach Bob Boughner said he's been very happy with Fowler's play so far.
"I think he's doing what I thought he would do," Boughner told NHL.com. "I thought it might take him longer to catch onto the league. He's still got a bit to go, but he's developing and learning and getting better every day."
Boughner said he expects Fowler to continue getting better as the season goes along and he learns the tendencies of some of the players he'll play against.
"He's an elite player and his skating is such an asset for him," Boughner said. "He's a guy that once he learns the league and gets himself comfortable he's going to thrive here."
Fowler said he'd like to round out his game by getting stronger in his defensive-zone play, as well as becoming more physical.
"Just sitting down with my family and realizing I have just one year to play hockey before I get drafted, one year to showcase what I can do, Windsor seemed like the right choice for that."
-- Cam Fowler
"Getting nastier in the defensive zone," he said. "It's something I've worked on throughout my career. It's something that people have questioned, but I've proven, especially in the World (Under-18) Championship, that I can be a shut-down defenseman if I need to and help out in the offensive zone. I'm just trying to get better in the defensive zone every day and at the same time contribute in the offensive end."
He starred at that tournament as the U.S. team won gold. Fowler had 7 assists, 8 points and a plus-8 rating, and was named the tournament's best defenseman. He carried that high level of play into the U.S. National Junior Evaluation Camp in August in Lake Placid, N.Y., where he had 2 goals and an assist in four exhibition games against Russia.
"He was sound defensively, moved the puck when he should have," U.S. coach Dean Blais told NHL.com. "At times I thought he could have been more physical, but there's plenty of time to work on that. He's got more skills to do more offensive things with the puck." One USA Hockey official said Fowler, one of only two 2010 Entry Draft-eligible players to make the first round of cuts, was the second-best blueliner at the camp -- only John Carlson
, a 2008 first-round draft pick of the Washington Capitals
who has played in the American Hockey League, was better.
The stellar play hasn't tailed off at all through a month's worth of games in the OHL, and he's doing at a far higher level of physicality than he's used to.
"That (physical play) was definitely a big adjustment for me, too," said Fowler. "It was hard there in the first few games, I had to get adjusted to the style of play. It was kind of a reality check for me in my own zone. I just made it a point to make it the biggest thing I've focused on. In practice the coaches have been getting on me about it, and I've used it to fuel my play out there. I think I've transitioned well. The coaches know they can rely on me to shut down a team's top line and hopefully I can keep it up."
He's also adjusting off the ice to the expectations that come with joining a club expected to compete for a championship. Windsor returned the majority of the team that won OHL and Memorial Cup titles last season, and Fowler had to deal with the pressure of being imported to play a big role in an attempt to repeat.
"Coming into the locker room, I had to get used to all the guys, fit into their team chemistry," said Fowler. "They all really welcomed me with open arms, the staff and the players. Just the city of Windsor itself really welcomed me. It's something I had to get used to, the atmosphere here, they expect a lot out of you. We feel we have the team to make another run at it. It's a winning atmosphere here. ... I've never really had a whole city behind me like I do in Windsor. I was able to adjust to it the first few games, they were a little nerve wracking, but I think I'm doing OK now."
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org