On the surface, it would seem that any head-on collision involving a 6’5, 220-pound defenseman would generally result in the other player coming out on the losing end of confrontation. Unfortunately for Spokane Chiefs rearguard Jared Cowen, it was his season that was ended in an an unexpected collision on Jan. 30.
“It was a pretty innocent play,” explained Chiefs head coach Hardy Sauter. “Jared finished his check along the wall and as that happened the direction of the puck changed for us from offense to defense. After the hit, he turned to get back to our zone. The player he checked came off the wall and kind of stumbled and landed on Jared’s leg.
“You know, there was absolutely no intent by either guy to have anything serious happen. It was just a finished check and it’s just really too bad Jared was injured.”
The incident occurred during a 6-0 Chiefs victory in Chilliwack against the Bruins, just five days after Cowen celebrated his 18th birthday. Cowen, a native of Allan, Saskatchewan, was ranked seventh in the Central Scouting’s mid-season rankings. Shortly after the tilt in Chilliwack, the Chiefs announced the injury was diagnosed as “an MCL sprain and a high-grade injury to his ACL."
While the injury created a huge hole on the Chiefs blueline, a group that collectively allowed the fewest goals against in the WHL this season, it also has raised questions about the likelihood of Cowen being a high first-round selection at the 2009 NHL Entry Draft.
“Most of the people that talk with our organization are saying that the injury certainly won’t help his positioning in the draft, but it’s not going to hurt either,” said Sauter. “I think it’s a can’t-miss for any team that takes him and if someone passes him up, I’d love to know how good the player is that they passed him up for.
“He’s just an excellent young man, a very, very talented hockey player and it’s not very often that you get such a talented hard-working guy who is 6’5 and puts in the work and commitment necessary to become a professional. In my mind the hockey people are pretty smart and they’re going to take him early.”
When asked by the Vancouver Province about Cowen’s stock for the upcoming draft, Chiefs general manager Tim Speltz was far more blunt with his response.
"If people are thinking about that,” Speltz said, “they’ll make a mistake. If he drops, it’s not a reflection on him. It’s a reflection on scouting."
Satisfied in Spokane
Prior to the 2006 WHL Bantam Draft, a number of reports out of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and around the league suggested Cowen and his family were apprehensive about his reporting to Spokane in the event the Chiefs opted to choose the dominating defenseman with the first selection overall. Cowen acknowledges the reports, but is quick to downplay the issue.
“There were some concerns,” he said. “Just living with a different family and surroundings was a big change. Then the schedule was a big adjustment, too, and the road trips are very long. It was just a long way from home and I had preferred to play somewhere closer.
“But it was never a concern about not liking Spokane. And you know, I couldn’t be happier now. We have a great arena to play in and the Chiefs are just a great organization.”
Cowen has spent the majority of his time in Spokane paired with Jared Spurgeon (NYI), a diminutive, offensive-minded defenseman from Edmonton, Alberta who dealt with the same relocation concerns as Cowen. In fact, Spurgeon made such an impression as a 15-year-old at his first training camp that the club says they had no choice but to keep him.
“I think when he came down as a 15-year-old with his parents, they were able to see how great the city is and they got to see some playoff games here and saw the support we have,” Spurgeon said of his teammate. “I think he saw that it wasn’t necessarily a great big change from Saskatoon.
“We talked about the schooling and things down here, but basically he and his family made the decision on their own after coming down for a few games. I also think the community helped out a lot with their fan support and I know Tim Speltz did a great job with him too.
“He’s a great teammate and we were partners on defense last season and this year until he was injured. He doesn’t play like a 17-year-old. He’s very mature as a player and he’s easy to take aside and share things with, so hopefully I’m helping him to learn a few things.
“He’s an easy guy to play with, a great skater for his size and he has a great shot. Getting involved offensively, we both like to jump up into the play and realize that we have to cover for each other, too. We read each other well and can rely on each other and that’s a good thing.”
His play in Spokane this season as a young veteran leader has certainly not gone unnoticed by the coaching staff.
“Jared was playing outstanding hockey for us,” Sauter added. “He was carrying big minutes, especially with guys away at WJC camps and other tournaments. He is for us much like Luke Schenn was for Kelowna last season. A big, strong, physical guy with offensive upside who can skate very well.
“No matter which way the game goes, either physical or finesse, he is still one of the most important guys on the ice for our team at any given time. I can’t say enough about his personality. The person he is and his level of play.”
For his part, Cowen has enjoyed his opportunity in the WHL and the adjustment to new surroundings, which also resulted in much busier winter months than those he encountered during his bantam and midget hockey.
“I feel like I’m developing my two-way game here,” Cowen said. “I don’t think I do anything really poorly. I don’t think you can go too far in hockey if you have weaknesses. I’m becoming a better transition guy. Jared (Spurgeon) and I have good chemistry.
“I feel fine with the activity level. I don’t think I was worn down at all last year. And of course, there was very little time to rest during that Memorial Cup year.”
The championship season
During Cowen’s rookie year, he played in 68 regular season games and 21 playoff games. The Chiefs won the WHL Championship, eliminating the Lethbridge Hurricanes in the finale before traveling to Kitchener, Ontario where they went undefeated to capture the Memorial Cup. Cowen is eminently aware of the positive impact the experience had his young career.
“It was a fun week,” he said. “There were just so many firsts. It’s the first time you play these teams, teams you never played before. And there is a lot going on besides hockey. You’re in that atmosphere of a really big tournament. It was just so important for us to represent ourselves well.”
And the exposure to professional scouts doesn’t hurt either, although most NHL teams have completed the majority of their homework prior to the CHL’s championship week. But perhaps surprisingly, Cowen admits he has not spoken with too many NHL teams.
“Honestly, I haven’t spoken with too many at all,” he said. “When we were in Everett, Washington, the Carolina Hurricanes took six of us out to dinner.”
Friends across the WHL
Cowen grew up in rural Saskatchewan and played most of his minor hockey around home until is bantam years. He skated for the team in Martensville because it gave him an opportunity to play against Tier 1 competition. During his two years of midget hockey, he played with the Saskatoon Contacts, an organization that has graduated a number of players to junior hockey during the past decade. There is a tremendous rivalry in the city between the two midget teams, the Contacts and the Saskatoon Blazers.
“The two teams there, everyone has played together it seems and against each other at times. A bunch of guys billet with each other, too. It was such a fun league to play in and we had a real good team.”
Indeed, with the likes of Brayden Schenn of the Brandon Wheat Kings, Jimmy Bubnick of the Kamloops Blazers and Carter Ashton of the Lethbridge Hurricanes, Cowen was in select company. All four players are expected to hear their names called at the upcoming NHL draft.
Surgery, rehab and perspective
After careful consideration, Cowen and his parents, Brian and Karen, elected to have the surgery performed by Dr. Michael Stuart at the Mayo Clinic Rochester, Minneapolis. According to Cowen, Stuart is an orthopedic surgeon who is well known throughout the NHL (and for his work with USA Hockey). His sons Colin (ATL) and Mark (BOS) are also playing in the NHL.
“I had the surgery on February 18,” Cowen said. “Our team has its own surgeon, but my agent recommended Dr. Stuart because he has a lot of experience performing the surgery. We wanted to pick a guy who NHL teams know. I expect there will be questions about the injury and the surgery at the NHL combine, so I don’t think it will hurt that many of the teams know about Dr. Stuart.”
“I understand there was less damage in there than anticipated after the MRI,” said Sauter. “Jared is already into the physiotherapy and all indications are that he will be ready at the five-month mark. He should be very close 100 percent then and by the six-month mark should be real good and ready for training camp.”
Cowen spent the weeks after the injury at home in Saskatoon and was about four weeks into the rehab process when interviewed by Hockey’s Future. He was a few days away from flying back to Spokane to spend some post-season time with his teammates. The Chiefs have been decimated in recent weeks by key injuries and also a food-poisoning situation that resulted in the postponement of the team’s final two regular season games.
“It’s good to be rid of the crutches,” Cowen said. “I’ve been back at the gym and I can walk around there with the brace on. I’ve been back on the bike for awhile and the knee feels good.
“It’s just funny how things work out. Everything goes your way, like it did last year. Then this year, it’s definitely been worse.”