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Stars prospect born in Jamaica 'OK with being the underdog'

Loewen hopes to complete unlikely journey to NHL

by Jeff MIller / Correspondent

Jermaine Loewen was gazing out upon Okanagan Lake in Kelowna, British Columbia, when his agent phoned with news that he was hoping for yet was also unexpected.

The forward for Kamloops of the Western Hockey League had been selected moments earlier by the Dallas Stars with in the seventh round (No. 199) in the 2018 NHL Draft, making him the first Jamaica-born NHL draft pick.

"I cried," Loewen said in a recent interview of getting the news June 23. "It was very emotional."

There is much more to Loewen's story than being a geographical anomaly. He arrived in Canada as a 5-year-old, adopted by a Manitoba couple. That was four years after he'd been dropped off at a hospital in Jamaica by his natural parents and soon after was sent to live in an orphanage.

Loewen received his first pair of ice skates as a Christmas gift at age 6, relatively late by Canadian standards and a disappointment to him; he'd hoped for a video game. Loewen played his first organized game at age 10.

From such relatively humble hockey beginnings, Loewen led Kamloops last season in goals (36) and points (64) and could begin a pro career in a matter of weeks.

As his adoptive father, Stan Loewen, said, "So much of Jermaine's hockey story is so unlike most other kids'."

Loewen has played four seasons for Kamloops, progressing from a 16-year-old who didn't score until 11 games into his second season, which earned him a standing ovation, to a potential captain this season. Having turned 20 in January and with one more season of WHL eligibility remaining, he will attend the Traverse City Prospects Tournament in Michigan from Sept. 7-11, and then Stars training camp in Boise, Idaho, from Sept. 14-16. He will return to Kamloops for this season if he doesn't sign a pro contract and play with either Texas of the American Hockey League or Idaho of the ECHL.

"I think the plan right now is for Jermaine to go back to Kamloops for his overage year," Dallas player development coordinator Rich Peverley said. "Having said that, that can always change. Guys always impress [at Traverse City] and sign contracts."

Don Hay, who recently retired after coaching Kamloops for the past five seasons, said he hopes Loewen returns to the team.

"It's taken him a little longer [than most NHL prospects]," Hay said, "and there's nothing wrong with that."

Loewen was 3 1/2 years old when Stan and Tara Loewen, who were living in Arborg, Manitoba, noticed him among the 18 kids living at a children's home that they helped renovate in Jamaica as part of a Christian group's mission. Having discussed adoption before they were married, the Loewens began a process that took almost two years.

They were warned that an adoptee might not be immediately ready to join a new family. When Stan and Tara returned to Jamaica to bring their new son home to Canada for the first time, he was waiting on the front steps with his backpack packed.

"He was wearing his Sunday best," Stan Loewen said. "He said, 'I'm going with you.'"

Loewen, it turned out, was the only child there eligible for adoption.

"You can't just say that's chance," Loewen said. "It was meant to be."

(Stan and Tara have since adopted two other children: daughter Makeda, now 11, from Ethiopia; and Nathanael, 9, also from Jamaica.)

Stan and Tara enrolled Loewen in the local CanSkate introductory program at age 7; most of the participants were of preschool age. When he was first introduced to organized hockey, his coach noted his relatively large frame, put him at defenseman and asked him to skate backward.

"That didn't last too long," Loewen said with a laugh, noting that he couldn't skate backward. Moved to forward, he was introduced to offside and frequently stationed himself at the offensive blue line.

Stan Loewen said it was a big deal when Kamloops drafted his son at 16 out of the Manitoba Midget AAA Hockey League. He had no points in 37 games in 2014-15, his first WHL season. But Loewen showed improvement, finishing with 15 points (eight goals, seven assists) in 67 games in 2015-16, and 17 points (six goals, 11 assists) in 66 games in 2016-17.

Hay said Loewen has become increasingly comfortable with playing at the net and taking advantage of his size (6-foot-4, 216 pounds). "He's a big dude and a hard guy to handle down low," he said. 

Asked to compare Loewen to a current NHL player, Hay mentioned Edmonton Oilers forward Milan Lucic.

"Milan worked hard to improve himself and made the NHL at 19," Hay said. "He forced people to notice him. Jermaine has some traits like that."

Stars owner Tom Gagliardi also is a co-owner of Kamloops, and Hay said Dallas was one of multiple NHL teams that inquired about Loewen before the draft. Loewen caught the eye of Peverley on a trip to visit a previous Stars draft pick playing for Kamloops.

"He's a grinder type of guy, and he's going to continue to be a good, two-way forward using his stick and his skates to defend," Peverley said. "He needs to become a little quicker. He's fast already. Keep working on his polish around the net."

Loewen hasn't forgotten his hockey roots. He said he hopes to establish a youth hockey program similar to the one in Arborg started by Florida Panthers goaltender James Reimer, who is from the area: Hockey with Reims.

"He's been a huge role model for me," Loewen said.

Loewen can become the second NHL player from Jamaica; forward Graeme Townsend played 45 games over five NHL seasons, most recently with the 1993-94 Ottawa Senators, after being undrafted. Though Loewen has said he hopes to inspire other kids from nontraditional hockey backgrounds to pursue the sport, Stan said what his son has accomplished in hockey, and might do in the future, should have an effect far beyond sports.

"Every kid is gifted," he said. "If you provide opportunity, you will excel at something."

Loewen appears to relish the challenge of reaching the NHL.

"I'm OK with being the underdog," he said. "Wherever this goes as far as I can make it, I'm going to work my [tail] off to get there."

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