Sam Donnellon | Maturity becoming part of Downie's game

Posted: July 12, 2007

THE FIRST REVIEW the Flyers received about Steve Downie was not good. This was in the spring of 2005, prior to an Ontario Hockey League playoff game between Downie's Windsor Spitfires and former NHL coach Craig Hartsburg's Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, before Hartsburg's team pushed ahead to a three games to none lead.

"I'm talking to Hartsy before the game and I asked, 'What's this Downie all about?' " Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren recalled yesterday at the Skate Zone in Voorhees, N.J.

"And he said, 'He's a [bleeping] idiot.' "

Four games later, Holmgren called Hartsburg for an update. What happened? Sault Ste. Marie had lost four straight games to its lower-seeded foes, lost a best-of-seven series the worst way you can.

"So I asked, 'What about that Downie guy?' " Holmgren said with that trademark understated smile of his.

"And he said, 'I'll be honest with you: He won that series by himself. He literally carried that team.' "

Google the name of Steve Downie and you'll come to an undeniable conclusion: He must be several different people.

How else to explain the descriptions ascribed to him on his long and arduous journey to this point, a 20-year-old forward with more than a puncher's chance to make this year's Flyers?

How else do you explain the flashy goals that imply European skills one moment, and the comically dangerous meltdowns the next?

Here's one way: At age 10, Downie was a passenger when his father died in a car crash, taking him to a hockey game.

Here's another: Downie wears a hearing aid off the ice and has battled deafness since he was a child.

To foes and critics, Downie is a small (5-10), mouthy, cheap-shot artist who would, and has, jumped a man at center ice for no apparent reason, who would, and has, punched out a teammate in practice (and been suspended for it), whose most notorious moments and exciting goals are compiled on YouTube by defenders and detractors alike.

Google the name of Steve Downie and you become more confused than enlightened. Is this the type of gritty hockey player the Flyers always seem to run up against in their aborted playoff runs, able to carry teams on his back as he did that year the Flyers made him their top pick? Or is he the loose cannon that has forced him to be dealt from team to team on his path here, a throwback to a time the NHL seems to be skating from as fast as it can?

"I think he's a gritty-character guy," Holmgren said. "The maturation process is still ongoing with him. I think it's emotion more than anything. A guy looks cross at him on the ice and he takes offense to it."

The Flyers are working on that part. Those YouTube highlights, well, they're the kind of things that will show up on SportsCenter, give the league a bad name, and compel a long suspension. Downie understands this.

"You've got to be able to adapt. I'm on the Flyers now," he said before practice yesterday. "This year, the coaches said definitely keep it between the whistles."

Flyers rookie defenseman Ryan Parent has played against Downie in the OHL, and has been a teammate with two Canadian national teams.

"You hear about stories around the league, how other guys don't really care for him," he said. "I know how to take him. Most of the time he's not serious about the things he says to you on ice. But he plays that role pretty well."

Too well, at times, which inspired Hartsburg's initial impression. A year later, though, Downie was chosen by Hartsburg to play on the first Canadian Junior Team to win the world championship. He was also the captain of the Windsor team when he went after prospect Akim Aliu, knocking out three of his teeth after he refused to participate in a rookie hazing.

"We're working with him in a lot of different areas," Holmgren said. "Mostly because we feel at the end of the day, it's going to be a very worthwhile process."

Last year, playing for two teams, Downie amassed 92 points - and 124 penalty minutes. It's a ratio Holmgren wouldn't mind to see someday, but the goal this season is just to get him playing a fourth-line role with the big club - and getting him to choose his tough-guy stands more judiciously.

"There's been a lot of maturity, a lot of growing up," Downie said. "There are times in a game where I won't do something now. There's a fine line when you play with a lot of emotion. Sometimes emotion gets the best of you . . .

"Sometimes I go over the line. But I'm getting better every year at walking that line."

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Send e-mail to donnels@phillynews.com. For recent columns, go to http://go.philly.com/donnellon.

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