Peach of a Player
Story and photos by Mark Newman
Life, at the moment, is good for Mark Mowers.
The Griffins center is off to possibly the best start of his professional hockey career after signing a contract this summer with the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings.
For the first time since his rookie season, he feels completely healthy.
He has battled a bum knee for a couple of years, but finally, after a couple of surgeries, he says it couldn’t feel better.
Best of all, his wife Jana is expecting their first child next April.
Everything is looking up, but Mowers has been around long enough to know that you’ve got to take what you can get when the going is good. He’s endured enough ups and downs during his brief hockey career to last a lifetime.
You’ll have to excuse Mowers if he feels like a yo-yo because the Nashville Predators had him on a short string. “I think I might have led the league in call-ups -- 19 over four years,” Mowers says. “After a while, it begins to take its toll.” It’s the primary reason that he refused to get too excited about his hot start this season. “I know the time will come later in the season -- and it usually does at least once or twice a year -- where the points won’t come.” For Mowers, it’s all about confidence. “If you don’t have it, forget it,” he says. “When you’re playing well, you feel like you can play with anybody. You feel like you can make plays and get things accomplished every shift that you’re out on the ice.” Mowers knows that a player’s confidence can be easily broken, that you’re only as good as your last game or two.
“You have a couple of bad games in a row and there it goes. You try to think about how you had it, but it doesn’t matter until you have another good game. Confidence isn’t just something you can turn on and off.” Going up and down from the NHL can really play havoc with a player’s confidence.
“My first couple of games after being called up would usually be good because I was confident,” Mowers says. “But when you play only seven or eight minutes a game, things start going on in your head.
“You think, ‘Maybe the coaches don’t think I can get it done or they don’t have the confidence in me defensively. Whatever, you slowly start losing confidence. It doesn’t happen drastically -- how much can you do with seven minutes? -- but it happens.” Getting sent down is even worse.
“One of two things happen,” Mowers says. “Either you play really well because you say ‘I was just in the NHL and I should be the best player on the ice,’ or you think you are the best player on the ice and you don’t try as hard because you think it’s going to be easy.” Of course, it’s never easy. What makes it even more difficult is the adjustment -- not necessarily from one level to the next, but also from one team to the other.
“When you’re the guy on the bubble and you’re going up and down, it’s even worse,” Mowers says. “You try to get close to the guys down here and then you get called up and -- bang -- you’re gone. When you’re in the NHL, it’s the same story. Basically, it’s like playing for two teams. It gets tough.” Mowers isn’t complaining. He’s just trying to make sense of the realities of playing the sport that he loves. As far as he’s concerned, there’s no reason to play if you don’t enjoy the game. It’s the way he was brought up believing hockey should be played.
Along with his older brother Mike and younger sister Kim, Mowers was always encouraged but never prodded to play sports. His parents, Steve and Mary Ann Mowers, felt kids should have fun being kids.
“My parents never were overbearing,” he says. “We were fortunate to not have that pressure of being the best. I see what some kids are going through these days and I probably wouldn’t have stuck it out.
“I think it takes the fun away from the game if you’re worried about what mom and dad are thinking about you in the stands. I don’t remember them once yelling at me.” Mowers was born outside Atlanta in Decatur, Georgia, while his father was stationed in the service. The family moved to upstate New York when he was two years old and that’s where his earliest memories of being on skates began.
“We had the backyard rink -- I think it’s one of the reasons why I kept going. Hockey’s got to be fun, especially when you’re young. To get together with your buddies and play hockey in the backyard -- how can you beat that?” Mowers had so much fun playing the sport that he never really considered that he might be able to make a living out of playing a game. His abilities earned him a scholarship to the University of New Hampshire, but he figured that would be as far as it would go.
“I thought it was awesome just to be able to go to a big-time school and play hockey,” he says. “It was only after my sophomore year when advisors started putting things in my ear that I began to think there was even a possibility of playing beyond college.” Mowers signed with Nashville as a free agent in June 1998 after a successful collegiate career that culminated with a trip to hockey’s version of the Final Four. Earlier that year, he battled back from a serious concussion.
“I was blindsided and the hit whiplashed my head into the glass, knocking me out for a couple of minutes,” Mowers recalls. “It was pretty scary because I didn’t know if I’d ever play again.” Mowers sat out the month of December during his senior year at New Hampshire. He didn’t suffer any dizziness but he had some doozy headaches.
“I had constant, pounding headaches -- it was a battle to sleep because the pillow was no longer soft. It took 2-1/2 weeks before I could put my head down and feel alright.” When he returned to the ice, Mowers showed that he hadn’t lost a step.
He finished the season strong and was named a finalist for the Hobey Baker trophy, the award given annually to the best collegiate player.
Nashville signed Mowers as a free agent in June 1998. He split his first two seasons between Nashville and Milwaukee, home to the Admirals, the primary affiliate of the Predators.
“I know you’re not supposed to be happy just being there, but I remember what it was like walking into the room for my first NHL game and seeing my jersey hanging there. It was a great feeling.
“I told my family that I could die and go to heaven once I saw my jersey with those of Cliff Ronning, (Mike) Dunham and (Tom) Fitzgerald.” An even bigger thrill was getting his first NHL goal. Mowers, who went without a goal in 30 NHL games during his rookie season, finally broke the ice by one-timing a shot past Montreal’s Jose Theodore early into his second season.
Another career highlight was getting to play against Wayne Gretzky during the Great One’s final season.
“During the game you don’t really think about it, but I know we were on the ice at the same time because there was a picture in the program that showed him with the puck, moving up the ice, and I’m in the background chasing him.” Mowers almost got even closer. The Predators were getting beat badly in the third period when his heart started pounding faster.
“I’m playing center and going to take the faceoff when I notice that he’s out there, too,” Mowers says. “The faceoff was going to be in our defensive zone and my parents were sitting right there. I thought, ‘This is perfect.’ “At this point in the game, I don’t care -- I’m getting pumped up because I realize that I’m going to take a faceoff against Gretzky! I almost wanted to pose for the camera.
“As he’s skating toward the faceoff circle, I see our coach motioning us off and I see another guy jumping onto the ice. So it never happened, but it would have been nice if it had.” Mowers struggled first with tendonitis, then an infection in his right knee before finally having surgery -- not once, but twice -- to repair the damaged cartilage. It now feels the best that it has in years.
If he stays healthy, he looks forward to making the most of his opportunity to play in the Detroit organization.
“I knew the situation -- I wasn’t going to immediately make the Red Wings. I just wanted to go into camp, make a good impression and let them know that if they ever got a bunch of injuries, I could be a dependable call-up. If they like what they see, maybe I can step into a role in the future.” Until then, Mowers plans to continue having fun. As long as he stays free of injuries, that’s a sure thing.
“Being in Grand Rapids makes (the prospect of getting called up) a lot easier,” Mowers says. “It’s only 2-1/2 hours from Detroit -- plus, nothing but good things are said about the Griffins organization.
“I think the winning percentage here speaks for itself. Coming here, I knew it would be a positive situation.”