Jordan Owens wants to show that the Red Wings made the right move when they traded for him last season.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Sometimes a change of address will boost a player’s fortunes. Jordan Owens certainly hopes so.
Owens was traded by the New York Rangers to the Detroit Red Wings last March in exchange for Kris Newbury. The Toronto native had spent the majority of his professional career with the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack, and he felt it was time for a change.
“I had been in Hartford for three years and the situation was becoming stale,” Owens said. “Plus, the team was struggling, so it was pretty miserable. I needed a change.”
Nevertheless, he never expected to have his wish granted.
“I thought that I would have been the last guy to get traded, but it happened,” he said. “When they said I was going to Grand Rapids, I’m sure my eyes lit up, but I tried to contain my emotions because it was kind of bittersweet leaving.”
Hartford, it seemed, had been good to Owens.
He had been signed to an amateur tryout toward the end of the 2006-07 season, then made a favorable enough impression in two regular season games and six playoff contests to be signed to an AHL/ECHL contract.
Owens had no permanent address during the 2007-08 season. His rookie year was spent living in a Residence Inn on the outskirts of Hartford as he bounced between the Wolf Pack and the ECHL’s Charlotte Checkers.
“I was in the hotel for the whole year, and that was quite the experience on its own,” he said. “Living in a hotel is like nothing else, really. It’s like you’re on the road the entire year.”
He became well acquainted with the restaurant next door. “I lived right beside a TGI Friday’s and I probably ate there a good 4-5 times a week,” he recalled. “Sometimes I’d eat both lunch and dinner there, so I became really familiar with their menu. To this day, I could probably rattle off the whole menu.”
Even eating the best food gets old after a while, but Owens wasn’t going to complain. He was living out a dream that had been developing since he had played three years of junior hockey for the Mississauga IceDogs.
“I was excited because that’s where I wanted to be,” he said, shrugging off his provisional accommodation. “It was all good, just part of the experience. To me, that was pro hockey.
“I just came to the rink and tried to earn a spot every single day of the year.”
He played well enough for the Rangers to pick up his option for a second year. In 2008-09, he enjoyed his best season to date, tallying 12 goals and 25 assists for 37 points in 67 games.
“I felt really positive,” he said. “Everything went my way and I gained a lot of confidence every night.”
A point-per-game player during his last two years in junior hockey, Owens discovered that he needed to find a new role in the pro ranks.
“In junior, I was one of those guys who was expected to create offense and score points, but in the pros, the skill level is elevated that much more. There are some really good players at this level, even more so at the NHL.
“I wasn’t blessed with the same skill as the top NHL guys or even the best players in the American Hockey League, so I have to show something.”
That “something” was speed, along with a willingness to work harder than his opponent. A former participant in both the OHL and ECHL all-star games, Owens finished second in the ECHL’s fastest-skater event in that league’s 2007-08 all-star skills competition.
“I fell into the role of forechecker and penalty killer,” he said. “I think the role suits me because I can use my speed to my benefit. Plus, I’ve never been one to shy away from physical play and that’s a good attribute for a checker.”
Prior to his trade to the Red Wings last season, Owens compiled 19 points (6-13--19) and a team-high plus-eight rating in 50 games with Hartford, after the Rangers had rewarded him with a free agent NHL contract.
“Points, for me, are a bonus,” he said. “When I’m doing my job and also contributing by scoring some big goals for the team, that always feels good. It adds to your confidence when you’re able to chip in and contribute on a regular basis.”
He came to the Griffins reinvigorated, ready to roll with renewed zip.
“I was happy and excited to come to Detroit,” he said, “so when I arrived in Grand Rapids, I wanted a fresh start.”
Owens’ #46 jersey had been a fan favorite in Hartford, but he decided to symbolically change his number. He chose #22 in honor of Willie O’Ree, the first black player in NHL history when he made his debut with the Boston Bruins on Jan. 28, 1958.
“Seeing that the 50th anniversary wasn’t too long ago, I decided there wasn’t a better number to wear,” he said.
He admits that he never really encountered the bigotry that O’Ree faced half a century earlier. “I’m sure it’s not as serious as an issue as it was back in the day,” he said.
Even so, he wasn’t oblivious to the color of his skin. “As a young hockey player, it’s kind of funny when you’re sitting in a room and no one else looks like you, but I’ve never felt uncomfortable,” he said. “To be honest, it never really crosses my mind.”
He is much more concerned with creating the right impression, to demonstrate the kind of character and work ethic that makes people color-blind. Whether he’s killing penalties or leading the forecheck, he wants people to notice only one thing – he’s giving everything he has.
“It’s a matter of outworking your opponent,” he said. “On the penalty kill, you have to be willing to work hard and be a little fearless and reckless in terms of getting into shooting lanes and blocking shots. It’s about giving second and third effort, and taking pride in your work ethic.”
For the past couple of summers, Owens has followed the guidance of former Griffins captain Matt Ellis, whom he describes as the “dad” of the gym where he and several other players work out in the Niagara Falls area during the offseason.
“He’s the veteran who everybody looks to for advice and tips,” Owens said. “He’s probably the hardest worker there every single day, so he’s an inspiration for everybody in the gym.”
Owens points to Ellis as the type of player he’d like to become. “He worked his way up – he didn’t leave anything in someone else’s hands,” he said. “He left nothing to chance and left it all on the table every day. He’s a worker. I see it in his eyes every day in the gym.”
Owens opened some eyes of his own this fall when he made a positive impression on Red Wings coach Mike Babcock during training camp.
“He’s not going to make our hockey club, but I didn’t know who he was and now I do. That’s a good camp,” Babcock told reporters in Traverse City. “He played with real good energy, real good speed and he was tenacious.
“If you would have said what’s the Red and White lineup at the start of the camp, he wouldn’t have been in it. So he earned his way into that opportunity, so good for him.”
Owens looked at the camp as another step in his development as a player.
“I think I accomplished what I set out to do, which was just to have the best camp that I could,” he said. “I wanted to have a great camp and worked hard all summer toward that goal. I got to show them how I play, and hopefully they were happy with my play.”
For Owens, the opportunity to witness the work ethic of established players like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg only served to underscore what it is necessary to excel at the highest level.
“You think you are working out hard and then you see Datsyuk and Zetterberg and these guys are working out even harder,” he said. “It shows you what it takes to be a world-class athlete. If I can imitate what they do, I think I’ll be pretty well off.”
And while home for the time being is Van Andel Arena, Owens hopes to eventually show that he’s worthy of another change of address – to 600 Civic Center Drive in Detroit, home to Joe Louis Arena.
“My goal is to come to the rink here, be the best that I can be, and hope everything works out,” he said.