At 16 years old, Michael Downing joined the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the United States Hockey League this past season as the youngest player on the team by almost a full year. In a locker room and league that boast players up to four years older than him, he was, in a sense, the baby of the team.
His excitement level was high, though. Downing had just committed to the University of Michigan prior to heading off to Dubuque, who made him the third overall pick in the USHL Futures Draft. Most players selected in the Futures Draft don’t immediately join the team that drafted them that season. That should tell you how good a player the Fighting Saints felt Michael was. But no matter how good a team thinks you are, you still have to prove it and be prepared for whatever comes your way.
Michael did just that in his rookie season. He played in 59 games and netted five goals and 11 assists, along with a -4 rating and 72 penalty minutes. He helped Dubuque, the defending USHL Clark Cup champions, finished third in the Eastern Conference. After sweeping Team USA in the opening round of the playoffs, they were swept in three games by the Indiana Ice to end their postseason run.
“I thought I had a solid season,” Downing said. “I have to give all the credit to our coaches for turning me into a much better defensemen. I was always going up against the other teams top lines to shut them down which really turned me into that solid defensemen that can keep they puck out of the net.”
Going against opponents’ top lines is a tall task for any blue liner. But as a 16 year old rookie going against players upward of 20 years old, gaining the coaches’ trust to get put in those situations certainly helped boost his confidence and take his game to the next level.
“Playing against older guys really helped me speed my game up and make smart plays, and I also gained a lot of hockey sense,” he said. “It really developed me a lot physically and mentally.”
That growth is something his older brother Jake saw in him, too, both on and off the ice.
“HE MATURED A HECK OF A LOT MORE THAN I THOUGHT THAT HE WOULD OF.”
As one of the youngest players in the league, most others held an advantage over Michael—age, experience, being more physically and mentally mature. They were used to the travel and living away from home. They were prepared for life in the USHL, while he was just beginning to learn it.
Most teenagers don’t worry about this stuff until they’re 18 years old getting ready to head off to college. Michael had to worry about it as he was about to enter his junior year of high school. He’d be living over 400 miles away from his Canton, Michigan home. He’d be living with a new family, a new roof over his head, seeing new faces in the locker room as well as at his new high school. It’s a lot for anyone to digest, especially someone who just turned old enough to obtain a driver’s license a few months before moving out. “It was very tough, but you get used to it quickly,” he said.
Thankfully for Michael, unlike most newcomers, he wasn’t alone. Prior to joining Dubuque, his older brother Jake was traded to the Fighting Saints and would help aid in his transition.
Jake spent an injury plagued rookie season with Omaha, but that year under his belt allowed him to help teach Michael what to expect. He imparted his wisdom on Michael “to a certain extent” and watched his little brother mature both on the ice and off the ice as the season progressed.
“He’s really not like when he first got here,” Jake said. “He matured a heck of a lot more than I thought that he would of.”
“He always took things so personal,” Jake said of Michael’s personality. “If a guy would chirp him he would take it personal, and now he kind of feeds it back to him. He can take it. He doesn’t take anything personal.”
Jake thought that chirping and laying a big body check was going to cause Michael trouble in a league where the older guys, who have been around the block more than few times, might retaliate, and that he was going to have to stick up for his little brother. “That was my biggest fear is him making a big hit and getting jumped by a guy bigger,” he said. But it was Michael who stuck up for himself and others.
“He didn’t back down from anything,” Jake said, which surprised him a bit considering Michael’s youth compared to others in the league. “He was always out there anytime anybody needed to be stuck up for. He was always the first one in the scrum.
“It seemed to me that everybody respects him, and when push came to shove he didn’t mind dropping the gloves at all.”
It also didn’t hurt that he added 15 pounds to his 6-foot-3 frame. “He’s very, very, very solid. It’s kind of scary,” Jake said.
Michael credits his brother and the whole USHL experience on helping him develop both on and off the ice, and he’s excited about returning to Dubuque in the fall.
“The positives of all this is how much I have matured in all aspects,” he added. “All in all, it is just a great experience.”
Michael Downing is committed to the University of Michigan for 2013. Jake Downing plans on returning to Dubuque this fall and hopes to continue playing hockey at the collegiate level.