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Bowey another step closer to playing for Caps

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Bowey another step closer to playing for Caps

The Kelowna Rockets of the Western Hockey League have produced their share of NHL defensemen over the years, from Josh Gorges and Shea Weber to Luke Schenn and Duncan Keith.

None of those blue liners played in more games (259), scored more goals (58) or produced more points (172) than Capitals top defensive prospect Madison Bowey did in his four years in the lakeside town of Kelowna, British Columbia.

“You hope eventually he’ll be a top four defenseman for us,” Capitals assistant general manager Ross Mahoney said during last week’s development camp at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. “It’s all a process and we’ll see how it works for him.”

“Is Madison the next John Carlson?” Hershey Bears coach Troy Mann asked rhetorically. “We hope so.”

Since taking Bowey in the second round of the 2013 NHL draft (53rd overall), the Caps could not have mapped out a better plan for the 20-year-old blue liner from Winnipeg.

In his first season with Kelowna after being drafted Bowey set a Rockets record for goals by a defenseman with 21. Last season he won a gold medal for Canada in the World Junior Championships and captained Kelowna to the WHL title and the championship game of the 2015 Memorial Cup, where the Rockets lost to the Oshawa Generals 2-1 in overtime.

“It kind of gave me a taste of losing a little bit and it doesn’t feel good at all,” Bowey said of his Memorial Cup experience. “But besides that, it gave me a chance to play at a high level against some of the top teams in Canada for my age group.”

Including regular season, playoff and tournament play, Bowey played in 84 games last season and 86 the year before.

“That’s a lot of hockey,” Capitals assistant coach Todd Reirden said. “But you can see how much he’s grown in that time.”

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Bowey, who stands 6-foot-1, has beefed up from 195 pounds in his draft year to 210 pounds. He said he’d like to be in the 210-215-pound range in his first pro season, which is likely to begin with the Bears in September.

“He’s a lot stronger than the guy we drafted,” Mahoney said. “If you go back and look at some of those pictures from draft day and then you look at him now, he’s starting to turn from a young adult into a man. Madison has progressed really well. He’s had a couple excellent seasons since we drafted him.”

Reirden pointed out that when defensemen log the kind of minutes Bowey skated in Kelowna, they tend to make more risky plays, knowing they have the speed and talent to erase mistakes. Bowey said his greatest attributes are his skating and his ability to make a good first pass and he’s working on simplifying his game at the pro level.

“In junior you can get away with trying to do too much and making those mistakes,” he said. “But as I played in the World Junior tournament and the Memorial Cup, you’ve got to really limit your mistakes and really make the simple play.

“You know what? Playing in those tournaments really taught me a lot about making that first pass and not looking off my option when I see a play to make. All week (at development camp) that’s something I tried to do and I think that’s huge in the pro game, especially as a defenseman. You want to give up a limited amount of chances at your own net and try to make the most of the offensive chances at the other end.”

Bowey said he needs to be a little more physical in the defensive zone and close on forwards quicker, two areas he said he will work on this summer when he resumes workouts.

Mahoney and Mann said the real challenge for the organization will come at training camp, where Bowey’s skill set could entice the Caps’ coaching staff to re-route Bowey from a scheduled stop in the AHL to a direct trip to the NHL.

“We’ve always said we’d rather overcook them than undercook them,” Mahoney said. “That’s part of what the American League is, it’s a developmental league. It’s a lot easier to go down there and play a lot of minutes and get the instruction you need and learn from your mistakes and make sure you’re ready to step in and contribute in the NHL.

“There’s a danger when you rush players into the NHL too quickly and we do have a veteran defense, so we’re fine with being patient with our younger players and make sure they’re ready to step up and contribute.”

The Capitals took a similar approach with Carlson and Karl Alzner, who played parts of two seasons (2008-10) in Hershey before playing full-time with the Caps.

“I think we’re going to have to be patient with him to some degree,” Mann said. “It’s not an easy position to play and we could potentially have up to three rookie defensemen (Tyler Lewington, Christian Djoos).

“It’s not ideal off the hop, but Bowey will certainly get that first opportunity. He’s going to play some power play. (Bears assistant coach) Bryan Helmer had a great career (as a defenseman) and I think he’s a great mentor.

“There’s going to be some deficiencies defensively that we’re going to need to work on, but he’s got a great pedigree, almost like a John Carlson-type coming in for us. If you look back at Carly, who I had in Hershey as an assistant coach, to me Bows is in that same category. We’re not going to push him, but we’ll see how far we can take him this year.

“They’re both right shots, both big bodies. I see a difference in his makeup in terms of his physicality. He’s becoming more of a man. The American League is not an easy league and he’s going to have his challenges, but I think if we work with him all year. …

“Is he a call-up guy? We’ll see. It just takes time for defensemen. We’ve got our work cut out for us but we’re up t the challenge.”

Bowey, who will be paid to play hockey for the first time in his career, said he is as well.

“Obviously, this is a dream come true for me,” he said. “The real business all starts now. Every time I step on the ice now I can’t take a night off or a shift off. That’s what the pros are all about and I’m really excited about get going.”

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T.J. Oshie says he was held out of the lineup longer than he wanted to be as a precaution

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T.J. Oshie says he was held out of the lineup longer than he wanted to be as a precaution

On Nov. 14, T.J. Oshie suffered a concussion on a hit from Josh Morrissey. The concussion sidelined him for nearly a month. He finally returned to the lineup Tuesday for a game against the Detroit Red Wings, but it sounds like he was medically cleared to return sooner.

During the team’s morning skate on Tuesday, Oshie revealed he had wanted to return a week sooner, but had actually been held out as a precaution.

“I've been good now for about a week and a half,” he said. “This is the longest [concussion] I've sat out. I wanted to play last week. We were pretty careful about it, and the guys that were in the lineup did an outstanding job of allowing them to give me that rest.”

This was the fifth documented concussion of Oshie’s career. While there is still much we do not know or fully understand about concussions and their effects on the brain, it certainly appears as if the severity of a concussion and concussion symptoms can worsen with successive injuries. As a result, the team’s medical personnel took no chances when it came to Oshie and held him out of play even after he was medically cleared to return.

“I felt good so what we did paid off,” Oshie said following Tuesday’s game. “It was an open conversation, a bunch of conversations between me and [Jason Serbus] our head medical trainer and really all our whole team of doctors. We went through it day by day. As it lingered on it was a couple of days by a couple of days and once I started feeling good they let me go. We took it slow and I got a week in of bag skates so legs-wise I felt pretty good out there. That was kind of the process for me.”

Oshie admitted there had been times in the past he thought he was ready to return, but it was clear after returning he had not fully recovered which could have been a factor in the team’s decision to be extra cautious.

“Every concussion's different. This one was different than all the last ones. It's really just not coming back until you're ready. I've had some where you think you're ready to play and you're pretty sure, maybe not 100 percent sure, and then a couple games in you get hit or your head hits something or whatever it is and you don't have a concussion but you have a headache now every time you get hit for sometimes a month or so.”

Oshie suffered a concussion last year after a hit from San Jose Sharks forward Joe Thornton. He returned to game action 15 days later, but did not look quite right initially and registered only a single point in his first seven games after returning.

If you believe the team’s decision to hold Oshie out had anything to do with that, however, Oshie disputes that notion.

“Last year I don't think I came back too quick,” he said. “I wasn't able to find ways to score, really. I was missing some passes that I normally don't miss. Everyone kind of jumps on the goal-scoring drought stuff, but I felt like I was doing a lot of good things away from the puck. I was keeping the puck out of our net and I was creating chances for teammates to score. It was a learning experience, but I felt like I was 100 percent when I came back last time.”

But why was it even necessary for the team to hold Oshie back? With his repeated history of concussions, not to mention his family’s history with Alzheimer’s, it may be surprising to some that Oshie had hoped to return earlier or that he wanted to return at all.

While the long-term effects of repeated concussions are still being studied and debated within the medical community, it is not a stretch to believe that repeated blows to the head can be detrimental to one’s health.

Oshie was asked if he felt concerned after suffering repeated concussions. His answer? “Not really.”

“I feel like when I go out there, if I get concerned about what's going to happen to me, I'm not going to play at the top of my game,” Oshie said. “Doesn't really concern me. I just kind of roll with the punches every day and if it does, it does. Hopefully it doesn't.”

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The conversation that convinced Todd Reirden his hockey future was behind the bench

The conversation that convinced Todd Reirden his hockey future was behind the bench

In the fall of 2004, Todd Reirden had a conversation that would change the course of his hockey career.

Reirden’s first season with the Houston Aeros of the AHL was not going the way he had hoped. A three-inch tear in his oblique meant that not only could he not play, but he could not practice or skate. He could not do much in the way of physical activity for the next six weeks other than let the injury heal.

That’s when Houston head coach Todd McLellan called Reirden into his office.

“There was a couple different conversations where we talked about leadership and the role that I was going to have on the team and where he was going to put me in the locker room and how he was going to utilize me as an extension of the coaching staff and that's what good leaders and captains or assistant captains of the team do,” Reirden said. “At the time, I really hadn't connected the dots on where he was going with it.”

This conversation, however, was different.

McLellan asked Reirden to look at video and help out the coaching staff develop the players. What had only previously been hinted at was suddenly coming into focus for Reirden. He, a player, was being asked to take on more of a coaching role with the team.

“He was still a player,” McLellan said. “We’re probably pushing him out of a player position and into a coaching spot.”

“I guess at that point I probably should have stopped playing hockey,” Reirden said. “Once a coach tells you that, it’s maybe a good time to start thinking about being a coach.”

Things had not come easy for Reirden over the course of his playing career. For every star NHL player like an Alex Ovechkin or a Nicklas Backstrom, there are several more player like Reirden who have to claw their way from the bottom all the way up just for a chance to reach the NHL. Once they get there, their career at the highest level is brief and over before most players may realize it.

Reirden climbed the ladder playing in the ECHL, AHL and IHL all before he finally got an opportunity to play in the NHL with the Edmonton Oilers. Reirden career saw him play for Edmonton, St. Louis, Atlanta and finally Phoenix.

The 2004-05 lockout came at the wrong time for Reirden who was at the tail-end of his NHL career, though he had not yet realized it. After playing in only seven games for the Phoenix Coyotes the year before, a 33-year-old Reirden signed with the Minnesota Wild and was sent to the AHL during the lockout.

While Reirden was hoping to make it back to the NHL, McLellan had planned for Reirden to stay and had pushed the organization to sign him.

“A lot of the American League teams, International League teams didn't want to have players like myself there because all they were doing was blocking development of young players,” Reirden said. ‘[McLellan] felt the value of having someone like myself around to be able to just serve as a role model in terms of character in terms of how hard I worked on the ice, off the ice.”

But it went beyond just being a role model or an on-ice leader.

Once Reirden joined the team, McLellan saw the way Reirden understood the game and the way he communicated with other players. He saw coaching potential in Reirden and decided that his true value was not on the blue line as a defenseman, but as an extension of the coaching staff.

“There are some great instinctive players that are hall of famers that might not be real good coaches because they might not be able to get their point across or have the necessary explanation technique,” McLellan said, “Where there’s some others -- and often they’re grinders that have to rely on hockey IQ and the ability to share thoughts and ideas and poke and prod -- that end up being good coaches.”

At first, Reirden helped with video. The team did not have a video coach so Reirden would help cut video and watch with the team and players. Reirden focused primarily on helping the younger players.

“You could tell he loved the game,” said former teammate, Matt Foy, who was 21 years old during his season with Reirden. “He was a leader, but he had fun with it. He was an easy guy to talk to, very easy player to talk to. Loved yapping guys, telling them different stories and stuff. He was almost like a big brother at that time to me.”

“He wasn't one of those hard veterans who would lean on you and expect you to do something that you're not capable of doing. He was really, really supportive and a friend.”

After a while, Reirden’s role on the team began to grow.

“Eventually [McLellan] started bouncing things off me,” Reirden said. “I think he also learned and grew a little bit himself because he would ask me things. What do you think I should say to the players today? How did that come across, that meeting? That's how it started with him was simple questions like that where he was getting a pulse of the room through me and trusted that what he said stayed between he and I.

“I started then to read off of him and when I saw something that maybe he didn't ask me about, I would come to him and say I think this would have been the time where you could be a little firmer on the team. Right now, the guys are uptight a little bit, maybe if you could interject something different, a different sort of meeting today that would come at things from a different angle. He took what I said to heart and it was, I think, a really good working relationship between an older veteran player and a young, up-and-coming coach.”

But eventually, injuries heal and Reirden was back on the ice. Suddenly the extension of the coaching staff had to suit up with his teammates again. Eventually, Reirden had to go back into the locker room, a sacred place among hockey teams where what is said among teammates stays among teammates and he still had to be accepted as a member of the team.

“It was something where I wanted to help [my teammates],” Reirden said, “But I also wanted to still be a player so to be able to combine that player-coach type of role, not that I was every listed as that by any means, but I think that's how some of my teammates felt about me so I wanted them to still have trust that we could still talk about things that they knew weren't going to necessarily get back to the head coach but they could still open up to me. So it was a fine line I think that I had to go through there.”

“He was more of a player than he was a coach in my eyes,” Foy said. “It's not like I'd watch what I'd say around Todd because he'd go rat me out to the coach. He was a friend. I don't think any of us looked on him as like oh, we've got to watch what we say. He was more of our teammate.”

Reirden helped the Aeros improve by 12 wins and 18 points in the 2004-05 season. The season ended in disappointment as Houston was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, but more importantly for Reirden, it completely changed the trajectory of his career. Though he could not bring himself to quit playing just yet, he knew his future in hockey was behind the bench.

“Once I got over the fact of when someone's telling you that you're not maybe as good a player as you may have thought you were at that time,” Reirden said, “It was actually a great transition into helping me understand the next phase of my life and how I could use this game that's been amazing to myself and my family and allowed us so many amazing experiences and opportunities to how I could possibly continue working in the game of hockey.”

Reirden got his first official coaching job in 2007 when he was hired as an assistant coach at his alma mater Bowling Green State University. Just as he did as a player, Reirden climbed the ranks to the NHL. He started as an assistant in college, became an assistant in the AHL for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and took over as head coach when Dan Bylsma was promoted to be the head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009. In 2010, Bylsma added Reirden to his staff in the NHL and was hired by the Caps in 2014 where he helped lead the team to its first Stanley Cup in 2018 and is now the head coach.

“He understood the time that it was going to take daily, monthly, yearly to climb the ladder and he was willing to stick it out,” McLellan said. “There’s not many former players that are willing to do that. Give him credit.”

As a coach, Reirden is known for his ability to communicate with players and help each one with a specific, individual development plan. He credits the lessons he learned in Houston for getting him this far and specifically, one conversation in particular for starting his coaching career.

“Every day is a chance for me to grow and get better and get used to responsibilities as a head coach,” Reirden said. “So it's been a lot of fun and definitely a challenge, but something I love and wouldn't trade places with anybody in the world for.”

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