By Leif Skodnick
Special to ECHL.com
Thirty-two year-old Trenton Titans captain Rick Kowalsky knows he doesn’t have much time left as a professional hockey player. But after 13 seasons, his competitive fires are still burning, and he entered training camp for his 10th season in the ECHL with one goal in sight.
“I’m here to win a championship,” Kowalsky says of his motivation to return for another season. “I’ve been hinting at retiring for a few years now, but I thrive on the competition and it makes me want to come to the rink every day.”
His competitive nature and heart brought him back from one injury early to join a Trenton team making a deep run into the Kelly Cup Playoffs, only to be felled by another injury.
“In 2001, I started the season in Cardiff [Wales],” said Kowalsky, who scored 12 points (8g-4a) for Trenton in the 2001 Kelly Cup Playoffs. “I blew out my shoulder and had surgery and didn’t think I’d play. Then I got cleared, showed up in Trenton and broke my ankle in Game Seven of the Conference Finals.”
He was forced to watch from the other side of the glass as Trenton lost the Kelly Cup Finals to South Carolina in five games, unable to play the only time he’s been involved in a championship series.
Handpicked by Titans Head Coach Mike Haviland to lead a team picked by many to challenge for the Kelly Cup, the Simcoe, Ontario native whose nickname is “Killer” knows his role has plenty of responsibility both on and off the ice, and to accomplish that, he will draw on many lessons learned from many coaches and teammates.
Haviland, who coached Kowalsky when he was a Titans assistant coach in 2000-2001, cites several reasons for naming him captain.
“His leadership on and off the ice, he’s a true professional,” Haviland stated. “He’s been through it all, he knows what it takes to be successful at this level and in the [American Hockey League], he can teach the young guys, and he can still produce.”
During the course of his career, Kowalsky has shared a bench with some of the biggest names in hockey. He’s been coached by Jack Adams trophy winners Jacques Martin and Ted Nolan, current Nashville Predators head coach Barry Trotz, and former NHL head coach Bryan Trottier, as well as John Brophy, for whom the ECHL Coach of the Year Award is named.
“I’ve been lucky to have some great coaches, starting with Teddy Nolan up in the Soo,” Kowalsky said. “He led us over three years to the Memorial Cup, and then the next season in the AHL, I had Jacques Martin and Bob Hartley. That’s pretty good for a kid starting out. I’ve tried to take a little bit of all these players and coaches I’ve had with me.
“I played on a line with Rod Taylor a few years ago. Rod is a player that people, particularly those who have been around the ECHL, will remember was a tremendous goal scorer,” said Kowalsky, who led Roanoke in scoring in 2003-04 with 76 points (31g-45a). “I’ve played with a lot of great players. Adam Foote, for example, he taught me a lot about leadership.”
Leadership is a skill Kowalsky will put to use this season.
“We have some young talent, and we have a bit older team this year than most in the ECHL, but we have a big strength in our depth. We have six or eight solid defensemen, two great goalies and four strong forward lines. This is as talented a team as I’ve played with and it’s a credit to Mike [Haviland] who put it together.”
When he has finished playing, Kowalsky is looking at moving behind the bench.
“I’ve been thinking about it the last four or so years, and I am leaning toward coaching,” says the veteran, who served as player-assistant coach with Roanoke in 2001-02. “I like working with the younger guys, not just on the ice, but off.”
After 13 years of learning from some of the best coaches in hockey, he would certainly seem primed for success.
“I’ve learned a lot. I’ve been paying more attention to Mike and how he works. There are not any guarantees, but it’s something I’d like to try.”
Haviland believes his captain has the experience and the ability to be successful.
“He knows the game as a player and what it takes to move up and be successful. He’s got so much experience and he’ll mold it into his own style,” the veteran coach said. “He knows the players and their feelings, and what buttons to push. He certainly has the potential to make the transition and be a good coach.”