Ryan Bowness has seen how relocation can revitalize a franchise.
Bowness, 29, was working in the front office of the National Hockey League’s Atlanta Thrashers when they were sold and moved to Winnipeg and rebranded as the Jets, becoming an immediate success off the ice in 2011-12.
Bowness, the Jets’ manager of hockey operations and team services, believes the same kind of reception awaits the Brampton Battalion when it moves to North Bay for the 2013-14 season. A right winger, Bowness played 186 games over four seasons with the Troops.
“North Bay was in the OHL in my first couple of seasons, and it was a great place to go and play,” Bowness said via telephone from Manitoba. “It was very similar to Winnipeg. It’s amazing the fan support we get here. It’s night and day from Atlanta. Everywhere you go, people are talking about the team, and you feed off it. It’s great to see the raucous crowds and how loud it is and how people are really passionate about their hockey. Hopefully, that’s the same thing that happens in North Bay.”
A second-round pick in the 1999 OHL bantam draft, Bowness said he was disappointed to hear the Troops were about to move.
“I loved my time in Brampton. I know there have been times when the fan support wasn’t always what it should have been, but the loyal fans that they do have are fantastic and were always good to me. I feel bad for those people who supported the team from Day 1.”
A resident of Halifax, Bowness debuted with the Battalion in 2000-01. A high-ankle sprain limited him to 52 games, but he produced five goals and 10 assists for 15 points. He contributed two assists in nine playoff games as the Troops swept the Guelph Storm in a Western Conference quarterfinal before bowing out in five games to the Erie Otters.
“It was a great situation to go into. We had a great group of guys. You could just tell that the organization was being run very professionally. They treated everyone well. We had a great group of veteran players, like Jason Maleyko, Jay McClement, Raffi Torres, Kurt MacSweyn and Jeff Bateman.
“It was a great season, but we had some ups and downs. There were some changes to the roster when we made that trade for Brian Finley. We had a great finish and a great first round against Guelph. We happened to run into a very good Erie team in the second round. They were a tough team to play, but we really battled.”
Bowness played 66 games in 2001-02, scoring seven goals and adding 10 assists for 17 points, but injuries to players such as MacSweyn and Aaron van Leusen and the graduation of Finley, Maleyko, Torres, Bateman, Rostislav Klesla and Lukas Havel proved insurmountable as the Battalion missed the playoffs for the second time in its history.
“We’d lost a lot of guys going into my second season and we really didn’t know what to expect,” said Bowness, an eighth-round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft.
“The injuries took a toll, and we lost some guys in that Finley trade, and that affected our depth. But at the time that trade was made, there was no way we could foresee the injuries we were going to have. van Leusen and MacSweyn were the heart and soul of that team, and losing those guys really put a damper on things. It gave us a chance for other guys to step up, and they took advantage of that. But that’s the junior hockey cycle. We had ups and downs every season I was there.”
The infusion of talented rookies such as forwards Wojtek Wolski, Brent Burns and Ryan Oulahen, defenceman Martin Lojek and goaltender Kevin Couture, as well as the acquisition of overagers Scott Rozendal and Kevin Young, helped propel the Troops to the Central Division title in 2002-03. Bowness missed a month with a concussion late in the season after being elbowed in the back of the head by Patrick Kaleta of the Peterborough Petes, but he contributed the best offensive season of his junior career as he recorded 32 points, including 15 goals, in 55 games.
“We weren’t expected to do much at all,” said Bowness. “But we had guys like Burns and Oulahen come in and play like veterans. Lojek became a force once he got comfortable with the league, and Young really turned the season around. We had a great group of guys and lots of depth. We had four good lines, good defence and good goaltending. Everything fell into place for us.”
Bowness missed all but three games of the Troops’ playoff run after being handed an eight-game suspension for swinging his stick at the Barrie Colts’ bench in the second period of the opening game of an Eastern Conference quarterfinal. The Battalion prevailed in six games before being ousted in five games by the Toronto St. Michael’s Majors.
“That suspension was the biggest regret of my junior career. It was a tough stretch for me. I came back from the concussion right before the playoffs, and unfortunately that incident happened. I was pretty much done for the rest of the season. But that series was hard fought, the guys played hard, but unfortunately we ran into a good St. Mike’s team in the second round.”
Bowness, who succeeded McClement as captain in 2003-04, saw his season debut delayed until late October after he suffered broken ribs at the Columbus training camp. Bowness’s injury and Burns’s departure to the NHL’s Minnesota Wild left a major void on the Battalion’s right side. With the Troops managing only 10 wins in their first 25 games, Stan Butler shook up the team by trading Bowness to the Oshawa Generals on Dec. 1 for overage right winger Aaron Lobb and the rights to winger Luch Aquino, then attending the University of Maine.
“I think I missed the first 15 games that season when I broke my ribs,” said Bowness, who had 11 points in 13 games at the time of the trade. “I was the captain and dying to get back, and I probably came back a lot earlier than I should and when I did come back I wasn’t even close to 100 percent. I ended up injuring my back because I was laboring too much. When you’re in that position and the team is struggling, you want to do anything you can to get back.”
Bowness, who was succeeded as captain by overage right winger Chris Clayton, acknowledged that being traded was difficult.
“We were underachieving as a team, and for whatever reason the chemistry wasn’t there. So they had to make a move to shake things up, and I understood that. I wish that hadn’t happened, but it’s part of the game. I worked pretty closely with Stan the whole time, and I thought if it helped the team then that’s what I would do. I could sort of see it coming, and Stan was great through the whole process. I wanted to be able to continue my schooling, and he worked to make sure I stayed close enough to York University.”
Bowness, whose father, Rick, was a longtime NHL player and coach, spent four years at Saint Mary’s University, graduating with a degree in business. He played 12 games with the California-based Ontario Reign of the ECHL in 2008-09 before surgery on an injured thumb forced an end to his playing career.
“I knew the hockey culture, because I had grown up around the game. It’s always been my passion and I knew I wanted to stay in it in some aspect. Larry Simmons, who was the assistant general manager in Atlanta at the time, was hiring a hockey operations assistant. I submitted my resume, and I didn’t want it to have any connection to my dad. I wanted to do it all on my own. He hired me in December, 2009, and I helped him in the office. Rick Dudley promoted me to be the manager of player development, and that got me involved in scouting and working with the prospects. I was fortunate when the team moved to Winnipeg that I was brought along, and I’m now the manager of hockey operations.”
Bowness doesn’t figure to follow in the footsteps of his father, currently an associate coach with the Vancouver Canucks.
“I don’t see myself as a coach. I’m much more interested in the management side. I’ve learned a lot about that.”