DALLAS — Justin Dowling will join an exclusive club when the Dallas Stars host the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday.
The 26-year-old center is expected to make his NHL debut after five years in the minor leagues. In the process he’ll become the 606th ECHL alumnus to appear in an NHL game.
While the ECHL is technically the second tier of development below the American Hockey League, very few player make it from the double-A level to the NHL. On opening night this season, 76 players on NHL rosters had ECHL experience, roughly 10 percent of the league.
And Dowling’s path is even more unconventional. The majority of ECHL-to-NHL success stories are goalies, where limited roster spots and force prospects to head deep in a system to get playing time. Most of the skaters that go from the ECHL to the NHL are draft picks that spent a handful of games, maybe one season, in “the coast.”
But Dowling was undrafted and didn’t have any interest from NHL clubs after finishing up his WHL career with the Swift Current Broncos. He spent the 2011-12 season shuttling between the ECHL’s Utah Grizzlies and the AHL’s Abbotsford Heat. That rookie season was a middling to disappointing one in the AHL, which had Dowling looking for a job before he signed with the Idaho Steelheads for the 2012-13 season.
Signing with Idaho ended up putting Dowling on a path toward his NHL debut tonight.
He was given a top-line role by then-Steelheads head coach Brad Ralph and had 46 points in 34 games. He was selected for the ECHL All-Star Game, but never got to go after he was called up to the Texas Stars.
“I think I got lucky going to Boise and having the coach I had there with Brad Ralph,” Dowling said. “Then coming up and playing for Willie (Desjardins), that was a good kick-start for my career.”
From there Dowling earned a standard AHL contract before the 2013-14 season, won a Calder Cup with Texas, and earned his first NHL contract before the 2014-15 season. Over the past two seasons he evolved into a leader on the AHL club.
This past summer Dowling had contract offers in Europe, and, at 26, it might have been time to chase the money overseas. But he decided to sign a one-year NHL contract with Dallas to chase his NHL dream.
“It was a good option for me, but when I talked to may family and my fiancée, I didn’t really want to go to Russia yet. I’m still kind of young for that,” Dowling said. “My main goal was to get the contract with Dallas and see if there was an opportunity here.”
And when the Stars injuries continued to mount this week (Jason Spezza, Ales Hemsky, Patrick Sharp, and Jiri Hudler are amongst the walking wounded), Dowling got the call-up.
Dowling got the news on Monday after practice. He got called into Texas Stars head coach Derek Laxdal’s office, he thought it would be a meeting about something on the ice — power play perhaps — and learned he’d be headed to the NHL.
Dowling now joins a team filled with younger players that are well aware of his work ethic after playing with him in the AHL.
“Oh, it’s awesome,” Stars left wing Curtis McKenzie said. “He’s a guy who has worked hard his whole career. Undrafted, he came through the East Coast league. I’m really happy for him to be here.”