As a five-year-old growing up in Southern California, Darren Rowe had no idea he would wind up across the country playing defense for the Massachusetts hockey team.
Tired from practice, Rowe emerged from the practice rink’s locker room clearly drained. But there’s never a time when Rowe refuses to play, or even talk about hockey.
Rowe hails from Simi Valley, about 40 minutes northeast of Los Angeles and 20 minutes from the Ventura County beach. It’s not your typical hockey area, but Rowe’s interest in the sport flourished nonetheless, and he credits his father and great uncle for introducing him to the sport.
“My dad’s uncle got my dad into hockey, and my dad got me into hockey when I was really small,” Rowe said. “My dad took me to the rink every day and he’d always push me to get better and better.”
Like most serious hockey players know, the sport has a tendency to envelop nearly all aspects of a player’s life. From an early age, Rowe and those around him accepted hockey and its relentless commitment.
“I was five or six years old waking up at 5 a.m. to get to practice, getting half-dressed in the car,” Rowe said. “My dad would take off work early to get me to practice. He sacrificed a lot so that I could do what I love.”
Rowe’s great love for the game parallels his talent. When he was 18, Rowe joined the Springfield Jr. Blues of the North American Hockey League (NAHL). It didn’t take long for him to establish himself as the team’s best offensive defenseman. In 57 games, Rowe tallied 36 points (nine goals, 27 assists).
The following year, Rowe jumped up to the United States Hockey League (USHL), playing for the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders. Rowe registered seven goals and 16 assists in 52 games, contributing to the team’s 38-17 record.
His successful two years on the junior circuit opened up the eyes of various schools. Ultimately, Rowe chose UMass.
“I loved the school and the opportunity I was going to have to play here,” Rowe said. “I loved [the fact we] play in Hockey East, which is the best conference in the country. The coaches were great, and they made me feel like I was really wanted. It was a perfect fit. There were other schools I was considering, but UMass kind of clicked and it felt right.”
Rowe’s rookie year was overshadowed by the presence of fellow defensemen Matt Irwin and Justin Braun, who signed with the NHL’s San Jose Sharks following the end of their careers and are currently playing for its affiliate, the Worcester Sharks. Their departure left a huge void along UMass’ blue line – one Rowe is filling effectively on both ends of the ice.
UMass coach Don Cahoon expressed his concern with his current players’ ability to deliver the puck to the net. Rowe has certainly emerged as a leading candidate to rectify that problem, but he can’t do it alone. In eight games this season, Rowe is tied with rookie Michael Pereira as the team leader in goals, with five. Three of Rowe’s six points have come via the power play, which remains ineffective.
“I [play well] on the power play,” Rowe said. “4-on-4 situations would be a spot I also like to be in because the extra space is always good and it gives me more time to make plays.”
Despite UMass’ poor start (0-6-3, 0-3-3 Hockey East), which can be attributed to an abundance of freshmen and inexperience, Rowe relishes his frequent opportunities to play against some of the nation’s best teams.
“[Hockey East] is great because we’re playing the best teams every night in [Boston College], BU, Maine and [New Hampshire]. It’s fun playing those games, but the schedule can get pretty tough with schoolwork and stuff. We’re practicing for three or four hours a day and we have workouts [in between]. The toughest part has been managing my time well.”
While balancing academics with hockey, Rowe finds the much-needed time for extracurricular activities as well. He lives with teammates Eddie Olczyk, Anthony Raiola and Rocco Carzo, all of whom share common interests.
“I enjoy playing any kind of sports, and I like going out and doing stuff with my friends and hanging out with my roommates,” Rowe said. “We play a lot of Xbox [especially] NHL ‘11. We play it all day, every day.”
Despite playing in a relatively small arena, Rowe’s eyes light up every time you mention the Mullins Center.
“It’s great; It’s probably one of the best rinks in Hockey East,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun; every home game is just a great night.”
Regarding the various controversial chants which fill the arena throughout home games, Rowe is all for it.
“For sure we hear [the chants],” he said. “The start of the game with lineups is pretty funny, especially when we have a huge crowd. It’s definitely like a sixth man out there, so it’s really good to see that.”
On top of playing inside the Mullins Center, Rowe appreciates the leadership which pours down from various members of the team, including captain Paul Dainton and co-captains T.J. Syner, Michael Marcou and Danny Hobbs.
“They’re great; they’re really experienced guys who take it really seriously,” Rowe said. “They all have a really good work ethic, and we can really follow how they’re working, and they lead by example. It’s really great to have leaders like that, and they make you want to work harder every day.”
“The coaches are really great and they want you to be your best all the time,” he added. “You can’t take a play off in practice or in a game. They do everything for us to help us win, and it’s really great to have coaches that care that much about winning. It’s a lot of fun playing for them.”
Although he’s a native of the West Coast, Rowe is certainly not out of place in the Northeast, as he’s been an important contributor for the Minutemen. The trend seems to be continuing, as more hockey players continue to emerge from traditional non-hockey areas like California.
Growing up a big Los Angeles Kings fan, Rowe pointed to Wayne Gretzky’s arrival to the Kings in 1998 as a major reason for the growth of hockey in not only California, but the entire United States.
“My dad was a Kings fan forever, and when the Kings got Gretzky it was a really big deal,” Rowe said. “It was great for hockey in L.A., and a lot of players came from that because a lot of kids starting playing because of Gretzky.”
Rowe has come a long way from his youth league days in California. After dedicating himself to hockey shortly after entering elementary school, Rowe has not looked back. He continues to succeed at every level at which he plays, and it’s impossible to tell if that trend will stop or continue.
“The ultimate goal is obviously to go as far as I can with hockey,” Rowe said. “If that doesn’t work out, then I want to do something [involving] hockey, whether it’s coaching, scouting, or anything with hockey, because I love the game and it never gets old.”
Steve Levine can be reached at email@example.com.