When college football season rolls around, the standard of excellence is usually set in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Two hours or so northeast, in the state’s fourth-largest city of Huntsville, many athletes and fans yearn for another sport to start up: hockey.
Huntsville native Nic Dowd expects people’s surprise at this point. He might be weary of hearing about it by now, but he understands that Alabama and hockey sound like a mismatch compared to Alabama and football.
“Surprisingly enough, there’s a lot of people that enjoy hockey in the state too,” Dowd told The Washington Times. “People laugh about it, but there are two ice rinks pretty close there in Huntsville and they have one in Birmingham, one in Montgomery. They’re pretty well invested in the sport.”
Dowd, 28, said he “did a lot of developing” in Huntsville’s youth program until he left when he was 15 years old. Since then, his hockey journey has brought him to Los Angeles, Vancouver and now the Washington Capitals, where he’s joining a defending Stanley Cup champion while competing for a critical center job.
His parents are from England, but Dowd grew up in Alabama and participated in Huntsville’s youth program, which he said is closely linked to the University of Alabama-Huntsville’s program, the only Division I ice hockey team in the South. But Dowd was recruited to join St. Cloud State in Minnesota, also Division I.
As a result, today his voice features more “Minnesota Nice” syrup than Alabama twang. But the right-handed center is proud of his Southern hockey roots.
“The culture down there, the youth program is incredible,” Dowd said. “And they do a great job coupling the youth program with the collegiate program, and then they have the Southern Professional Hockey League down there.”
He broke through with the Kings in 2016-17, putting up six goals and 16 assists and landing 145 hits. A slow start last year led him to be included in a trade with the Canucks, and he finished the season with only four points in 56 appearances. But Dowd called last year just a “blip in the radar” and thinks he can return to his output from two years ago.
“As you get to the NHL you have to carve out a niche for yourself,” he said. “Not everyone can be a top-line center. I was an offensive player and I hope to continue that here.”
Dowd was the only free agent the Capitals signed from another team in 2018 while they focused on locking up their returning players. They brought him in expecting that he would compete for the fourth-line center job, vacated by Jay Beagle, which is perhaps the only starting job still up for grabs.
Dowd’s competition for the fourth-line center job is Travis Boyd, and perhaps Chandler Stephenson, who has flitted between center and wing. The newcomer likely made some headway in Tuesday night’s preseason game, a 5-2 loss to the Boston Bruins. Dowd blocked three shots, a team high, and won 12 of his 17 faceoffs.
That’s a good night on the draw, even against the Bruins’ poorly-stocked preseason roster, but Dowd does not appear the type who impresses himself easily.
“I was OK. I don’t know what I was in the dot, but I started off 0-and-3 or something like that, but I think I battled back,” Dowd deadpanned after the game.
Beagle was a faceoff specialist for the Capitals, and coach Todd Reirden confirmed Tuesday he is looking for a similar skill set in Beagle’s ultimate replacement. Reirden thinks Dowd has been “as advertised” so far, repeating that assessment after the game.
“I put him in situations to take a lot of those draws tonight, and he did a good job of that. Did a good job on the penalty kill,” Reirden said. “I thought he continues to be as expected in what we’ve researched and seen from him, he was all of that.”
Not only does Dowd have to compete for his job, he joined a situation in Washington where almost every key player from last year’s championship roster returned — where the chemistry by season’s end was untouchable.
But that has not prevented him from assimilating in the Capitals’ dressing room or feeling welcomed in town, he said.
“From the top down, the general manager, the training staff, the equipment staff, everyone’s been incredible, and the players have been great too,” Dowd said. “The guys have been really, really easy to get to know. Very tight-knit group, but they’ve been really accepting. It’s been smooth.”
Dowd and his wife, Paige, love Washington and the surrounding area. When Dowd signed, they moved to Northern Virginia with their golden retriever Arlo, who, like many hockey dogs, is a part-time Instagram model.
“It’s nice to have a companion, not only for you, but it’s nice for your family to have a companion too,” Dowd said. “And you’re on the road a lot, right? So (if) you don’t have any kids, or the family isn’t close enough, it’s nice for your wife or your significant other to have someone too.”
There is still time for newest Capital to win — or lose — the fourth-line center race. Washington plays its third of seven preseason games Thursday night against the Montreal Canadiens in Quebec City, Canada. If the Alabama native re-establishes himself in the NHL with a bounce-back season, the journey might be traced back to these exhibitions.
“Play me in all of them,” Dowd said. “I think (when) adjusting to a new system, as many looks as I get, as much system work as I get, is gonna be positive.”