Owen Dukowitz wanted to do two things after graduating from high school: stay close to home and continue his budding hockey career.
Thanks to the arrival of the Kenai River Brown Bears, the most recent addition to the North American Hockey League, he’s now able to kill two birds with one stone.
Graduating from Kenai Central High School in May, Dukowitz was the first official signing of the newest local Junior A hockey team, a move ownership hopes will set the stage for a strong Alaskan nucleus.
“We were just thrilled to be able to get him because we want a core of Alaskan players to start off and to start off with someone with that type of hockey character and coming from a family that’s been involved with hockey over the years, we feel it’s a real feather in our cap,” said Brown Bears’ owner Barry Schoenly. “We’re looking at him at being a real building block going into the future.”
Dukowitz, who was named MVP of the Northern Lights Conference after recording 63 points as a senior last season in helping lead the Kardinals to a conference title and a fourth-place finish at the state tournament, is thrilled with the opportunity to play locally.
“I think it’s going to be great being able to be play hockey here in front of my family and friends,” he said. “It’s a lot more exciting to me to have them cheering me on rather than playing in front of a bunch of people I don’t know.”
Although he may not be the oldest or most experienced player on the team, he’ll still maintain somewhat of an edge.
The Brown Bears will play their home games at the Soldotna Sports Center, the same ice Dukowitz skated on during his entire career at Kenai.
“I’ll probably have the advantage for that,” he said. “It will be really nice.”
Assisting with scouting for the team, Kardinals head coach Nate Kiel believes this is a perfect fit for his former star forward.
“It’ll be obviously a big step for him,” he said. “He’s one of those to never be underestimated. He will certainly, I’m sure, will attack this opportunity.
“I think at Junior A level, one thing that coaches look for aside from talent and speed and skill, they look for tenacity that’s necessary on a day-in and day-out level to succeed on that level,” Kiel added. “I think that’s where Owen has a lot going for him. He plays each and every shift like it’s the most important shift of his career.”
While Dukowitz scored his fair share of goals last season, it was his timely and often successful passing that stuck out to management.
“To me, from what my director of hockey operations said, he said he’s a real playmaker. He said he reminds him a lot of Scotty Gomez,” Schoenly said of the New Jersey Devils. “Many times he could take the shot himself but he would pass off to another player that would have an easier play and those types of plays would define a team player and leader.”
Kiel also recognizes Dukowitz’s knack for spotting open players.
“He’s an unsung hero type who’s a playmaker, a behind-the-scenes playmaker,” he said. “He does a lot of tough work on the corners and behind the net on the forecheck. Oftentimes, other players end up scoring goals or getting the assists or two assists and Owen doesn’t show up on the books. But he is always one of the guys that’s making things happen.”
Preparing to hire a personal trainer to help shape him up for the season which begins in August, Dukowitz is embracing the challenge.
“Everyone’s going to be top level players and in this level. Everyone’s looking to go to college, get a college scholarship or further their hockey career and maybe even NHL, rather than just playing for fun or just as a high school sport,” he explained. “I don’t think I’m ready yet. With some working out and getting in good physical shape, I think I’ll be ready.”
Kiel said Dukowitz has improved in many areas over the last few years, including his ability to score, but it’s his defensive game that may set him apart.
“That’s going to be key for any player going up to play junior level hockey. It’s what you do away from the puck that becomes noticeable at the Junior A level,” he said. “On the flip side of that is the players that don’t cover their man or their assignment, their mistakes become really obvious at the Junior A level.”
If Dukowitz’s play in high school is any indication of what’s to come, Schoenly envisions a bright future.
“A lot of people can talk the talk, but this guy walks the walk. He’s a complete hockey player,” he said. “He’s going to give us a lot of minutes. I expect him to go first line, but by the same token, when it gets into pressure situations in our games, I expect to see Owen on the ice no matter what. I think he’ll keep some in reserve for us.”
Dukowitz isn’t the only Kardinal furthering his career, though.
Senior forward Brad Fusaro recently returned from the Chicago Showcase, one of the most highly touted high school showcases in the country, according to Kiel.
Top players from the state of Washington teamed with four Alaskan players to compete in four games against squads from 22 other states.
“I think it speaks a lot to his performance this season,” Kiel said. “It speaks a lot about Fusaro in terms of how he approaches school and sports. He’s a true student athlete. He’s very deserving to get chosen for that.”
Kiel said Fusaro, who scored 63 points last season and recorded a goal and an assist in the tourney, had a great time, speaking with coaches and scouts about a potential future in the game.
“His future is up in the air. He definitely wants to play junior hockey. He talked to a couple Junior A teams and also Junior B teams,” he said. “He’s just trying to decide what fit is best for him and where he thinks he‘ll play a big contribution and have a good time.”
All-state goaltender Lauren Baldwin also traveled to a major showcase recently, getting her first taste of women’s hockey in years at the Prospects Tournament in Toronto, Canada.
“She just said it’s a different pace, just different than boys,” Kiel said. “Sometimes it’s not as fast. Sometimes it’s deceiving, though. She’s learning to adapt to it. She said she’s having to adapt and that will take a little bit of time. It’s like a batter hitting a change-up.”
With at least six Division I schools having expressed interest in Baldwin for the 2008 season, the senior allowed only four goals in six games at the tournament and is thinking about playing in the Midwest Elite Hockey League, according to Kiel.
“This year is going to be kind of crucial for her to land a spot with a respectable team, with a good team with a good coach and that’s what she’s been looking at,” he said. “She’ll kind of adapt to women’s hockey and play a tough schedule in the world of women’s hockey, which is pretty foreign to her.”
Also making strides within the world of hockey is Soldotna junior Clayton Glick and Kiel’s son, Kegan, both of whom are slated to play in the USHL Showcase, which Kiel dubbed a tournament for the highest level of Junior A hockey in the United States.
Matthew Carroll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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