Patience and perseverance paid off for Justin Dowling. After 324 minor league games - 264 in the AHL and 60 in the ECHL - over a span of five-and-a-half years, Dowling finally made it to the NHL.
The 26-year-old forward, who was called up to the Dallas Stars from the Texas Stars of the AHL on Monday, made his NHL debut in Tuesday night's 3-2 win over Winnipeg at American Airlines Center.
"It's a dream come true," Dowling said. "It seems like I've always taken the long route and playing in my first NHL game is no different."
And it has been a long route for Dowling. The Alberta native, who played his junior hockey for Swift Current of the Western Hockey League, was never drafted. He worked his way up through the minors, shuffling between Abbotsford (AHL) and Utah (ECHL) in his first pro season in 2011-12 before getting his foot in the door with the Stars organization by signing with the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL for the 2012-13 season.
"I got lucky in going to Boise and having the coach that gave me the opportunity I did there with Brad Ralph," Dowling said.
Dowling registered 46 points (13 goals, 33 assists) in 34 games with Idaho and midway through the season he joined the Texas Stars, playing under Willie Desjardins.
"Playing for Willie was such a good kick start to my AHL career," he said. "I consider Texas my first AHL team, I didn't play that much with Abbottsford."
Dowling has been a good player for Texas, and that helped him his first NHL contract, a two-year, two-way deal with Dallas in 2014. Dowling was a key player as Texas won the Calder Cup championship in 2013-14. He had a strong 2014-15 season with a career-high 50 points in 65 games.
The play of Dowling was trending in the right direction, but once again there would need to be some of that patience and perseverance. Dowling appeared to be in line for a call-up to the NHL last season, but those hopes got dashed by mid-season injury that kept him out two months.
"It's always tough when you think you have a chance to go up and play in the NHL and your feet kind of get taken out from under you with an injury," Dowling said. "I was out nine weeks, and that's a good portion of the season. When you can't go up and fulfill a dream, it is kind of shell-shocking a bit. It's frustrating."
Over the summer, after several seasons in the minors, Dowling considered going to Europe where he might be able to get some more money. But he passed on the idea and re-signed a two-way deal with Dallas.
"There were thoughts in the summer, but you never want to give up on the dream," Dowling said. "I am glad I made the decision to re-sign and stay here."
Despite a strong training camp and preseason this year, he still had to wait for the call to the NHL despite the rash of injuries Dallas has gone through at forward. Others grabbed roster spots or got the call before he did, but Dowling remained patient, got off to a good start in the AHL this season and finally got the call this week.
"I've gone through it long enough now. I've been playing pro quite a few years, and I know how it feels not to get the call-up," Dowling said. "Other guys deserved it. You have to give them credit. They played well too. I just had to bide my time and keep doing what I was doing down there and hopefully get an opportunity."
And he made the most of the opportunity on Tuesday, picking up his first NHL point by assisting on Patrick Eaves' 100th career goal.
"It felt great," Dowling said. "It was nice to do it on a milestone too. You always want to go out there and contribute and help the team win, and I'm glad I was able to do that in my first game."
Dowling, who centered the fourth line with Gemel Smith and Adam Cracknell, played 11:05 in the game, had one shot on goal and won four of eight faceoffs.
"I thought he played excellent. I thought he played really well in his own end. I thought those guys generated some good chances and played well defensively," Stars coach Lindy Ruff said. "He moved the puck well out of his own end. Offensively, he got himself in the slot for a great opportunity. I thought we had a great night out of his line."
And for Dowling, that's a sign that his perseverance and patience paid dividends.
"I am glad I was finally able to do it," Dowling said, "and was able to roll with the opportunity to do it and play a good game."
Note: Another maintenance day for Jamie Benn, Jiri Hudler practices
*Stars captain Jamie Benn, right wing Patrick Eaves and defenseman John Klingberg did not practice Wednesday. It was a maintenance day for all three players, Stars coach Lindy Ruff said. Maintenance days have been piling up for Benn, who is still trying to shake off past injuries with his hip and a core muscle.
"It's all related," Ruff said. "It can be groin; it can be hip. It's nothing serious. I think it's related. You've missed all training camp, and you get in high-intensity games, and you torque it more than you would do in any practices."
Benn hasn't practiced much recently, and that can take a toll, too.
"It's been hard on Jamie because he hasn't practiced enough. You go out and practice for that 30 minutes we did today at a high pace, that helps you for the next day," Ruff said. "He hasn't practiced again now in a week, and that shows up a little bit in the performance. It's a balancing act. We don't want to aggravate what he's got going on, but at the same time, we need to elevate play. He's working as hard as he possibly can off ice, but when you get on ice, and you get the feet and the hands going at the same time, even in a 30-minute practice, day after day of that, your hands and your legs and everything starts to come together."
*Stars forward Jason Spezza, who missed Tuesday's game with a lower-body injury, did not practice on Wednesday. He is doubtful for Thursday's game in Winnipeg.
"Not being out there today is a sign that he is doubtful for tomorrow," Ruff said. "I was hoping he'd be able to practice and he wasn't able to. Another day of rest may help, so we'll see tomorrow."
*Forward Jiri Hudler, who has missed the past four games due to illness, practiced for the first time since going out of the lineup. He won't be ready for Thursday's game in Winnipeg, but Saturday may be a possibility.
"He's going to need today, tomorrow and Friday and then a hard evaluation for Saturday on my part as to whether he can manage the game intensity and speed of the game to be effective," Ruff said. "I am not going to put him in unless I think he is ready. And I am not going to put him in just because he said he is ready. I've got to see it in practice."
*Forward Patrick Sharp (concussion-like symptoms) is not skating yet, but he did go on the ice and shoot some pucks around after Tuesday's practice.
"He hasn't skated yet, hasn't exercised since the incident, so he is going to fall into that category where he'll need a couple practices," Ruff said.
*There is still no timetable on a possible return for Cody Eakin (knee), but he is making progress.
"He's skating," Ruff said. "He's entering that part of rehab where he is back on the ice, which for me is a great sign. He's feeling pretty good. He's a ways away. It's not days, I can tell you that."
This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. Mark Stepneski is an independent writer whose posts on DallasStars.com reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars. You can follow Mark on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.