When the East Coast Hockey League subsided after a decade in Norfolk. The romance seemed to be over for the Hampton Roads fans and for the region. The golden years of ECHL hockey found a resting place in the pages of history. However, a new chapter with the American Hockey League sculpted a new beginning—not only for the local hockey connoisseurs but also for winger bruiser Aaron Downey.
Last season marked the first year of the AHL Norfolk Admirals and the return of former Hampton Roads Admiral (ECHL) (career total of 20 (G) 19 (A) 39 (PTS) 693 (P.I.M)) from a five-year absence. After his shift with the Hampton Roads Admirals, the Ontario native’s luggage spent a majority of time in Providence (Boston Bruins). Years later, Downey found himself back in Norfolk where it all began. Last season, the Norfolk Admirals opened its doors for the first time and needed an old fan favorite with a big presence on the ice. General Manager Al MacIsaac (Norfolk) insisted that Aaron have a homecoming and Chicago’s Mike Smith signed him as a free agent last August. The right wing recorded a career high in assists (15) and sealed last season with 6 (G) 15 (A) 21 (Pts) 234 (P.I M.). Yet, Chicago had other plans.
With Chicago’s anorexic start last season, morale needed to be fattened on the bench. Noted for his presence in the locker room, Norfolk’s former team captain caught the attention of Mike Smith. And in turn, Chicago sent Downey a ticket last season. Consequently, the ticket was a round trip, but his leadership already made an impression on the Hawks inner circle. Thus far, parts of the chapter still remained unwritten.
Poet Robert Frost wrote, “The best way out is always through.” After eight years of grinding away at the minors, the 26-year old packed up his skates again and headed for the “windy city.” “Guys like Aaron make it more on their determination than their talent,” says MacIsaac in an interview. Al MacIsaac can relate to a father watching his children grow. Besides watching Aaron Downey grow, Kyle Calder (second on the team in goals (10), tied in the NHL (11)) and rookie Mark Bell (runner up for the NHL’s Rookie of the Month Award in October) recently became NHL graduates in just a span of one season. “It’s like watching your own kids graduate,” states MacIsaac proudly in an October interview.
It was time for the freshman to step up to the podium. And graduation was marked by his first NHL goal in November against Detroit Red Wings’ goalie Dominik Hasek. “It’s a nice reward, our line (fourth line) isn’t supposed to chip in like that,” he told the associate press. “It’s kind of cloud nine.” In addition, the veteran is moving up the fight chain. Downey was never known to turn down a bout during his last several years in the trenches. He has become a presence in the NHL’s ring of fighters as well. He is currently ranked 11th in the NHL with 44 penalties minutes.
For Downey, it has bee a long road to success. “I believe, if you work hard at anything, you will be successful,” says the former player/assistant coach about his former player.
The majority of players in the minors never see the stage of the NHL. Nevertheless, Downey’s stage presence on the bench might keep him in the spotlight. For the meantime, Downey seems to have the right components to preserver and withstand a final curtain call.