DETROIT – It wasn’t a dream. It was reality. Cam Fowler(notes) actually was standing on the blue line at Joe Louis Arena, listening to the national anthem on opening night, in the starting lineup for the Anaheim Ducks against his hometown Detroit Red Wings. This is where he had come as a kid, when this moment was only in his imagination, and yet he was still just a kid, only 18, the so-called stubble on his face not fooling anyone.
“It’s a feeling that can’t really be described, just that feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you realize that this is you playing in a National Hockey League game,” Fowler said Friday night. “It was an awesome feeling.”
There are NHL debuts. Then there are all-the-stars-lined-up stories like this. Of all the places to break into the league, of all the times to do it, of all the teams to do it against …
“Certainly it might have been easier had he played against somebody else for his first game,” his father, Perry Fowler, said. “But when you think about it, it probably couldn’t be more special for him to be doing it right here in Detroit.”
Fowler was born across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario. When he was almost 2, his family moved to the Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills. When he was maybe 5 or 6, he skated in a shootout at the Joe between periods of a Wings game, with longtime Detroit voice Budd Lynch announcing his name.
When he was no more than 6 or 7, he and his father, a Bruins fan, went to Boston-Detroit game at the Joe. He wore a Wings jersey and tried to get on television with a homemade sign that said essentially: “My Dad loves the Bruins, but Red Wings rule!”
“I don’t think he got on TV, but he tried hard,” his father said.
When he was 7 and 8, he played two travel league championship games at the Joe for the Farmington Hills Fire against the Grosse Pointe Bulldogs. As he grew, he went to a few Wings games at the Joe when his schedule allowed. He became more of a hockey fan than a die-hard Wings fan, but one of his idols was Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom(notes).
And when he was 17 – just last year – he came to the Joe with the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League. They watched a Wings practice and listened to talks by general manager Ken Holland and coach Mike Babcock.
“It’s unbelievable how fast things have transpired,” Fowler said. “I’ve got to pinch myself every once in a while just to realize what’s really going on.”
Fowler was projected to go as high as third overall in the NHL draft in June, behind the consensus top two picks: Taylor Hall(notes), a Windsor teammate, and Tyler Seguin(notes), a center for the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers. But after Hall went first overall to the Edmonton Oilers and Seguin went second to the Bruins, Fowler started slipping. He fell out of the top five. He fell out of the top 10.
“It was crazy,” Fowler said. “I wasn’t expecting that to happen. People were telling me, ‘You might go here. Here’s one spot where you’ll definitely go. You won’t slip this far.’ But on draft day, anything can happen. Teams have certain needs, and I just didn’t fit what they were looking for. But then Anaheim went up and called my name, and all that agony and everything just disappeared.”
The Ducks took him 12th overall. He received his jersey on stage at Los Angeles’ Staples Center from another of his idols, former Ducks defenseman Scott Niedermayer(notes). He was going to an organization that needed a defenseman with offensive skill. And he looked at the schedule and found an added bonus.
Oct. 8, at Detroit.
“I was like, ‘Aw, man. That would be unbelievable to play there,’ ” Fowler said.
In the past, 18-year-olds rarely made the NHL, especially on defense, a position where experience was considered as precious as skill. But this has become a young man’s league even on the blue line. A 20-year-old, the Los Angeles Kings’ Drew Doughty(notes), is the favorite for the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman, and several others are playing at a level well beyond their years.
Fowler played to his strengths in training camp and the preseason, moving the puck well, seemingly never under pressure, raising his level of play along with the level of competition. He made the Ducks’ decision easy.
“You play your best players, and he’s been one of our best players, so the age didn’t really become a factor in making the decision to play him,” Ducks coach Randy Carlyle said. “He’s earned the opportunity.”
And so he returned to Detroit an NHLer. He got on TV, as he had wanted when he made that homemade sign. He got to have Lynch announce his name again. And he got to play in front of Holland and Babcock and against Lidstrom – a 40-year-old who debuted with the Wings more than two months before he was born.
The only way the story could have been better: if Fowler had made a spectacular play or the Ducks had won.
The Red Wings wrote their own script. Mike Modano(notes) – a 40-year-old who made his NHL debut more than two years before Fowler was born – scored on his first shot in his debut with his hometown team. Jimmy Howard(notes) started his sophomore season with a shutout instead of a slump. And Pavel Datsyuk(notes) of all people – a four-time winner of the Lady Byng Trophy for sportsmanship, gentlemanly conduct and high standard of playing ability – had a Gordie Howe hat trick. After picking up a goal and assist, he accepted a challenge from Corey Perry(notes), dropped the gloves for his second career fight and more than held his own.
The crowd roared. The Ducks lost, 4-0. Welcome to the NHL, kid.
But thrown into the deep end, Fowler performed swimmingly. His skating and passing looked smooth. He made a nifty move to elude Johan Franzen(notes) in the neutral zone on a rush up the ice. And he wasn’t on the ice for any of the goals, even though he played more than 20 minutes, including a 5-on-3 disadvantage at the end of the game when the Wings were trying to pile it on.
“I don’t think Cam Fowler looked out of place, not at all,” Carlyle said. “He’s a special, special athlete, I’m telling you.”
After the game, Fowler showered, dressed in his suit and walked down a long corridor inside Joe Louis Arena, holding a lineup sheet as a souvenir. He found his friends and family between the Zamboni dock and the door to the team bus. He gave some hugs and some autographs.
Then it was off to his second NHL game, and many more.