Behind The Bench: 500 AHL games completes full circle Justin Dowling moment

On April 2nd, 2011, a 20-year-old Justin Dowling stepped on the ice for only the second home game of his professional career. Despite the home team outshooting the visitors, both teams were scoreless as they entered the final frame. With playoffs on the line for the home team, they desperately needed a difference maker. That difference maker came in the form of the newly signed graduate of the WHL’s Swift Current Broncos. Under the lights of the Abbotsford Centre, Justin Dowling scored his first ever professional goal and won the game for the Abbotsford Heat.

3,619 days later, under those same Abbotsford lights, the now veteran Dowling netted his 100th career AHL goal, this time in Canucks’ green. Now, on March 18th, 2023, Dowling is set to reach another big milestone in the Abbotsford Centre: 500 career AHL games played.

“It’s been a long journey,” said Dowling.

The Alberta native kicked off his professional career with the Abbotsford Heat in March of 2011, after posting 67 points in 63 games during his final season in the WHL. After a quick season and a half with the Abbotsford Heat, Dowling signed with the Texas Stars in 2012 and made the trip south to Austin to prove himself in the Lone Star State.

In Dowling’s first campaign in Texas, he posted 30 points in 38 games and finished off the season with a plus-minus rating of 16. Quickly catching the eye of the big club, Dowling signed with the Dallas Stars in 2014, making his NHL debut in 2016. His next few seasons in the AHL as a Star quickly followed suit.

Over eight seasons with the Dallas Star’s affiliate, Dowling posted 306 points, with 97 goals and 209 assists.

For Dowling, the most notable parts of his career are the people he met along the way, and how they impacted him and his career.

In 2014, he and his teammates became the first ever Calder Cup Champions for the Texas Stars, where Dowling registered a point per game through the playoff run. In his fifth and final appearance in the playoffs with the Stars in 2018, Dowling, now team captain, led them to the Calder Cup finals a second time, ultimately losing to the Toronto Marlies in game seven.

“Winning a championship really brought me close with a lot of people and being able to go to the finals again did the same thing. The more time you spend with somebody, when there’s something meaningful on the line, it helps build relationships,” said Dowling.

Moving to Austin, Texas at the age of twenty-one, Dowling noted how hard it was to be on his own so far from home.

“It’s tough at times, so you need surrounding support.”

Dowling found that support in his teammates. While still keeping in touch with many of the lifelong friends he made during his time with the Texas Stars, three names stick out to him. Current Texas Stars assistant coaches, Travis Morin and Max Fortunus are two that helped Dowling through his first few years. A similar player on the ice, Travis did a lot for the young Dowling, teaching him skills on and off the ice. As for Max, Dowling says he was “the ultimate role model”. The third was Greg Rallo, ten years Dowling’s senior, who took the young Star under his wing, inviting the rookie over often to have dinner with him and his family.

“Those are the three guys that really tried to help me and make me so comfortable being so far away from home.”

Now twelve years into the professional game, Justin Dowling hopes to be that kind of support for his younger teammates. Currently the oldest Abbotsford Canuck, at 32, it’s only natural that his role in the locker room has shifted to that of a mentor. “I love when the younger guys come up and ask questions. I love to be able to give them advice, whatever that may be” he said.

Hockey advice comes naturally to most hockey players, but not everyone can share the invaluable off-ice lessons that Dowling can. He remembers what it was like to be a young player in the first few years of his career, just wanting to spend time with his teammates and creating lifelong friendships.

“When you get older, there’s a lot more (to life). Now it’s about paying bills” he laughed.

Despite playing his 500th game back where he started, Dowling’s life looks a little bit different his second time ‘round in Abbotsford. With the Heat, Dowling’s warmup routine involved just hockey. With the Canucks, his warmup routine now features his family. The dad of two always stops by the glass to say hi to his wife and daughters pre-game.

“It’s special being able to have them at the glass. It’s a great core memory for them.”
Like the rest of the people in the building, Dowling’s oldest daughter is a growing hockey fan.

“Seeing the guys on the ice is her favourite thing on Earth. When she comes to the rink, she’s able to hang out with the guys, they’re all really good with (her). It’s definitely something special” he said of his two-year-old.

“I know I have a lot more years left in me. We have a younger team, so they keep me young too,” he said. “I look forward to more (games) with the rest of the guys here.”