Us thick-skinned heathens in the media try not to get too worked up about the newcomers who break into the league and leave an imprint. But I have no problem sending out a mighty fist-pump to Jake Dowell, who made his NHL debut and scored a shorthanded goal in Chicagos's 2-1 win over Calgary on Nov. 22.
This shameless cheering from the media stems from a story our U.S. college correspondent Andy Baggot wrote for The Hockey News in January, 2005. Dowell was in his sophomore season with the University of Wisconsin Badgers and was having to come to grips with devastating news that affected his father, his family and his future.
Jake’s father John, a former small college offensive linesman and a fitness buff, was diagnosed in 2003 with Huntington’s disease, an incurable genetic brain disorder that leads to a steady regression in mental and physical capabilities. With each passing month since the diagnosis, Jake has watched his father lose ground to the fatal illness. Those stricken with Huntington’s disease gradually lose control of their voluntary muscles until they’re almost immobile. At the same time, the ability to process information deteriorates. Death typically comes 10 to 20 years after diagnosis.
If that grim news wasn’t enough to deal with, Jake was confronted with another terrible reality. Children of a person with the disease have a 50 percent chance of inheriting the gene. Everyone who has the gene develops the disease, which rarely strikes before age 35. Jake, and his mother Vicki, decided that he wouldn’t get himself tested until he turns 35 or when he gets married. The likelihood of negative news would be absolutely crushing.
"With the progress of stem cell research, hopefully they can come up with a cure before it even affects me," Dowell told Baggot last February. "Besides, I think with the way I am, I don't think it would go too well for me if I knew (the test result) and just had to carry on. I don't think I'd be able to do it."
During Dowell’s four seasons at Wisconsin, Baggot reported it was not uncommon to see Jake take a moment during a stoppage in play to look up in the stands and send a smile or wave to his parents. A beaming John would always return the wave.
Now 22, Dowell is enjoying a solid rookie pro season with the American League’s Rockford IceHogs and his recent call-up to the NHL. He had five goals and 14 points in 17 games with Rockford before the promotion.
During his NHL debut in Calgary, Dowell got a regular shift on Chicago’s fourth line with enforcer David Koci and converted defenseman Dustin Byfuglien. He also killed penalties with Adam Burish, a former teammate of his for three years at Wisconsin. Dowell’s shorthanded goal opened the scoring in the second period after a Matthew Lombardi giveaway.
Back home in Eau Claire, Wis., the Dowell family and friends were ecstatic with Jake’s memorable NHL debut. There’s no knowing how long he’ll stay up with the Hawks, but I sure hope John and Vicki are able to take in a game.