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Despite Late Start, Downing Made An Impact In Iowa

by Evan Sporer / Minnesota Wild

As Grayson Downing recounts key events over the past 407 days, leading all the way back to March 24, 2015 when he signed with the Minnesota Wild, his first professional contract, motivation is a motif riddled throughout.

An undrafted free agent who played his college hockey at the University of New Hampshire, Downing parlayed an ability to score at the NCAA level into an NHL contract.

But Downing said he knew that alone wasn't going to guarantee him anything.

"Going undrafted puts a chip on your shoulder," said the 24-year-old, left-shot center. "When the contract comes in, it's, 'Ok, what do I have to do now to prove myself even more?'"

More for Downing was a rookie season that, despite getting a late start, set Iowa Wild rookie records in goals, assists, points, power-play goals, power-play assists, and power-play points.

"You see guys getting drafted, guy are always talking about the draft, and it's something that motivates me, and creates more motivation to go out and prove myself, and earn the opportunities," Downing said.

His college career ended much like his professional career began: Filling the back of the net with pucks. In Downing's final seven games as a Wildcat, he scored seven goals. In his final nine, he recorded 12 points (7-5=12),

That included a stretch in Hockey East's conference tournament when Downing scored six goals in five games, netting the overtime-winner in the opening game of a quarterfinal series against Providence.

"I took a lot of Hockey East with me (to the American Hockey League), just because you are playing with a lot of really good players (in Hockey East)," Downing said. "There are a lot of guys who are drafted. There are a lot of young men, and then the difference is going to the AHL, you're playing with grown men."

Downing put himself through the paces this past summer, readying his body for the rigors of a longer professional schedule. He got a five-game cup of coffee at the end of the 2014-15 season following his signing, but 2015-16 was truly his chance to get his feet wet.

But Downing sustained a lower-body injury at the NHL Prospect Tournament in Traverse City in September that forced him to miss the Wild's entire training camp, and the beginning of the AHL season.

"At Traverse, the first few games were going well, and then getting hurt, I don't want to say it was frustrating, but it [stinks] to sit through a training camp where you want to be on the ice," he said. "For me personally, it was my first NHL training camp, and I wasn't able to partake because I was sitting in the training room getting treatment. I had to watch practices, watch the games, and I wasn't able to experience it and be on the ice with those guys, and like I said, prove myself."

Downing said one of the biggest keys to his recovery was keeping himself in a good place mentally.

"It was easy to stay motivated because you see all these guys out there playing, and you want to be out there with them," Downing said. "You don't want to be watching."

When he was finally healthy enough to suit up for Iowa, his first game coming Oct. 7, Downing was the furthest thing from a spectator. He scored 3:58 into that season debut, a 3-2 shootout loss against Lake Erie.

It was a theme to Downing's rookie season: He never went more than six games without scoring a goal, tallying 19 in 59 games. Downing finished in the top-20 among rookies in the AHL in scoring, with only two players on that list playing fewer games.

It's why when General Manager Chuck Fletcher addressed the media for a final time for the 2015-16 season, Downing's name came in the same breath as the recently signed, 2015 first-round pick Alex Tuch, as well as a group of forward prospects the Wild is hoping can blossom into NHL goal scorers.

"Our forward depth next year is going to be substantially better," Fletcher said after noting Downing was nearly a point per-game player in the AHL, and has yet to have the chance to play in an NHL preseason game because of injury. "How quickly these kids can make an impact, we'll see, but we'll certainly have a lot more talent in Iowa to start the season."

To that effect, Downing is carrying the same, undrafted free agent mentality into this summer, with eyes on making the Wild out of training camp come September.

"It's a different game every level you play at, and the NHL is the biggest step," he said. "I'm getting prepared to play NHL-caliber hockey, and not settle to be just sort of stuck in the AHL. This year went well, but there's motivation to do more, and to grow."

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