Downie toes the line

By Kevin Forbes

The face of the Philadelphia Flyers has always been the plugger — a player who has skill, but also works hard and is unafraid to get his nose dirty. After all, who can forget Bobby Clarke’s smile, his four front teeth missing as he held the Stanley Cup aloft or players like Ken Linseman and Rick Tocchet? Even current players like Keith Primeau and Mike Knuble personify the Flyers dedication to hard work and gritty play.

The team may soon have another forward coming down the pipeline who fits all of these characteristics in Steve Downie. His smile even has a few teeth missing. But there’s more to the Queensville, Ontario native than a strong work ethic.

Ninety minutes prior to Game 5 of the MasterCard Memorial Cup between the Peterborough Petes and the Vancouver Giants, Downie is quiet and indifferent. He keeps his answers short as he is being interviewed, more interested in continuing to kick around a hackey-sack with his teammates than talk to the media. A win for Peterborough will end the Giants’ season and guarantee his Petes a berth in the semi-finals.

Downie was a surprise pick by the Flyers at the end of the first round during the 2005 NHL Entry Draft at 29th overall. Philadelphia had previously traded down from picking at the 20th spot, but even nine picks later, the captain of the Spitfires was considered a bit of a stretch. Ranked 73rd among North American skaters by Central Scouting, Downie had previously been a top pick of the Windsor Spitfires in the OHL Priority Draft and had just led Team Ontario to a gold medal at the Under-17 Championships. Most felt that Downie was also single-handedly responsible for bringing Windsor back from being down by three games to defeat the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in seven games in the 2005 OHL playoffs.

As the game against Vancouver starts, Downie’s rambunctious style gets the best of him early on in the first period and he sits in the box to serve a penalty for checking from behind.

Downie describes himself as a player who brings intensity and physical play to the lineup. He also enjoys the spotlight, at least on the ice, saying “I want [opposing players] to focus on me. I want them to try to take penalties off me because they’re frustrated with me or whatnot.”

Dick Todd, the coach of the Petes, calls Downie “a tremendous addition to our hockey club because he has so much determination, so much hockey sense.”

Giants forward J.D. Watt (CAL) drops his gloves and challenges, but Downie skates away and the Calgary draft pick is left scrambling to retrieve his equipment. Watt would later say Downie does his job well, while Giant Brett Parker says Downie could never play for the team because he doesn’t work hard enough.

No stranger to hardship, Downie was seven years old when his father lost his life in a tragic car accident while driving his son to a hockey practice early one snowy morning. Then at the age of 13, Downie’s hearing slowly began to fade in his right ear. Diagnosed with otosclerosis, a condition that could one day leave him totally deaf, Downie now wears a hearing aid off the ice, but relies mainly on his other senses when he plays hockey.

In the second period, Downie throws his shoulder into Brett Festerling (ANA), sending the Vancouver blueliner sprawling across center ice. It’s one of seven hits thrown by the Pete in the game, the most of any player.

After being drafted in the offseason, the Spitfires captain got into a fight in practice with Windsor rookie Akim Aliu, apparently stemming from the rookie’s refusal to participate in some team initiation rituals. This gained the attention of the OHL, who eventually suspended the Spitfires coach Moe Mantha for 40 games as a head coach and a year as a general manager. The Philadelphia draft pick was suspended for five games by the Spitfires and soon afterwards, he asked to be traded. No immediate deal could be found and Downie decided to sit out. He never played another game for the Spitfires.

While he was sitting out, Team Canada head coach Brent Sutter said that if Downie was playing in the OHL when he was making his selections for World Junior squad, then he would be on the team. That vote of confidence is enough for the Peterborough Petes. The Petes traded puckmoving defenseman Peter Aston and draft picks for the disgruntled Spitfire. The Petes’ Todd pointed to the fact that Team Canada’s coaching staff “strongly wanted this individual on the World Junior team. So I think that’s a good indication of what value this boy has.”

Not everyone was as pleased to have Downie join the team. As Peterborough forward Greg Stewart (MON) attested to “From those things we heard earlier, everyone jumped to conclusions.” But Stewart is quick to point out that, “I’ve become his friend and he’s my roommate all the time now so it’s true, we love him on our team and we couldn’t have a better guy on our team than him.”

Driving to the net in hopes of knocking the puck loose, Downie knocks the blocker off of Dustin Slade’s hand. Vancouver defensemen are quick to come to the aid of their netminder and shove the Pete into the corner.

Downie prides himself on coming up strong in big games and none are bigger than the final game of the World Juniors. The Ontario native scored what would eventually be the game winner in the gold medal game as Canada trumped Russia 5-0 in front of the hometown crowd in Vancouver. During the quarterfinals, Downie was victim of an elbow by Team USA defenseman Jack Johnson (CAR) that left him crumpled on the ice. He finished with two goals and six points in six games and was named to the tournament all-star team.

Downie points to his trade to Peterborough as being imperative to his inclusion on Team Canada, admitting, “If Peterborough hadn’t picked me up in the next week or so there, I probably wouldn’t have made the World Juniors. I’d probably still be sitting at home.”

An end of game drive by Peterborough to tie the game ends with Downie wrestling with the Giants goaltender on the ice. Slade remarks after the game that he knew with Peterborough pulling their goalie, he would have to pair up with someone. The 5’10 forward emerges from the mass of bodies jerseyless, and is barely restrained by a linesman near the Peterborough bench, 114 feet from the fray. The other two officials are left to deal with the remaining 11 players on the ice. The CHL later reviews the scrum at the end of the game and decides to not hand out suspensions. As the teams skate off the ice, Downie hugs the linesman. The game ends in a 3-2 win for Vancouver.

When he returned to the OHL after the World Juniors, Downie received a five-game suspension for jumping a member of the Belleville Bulls. He finished the season with 19 goals and 53 points in 35 games with Peterborough. His 113 penalty minutes averaged out to 3.23 a game, the highest percentage on the team. In the playoffs, he tallied nine goals and 21 points in 19 games, second to only Daniel Ryder (CAL) in team scoring. But even the postseason wasn’t without controversy as Downie speared London Knight Ryan Martinelli behind the play in Game 2 of the OHL finals. The Knights demanded a suspension, but were unsuccessful. The Petes went on to win the series in a four-game sweep.

In the post-game press conference, two security guards are stationed between the representatives of the two teams as they discuss meeting one another again in the tie-breaker game. Although Downie is chosen at the game’s third star, he isn’t present.

In four games of tournament play at the MasterCard Memorial Cup, Downie led the Petes in scoring with two goals and three points. Prior to the Petes being eliminated in the tiebreaker game, he called the Memorial Cup a once in a lifetime experience and equated it with the World Juniors. When asked about the incident in Windsor, the center says he’s forgotten it, calling it “just something that happened, I’m going to leave it in my past.”

The future isn’t clear for Downie. As a 19-year-old, he will no doubt return to the OHL for the next season, although he also expects to participate in the Philadelphia Flyers training camp in the fall. After that, there should be an entry-level contract and further chasing of the NHL dream. For Downie, the battle, both on and off the ice, continues.

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