By Len Bardsley
The Times of Trenton
TRENTON, N.J. – Anyone who watches Rick Kowalsky play hockey would assume the 33-year-old forward has a few championships under his belt by now.
He has all the characteristics of a winner – the leadership, the tenacity and a warrior mentality.
Yet, why is the only ring on Kowalsky’s finger a wedding band?
Some would say it is bad luck. Kowalsky says a twist of fate has helped put him where he is today.
The biggest moment in Titans playoff history before this season started with Kowalsky getting a break – but not a good one, however.
Kowalsky broke his ankle in the final moments of Game 7 of the Northern Conference Finals in 2001 between the Titans and the Peoria Rivermen. Kowalsky just made it to the bench and was replaced by Cail MacLean. MacLean promptly took a pass from Scott Bertoli and fired it into the net with 30 seconds left in regulation to give the Titans a dramatic 4-3 victory and send them to the Kelly Cup Finals against the South Carolina Stingrays.
Kowalsky was forced to watch from the sidelines as the Titans fell to the Stingrays in five games.
“There was no question it was bittersweet,” said Kowalsky of the Titans’ last trip to the Kelly Cup Finals before their current run. “At that point in my career I was not sure what I was going to do after that. Fortunately enough I am back here, we are in the finals and I am contributing and am a big part of it this time.”
Kowalsky admits his previous tenure with the Titans, which included 12 regular-season games and 13 playoff games, helped him raise his level of play to new heights.
Kowalsky was thinking about retiring before he signed with the Titans in early February 2001. He had spent a short time playing in Europe where he suffered a serious shoulder injury.
“I had made the decision to go to Europe and basically destroyed my shoulder over there,” said Kowalsky. “I thought I was done for the year and maybe my career. I came home disappointed and not knowing what the future held to being able to sign at the last minute here and finish the season strong.”
Kowalsky left the Titans for Roanoke in the 2001-02 season, where he seemed re-energized, putting together some of the best seasons in his 12-year-career.
In three seasons with the Express, Kowalsky had 93 goals and 148 assists.
“The small time I was in Trenton rejuvenated me,” said Kowalsky. “I have said that since then, as long as I am contributing I am not going to hang them up yet. It has rolled from that year into the next three and here we are.”
It seemed like a perfect fit for Kowalsky to come to the Titans after Roanoke folded last season, with Mike Haviland back as head coach after being an assistant in 2001 when Kowalsky last was with the team.
“(Haviland) asked me (during the summer) who would you want back,” said Bertoli. “Killer (Kowalsky) was the first person out of my mouth. I had the ultimate respect for that guy. I knew he wanted to win a championship. It does not surprise me at all he is one of the guys leading the way right now.”
Kowalsky has played the season like he has some unfinished business, saving his best for the playoffs, where he now is one point behind the Florida Everblades’ David Lundbohm for ECHL playoff scoring leader with nine goals and nine assists heading into last night’s Game 3 at Sovereign Bank Arena.
Haviland expected nothing less from Kowalsky.
“I am not surprised at all,” said Haviland. “That is one of the big reasons I went after him. I knew what kind of person he was first. He was someone I could trust when I left that (locker) room. I knew he was gong to be on my side, my page. He is a warrior who wants to win. When you have someone his age who still has that fire burning inside. . . . You have to use him for everything you got.”
Though there were rough patches during the season, Kowalsky has enjoyed the feeling of being a proud parent or older brother during the Titans’ run to the Kelly Cup Finals.
“I don’t have a lot in common with these guys away from the rink,” said Kowalsky. “There are not too many guys married, and I am the only one with kids. I have more in common with our coaching staff and training staff than I do with the players, but everyone is in this together. I do feel for all these guys. Seeing some of them mature and develop has been unbelievable. You can’t put a value on this experience.”
For Kowalsky, it is a lot better the second time around.