Three years ago, NHL teams drafted smaller players at their own risk.
In a league where clutching and grabbing were still very much in style, and where speed often died in the neutral zone, size was at a premium. Teams needed players who could fight through heavy traffic and overpower those intent on obstructing them.
Even at the 2003 NHL Entry Draft in Nashville, the search for talent was often dwarfed by size concerns. How else can one explain why 148 picks were made before the Rangers were "bold" enough to select left wing Nigel Dawes.
Dawes had better offensive numbers than most first-rounders that year. Playing for the Kootenay Ice in 2002-03, he had placed third in the Western Hockey League with 47 goals and 10th in the league with 92 points. He was top scorer on his team, and had also played a key role one year earlier when Kootenay won the Memorial Cup as Canada's major-junior champions.
Despite all these accomplishments, Dawes lasted into the fifth round in 2003 simply because of a few inches. He stood 5-foot-8, which was undersized by NHL standards, and scouts were obviously concerned that his stellar junior game would not translate to the pro level.
Who back then could have known the NHL was on the verge of a major change in philosophy that would make players like Dawes more attractive than ever. Two years after that draft in Nashville, post-lockout rules changes put an emphasis on speed and finesse, opening up the ice for smaller players who no longer had to worry about the behemoths hired to make their lives miserable.
"I don't know if I necessarily expected to go any higher in that draft," said Dawes. "I knew I was going to get drafted. It was just a question of whether a team would take a chance on me. Especially then with the old rules. There wasn't a lot of room for smaller players in the league."
In 2003, the Rangers added Dawes as an absolute steal at his draft position. In the three years since, he has bolstered his hockey resume, and few 21-year-olds in history have been able to claim all the achievements Dawes can list. These include:
- A Memorial Cup championship (2002 with Kootenay)
- World Junior Championship gold and silver medals (2005 and 2004 with Team Canada)
- 50-goal scorer in major-junior hockey (2004-05 with Kootenay)
- A major-junior franchise's all-time goals record (Kootenay, 159 goals)
- Two WHL First Team All-Star selections (2003-04, 2004-05 with Kootenay)
- No. 2 rookie goal-scorer in AHL (35 goals for Hartford in 2005-06)
- Five-point game in AHL (March 31, 2006, for Hartford)
- The Rangers' Lars-Erik Sjoberg Award as top rookie in training camp (2006)
The list of Dawes' accomplishments already seems endless. Now, as one of 23 active players remaining in the Rangers' training camp, he has officially broken through to the NHL and earned a spot on the Rangers' opening-night roster. He certainly helped his cause in the preseason, finishing third on the team with four points in five games.
Dawes enters the 2006-07 season as the only player who has never played in an NHL regular-season or playoff game. Not bad for a guy once thought to be too small to make it.
"Honestly, I don't think size is an issue in the NHL at all anymore," said Dawes. "I don't think they look at guys based on their size. If he's a good enough player and he can skate and he has the skills to play in the NHL, then he's going to play in the NHL."
Coming into training camp this year, Dawes said he felt more confident than a year ago, when he attended his first camp. In 2005, Dawes played in only one preseason game against Boston before being reassigned to Hartford.
"Last year I came to camp not knowing what to expect," said Dawes. "This year, I was able to prepare over the summer so that I could have a good camp."
Arrival on the NHL stage is something Dawes has dreamt about since his boyhood in Winnipeg, where he excelled in minor, bantam and midget hockey before entering the WHL. During those early years, Dawes was a big fan of hockey's best league, beginning with his support of the old Winnipeg Jets, who left town for Phoenix when Dawes was 11 years old.
"I was a big Winnipeg Jets fan, and I also liked the Avalanche because (Joe) Sakic was there," said Dawes. "I think I appreciate the Jets a little more now that they're gone than when they were there. But just seeing the whole NHL come back last year was great, and with the new rules, hockey has become an even more fun sport to watch."
Colorado's Sakic was always one of Dawes' favorite NHL players, but unlike some kids, he never made it his goal to emulate one specific star.
"I don't think I modeled my game after anyone's," said Dawes. "I kind of have a little bit of everything, I guess. I like to be physical and I like to be finesse and be solid defensively. I don't think there's one guy in general who inspired me, it's just kind of how the game fell into my hands."
With the Rangers organization, Dawes could follow in the footsteps of many famous Blueshirts who also grew up in Winnipeg. The organization's ties to that city go back to original Rangers coach and general manager Lester Patrick, who ran a prominent hockey school there in the 1930s. Winnipeg was also the boyhood home of Rangers stars Alex Shibicky, Don Raleigh, Andy Hebenton, Andy Bathgate and James Patrick.
At age 16, Dawes left Winnipeg for Cranbrook, British Columbia, where he joined Kootenay just in time for its championship season. The Ice blew out the QMJHL's Victoriaville Tigres in the final game, and one of the teams Kootenay beat in its march to the title was the Guelph Storm, which featured future Rangers defenseman Fedor Tyutin.
Dawes wasted little time becoming a star in major-junior, scoring 47 goals in his draft year, 47 more in 2003-04 and then 50 goals in 2004-05. Despite these accomplishments, there were still questions about his size. Those questions seem laughable today, since the new-era NHL is the perfect place for his type of player.
"I've never been discouraged in my life. I've been facing it (size concerns) since I started playing bantam," said Dawes. "When I went to the Western League there was always the size issue. It's such a repetition to me when people talk about it now. It's not even a question for me. I just kind of learned to deal with that and find other ways to stand out and to produce and move on in hockey. ... There's definitely room for smaller players now. You've got be able to play the game, think the game, and be able to skate flat out to play the game now. I think it's just great for the fans. The game is more fun to watch and probably more fun to play as well."
In Hartford, Dawes continued his development, scoring 35 goals and 67 points last season. He finished second on the team in goals and power-play goals (15). Among rookies, only Houston's Patrick O'Sullivan - drafted 93 spots ahead of Dawes in 2003 - had more goals.
"It (the AHL) was a bit of an adjustment for the first four or five games, but after that it's just hockey again," said Dawes. "You get to where you're feeling more comfortable and more confident. I played with great linemates in Dwight Helminen and Colby Genoway. We just really jelled together and just grew as the year went on, and I grew as a player myself."
In his first pro season, Dawes said he tried not to get ahead of himself by setting a timetable for graduating to the NHL.
"You just go out there and take it day by day and play your game," he said. "You go out there and do what's gotten you to that point in your career and hopefully improve on your weak areas and strengthen your good areas."
One of the factors that has helped Dawes enjoy almost instant success at every level of hockey is his self-confidence. Rather than be overwhelmed by the jump from one league to another, Dawes has always tried to adapt his own game to the new environment. The final jump from the AHL to the NHL is no exception.
"I think it's definitely a little quicker out there, so you've got to get adjusted to the speed of the game," he said. "You don't have a whole lot of time to make plays. You've got to think quickly and try to be a step ahead of the play and know what you're going to do before it happens. I think that's what I'm trying to do out there. Other than that, I'm not really trying to change a lot from what I did last year in Hartford."
Dawes said one of the toughest things about this year's training camp was competing for limited roster spots against many of his Wolf Pack teammates.
"Obviously, you're pulling for other players, but when it comes to the bottom line, you're going out there and you want to make the team yourself," he said. "When you skate together in Hartford, you're pushing each other all the time because you never know if an opportunity is going to come and whether you're going to be here. We're always pushing for each other and rooting for each other, but at the same time, we're working on our own things."
Whether or not Dawes follows in the footsteps of teammate Petr Prucha and becomes an instant star with the Rangers, one thing is clear: Playing in the NHL won't change Nigel Dawes' fundamental approach to hockey or the perspective he has on his own development.
"Things have worked out for me so far," he said. "I've continued to get better, and I think that's what you have to do after you're drafted. You can't sit back and coast. You've got to keep working hard."