By Justin Skelnik | Photos by Ross Dettman
Chicago Wolves left wing Nigel Dawes has always had a quiet demeanor during his six year pro career. Even dating back to his junior days, he tried to fly under the radar and let his play on the ice speak for itself.
Dawes turned pro in 2005 after he left the Kootenay ICE as their all-time leading goal scorer with 159 markers in 245 games. In his first professional campaign, he quietly racked up 35 goals and 67 points in 77 games with the Hartford Wolf Pack in 2005-06.
That season helped him make the New York Rangers opening night roster the following year and his National Hockey League debut is something he will never forget.
“My first NHL game was against the Washington Capitals at Madison Square Garden,” Dawes said. “Coming out and playing my first game at Madison Square Garden and playing against the Caps was unreal. Just looking around and realizing that you finally made it is pretty special. You kind of take it in and it is a moment I will never forget.”
Dawes went on to play 204 more NHL tilts prior to this season. Last summer, he signed as a free agent with the Atlanta Thrashers. He made the roster out of training camp but after a scoreless six-game start with the Thrashers, the quiet Dawes found himself in Chicago to regain his scoring touch with the Wolves.
Finding himself in the American Hockey League for the first time since January 2008, Dawes realized the way to get back to the NHL would be to make noise and draw attention to himself by scoring goals. He wasted no time trying to prove that theory, scoring a goal in his first game with Chicago on Oct. 23.
“It has just been kind of my job throughout my career to try and score goals on a regular basis,” Dawes said. “I know I can score. I have been able to score my whole career. I just think it is creating the opportunities and putting yourself in the right positions to score that determines if you will score on a regular basis. If I start to do that, I will get noticed.”
Dawes collected two goals and five points in his first seven games in Chicago and the 26-year-old forward credits his fast start to his mind being in the right place to avoid a potential adjustment period players may go through when transitioning from the NHL to the AHL.
“I have played in the AHL before and I know it is a great league,” Dawes said. There are a lot of good players and you can’t really take nights off. I told myself that I just have to go out there and play hard to keep improving and try to get back up to the NHL.”
Wolves Head Coach Don Lever agrees with Dawes’ theory and believes his goal scoring ability is what will get Dawes back to being a full-time NHL player.
“I think Nigel’s first thought after a week or so of being here was, ‘how do I get myself recognized to get back to the NHL?’” Lever said. “He realized that scoring goals is going to be his ticket back to the NHL. Even though he is a natural goal scorer, he has worked very hard since he has gotten here. He has been a true professional.”
Lever also can see how Dawes is viewed as a quiet type on and off the ice. However, behind the locker room doors, Lever sees a whole other side of Dawes.
“Nigel is a quiet kid, but there is another side to him,” Lever said. “He is a very competitive kid. He has a real competitive side to him and he plays a heck of a lot better when he plays with a bit of an edge. When he plays like that, it gets him more into the scoring areas and it gets him driving to the net more. He is not just waiting for someone to get him the puck when he plays like that.”
Dawes’ play has been speaking for itself lately. Over a 20-game period from Dec. 5 to Jan. 16, he exploded for 15 goals and 24 points. During that time frame, no one in the league scored more goals than he did, while only two players tallied more points.
In the Wolves 9-3 win over the Toronto Marlies on Jan. 5, he joined former Wolves Dan Currie and Steve Larouche as the only three players in team history to score four goals in a game - a feat that Dawes didn’t take for granted.
“It was pretty exciting to score four goals in a game,” Dawes said. “Obviously for that to happen, everything kind of has to line up for you. I felt good from the start of the game and scored really early. It was just one of those nights that every time I had a scoring chance, it seemed like it went in. Those types of nights don’t happen all that often.”
As Dawes began to receive attention for his play on the ice – he was named the Reebok/AHL Player of the Week for the period ending Jan. 9 – he also began to receive attention from younger teammates in the dressing room. The mentoring role was another thing to which Dawes had to adjust.
“I still consider myself fairly young at 26, but the last time I played in the AHL, I was 21,” Dawes said. “Now, all off a sudden, I am the older guy on the team. It’s funny how quickly things change.
“I don’t think the younger guys really look to me for advice, but there are definitely conversations that go on throughout the room. The main thing guys ask is about my experiences of going up or down and playing in the NHL. I definitely try to do my part when I think I can voice my opinion or help someone out. I try to just give them insight to help to that player get better.”
Dawes’ contributions on and off the ice didn’t go unnoticed by the Thrashers. After a 40-game stint with the Wolves, where he amassed 21 goals and 36 points, the club rewarded Dawes with a call-up to Atlanta on Jan. 19.
He skated in three games with the Thrashers, collecting one assist, before being returned on Jan. 27. However, if he continues to make noise in Chicago, he may soon have the chance to make his presence known loud and clear in the NHL.