It was the day after Carter Rowney’s wedding last August, when former UND hockey teammates Joe Gleason and Andrew MacWilliam figured out they booked their return trips home for the wrong day.
They were stuck in Kelowna, B.C., for one more night with no place to stay, because their group had vacated their rental.…
Rowney heard about the dilemma.
“Why don’t you guys just stay with us in the guest house?” Rowney suggested.
It may not have been your typical day-after-the-wedding honeymoon, but Gleason and MacWilliam did just that—crashed on couches near the newlyweds like it was college all over again.
“The thing about Rowns is that he’s always been an awesome teammate, a super happy-go-lucky guy, who is always down to do whatever,” Gleason said. “I think that’s why he made it. The Coast (ECHL) and the ‘A’ (AHL) are such grinds. I think a lot of people can’t handle it. It’s too much after a while. Mentally, it’s a grind. But he’s patient enough and laid back enough to where he had fun with it and made the best of it.”
Rowney, an undrafted free agent who was never a superstar at UND, not only beat the odds and reached the NHL in his fourth professional season, he has played an unexpected, key role during a Stanley Cup playoff run for a Pittsburgh Penguins roster that’s littered with some of hockey’s biggest names.
The Penguins take a 3-2 series lead into tonight’s Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Ottawa Senators (7 p.m., NBC Sports).
Rowney had a lot to do with it.
In Game 4, Rowney played more than any Penguins forward outside of Sidney Crosby (and he only played 21 seconds less than Crosby), including all-stars Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel in a 3-2 victory.
Two days later in Game 5, Rowney had a game-high three assists, a game-high plus-4 rating and was named the No. 1 star in a 7-0 rout.
Suddenly, a guy who was playing for an ECHL team in West Virginia just two seasons ago is five games away from winning hockey’s ultimate prize, the Stanley Cup.
“We’re not shocked, because he’s a player who is good at everything,” said Gleason, who is one of about 20 people on a group text of former UND players, including Rowney, who talk daily. “But we’re all surprised in the sense that you look at Pittsburgh’s lineup and you see Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, you go down the line. It’s like, wow, how did Rowney fit in this picture?”
How did this all happen?
How did Carter Rowney go from an overlooked college prospect recruited by four schools to a regular on Sidney Crosby’s team?
Landing at UND
In 2008, Mike Vandekemp called the UND coaching staff with a tip.
Vandekamp was coaching the Grande Prairie Storm in the Alberta Junior Hockey League and had a player who he felt was a North Dakota-type player.
“He was our style of player,” associate coach Dane Jackson said. “He wasn’t flashy, but he had a lot of good habits. He could protect the puck, go to the net, stop and start—he did all the things we value in guys. He was not always the prettiest or most dynamic, but he was smart defensively and could make plays. He was an older guy, so we brought him in and he fit our mold.”
Rowney was not one of the heralded recruits that year.
In 2009-10, eight rookies saw ice time. Six of the eight were drafted by NHL teams.
None of the six draft picks played in the NHL this season. Ironically, the two undrafted players were Rowney and Aaron Dell, who both did.
Rowney scored just one goal as a freshman and three as a sophomore, but managed to stay in the lineup most nights because he was so reliable.
“He’s a guy who, at times, almost didn’t know how good he was,” Jackson said. “He struggled with confidence at times and questioned himself. Everyone has different challenges. Rowns played behind Knighter (Corban Knight) quite a bit and never got all the key minutes. But he was obviously really good in his role.”
Rowney broke out as a junior, scoring 18 goals and tallying 33 points. He was fourth on the team in scoring, only behind the prolific top line of Knight, Danny Kristo and Brock Nelson. He backed that up with a 27-point senior season.
The long road
Being an undrafted player, Rowney had to take the long road to the NHL.
He signed a two-way deal with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the American Hockey League and the Wheeling (W. Va.) Nailers of the ECHL.
He played most of his rookie year in Wheeling, then most of his second pro season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. He played his entire third professional season in the AHL, breaking out for 56 points in 74 games.
Then, he entered his fourth professional season this fall after marrying his wife, Danielle, who he met at UND. Rowney got called up and made his NHL debut on Jan. 31.
“If you don’t make it in your first three years, it’s damn near impossible to make it, because GMs and scouts have to move on to their next draft picks, because they want to keep their jobs,” Gleason said. “If their picks don’t pan out, they are done. I’m just so happy for Rowns, because he’s getting to that point and still getting an opportunity. It speaks volumes to Pittsburgh’s organization.
“It’s really cool to have an organization that trusted a player and gave him an opportunity instead of just slotting in the next draft pick so a scout could keep his job. It happens more than you think once you go through it and see it.
“All the players talk about which organizations work well with their minor-league teams. Pittsburgh is one that really values its minor-league teams.”
During his third season in the minors, Mike Sullivan was the head coach at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. That’s where he gained a trust level with Rowney.
Sullivan was promoted to coach the Penguins midway through last year.
“When a coach has trust in a player and knows what he can do, he has confidence in that guy,” said UND coach Brad Berry, who returned to campus for Rowney’s senior season. “Mike knew what Carter could do.”
Rowney, who became a father on May 14th, has seen his role increase during the playoffs.
Same game, different level
It’s not that his game has changed much from his time at UND.
He’s not counted on to be a big scorer for the Penguins—though he did that Sunday, too. The coaching staff just looks at him to be reliable, physical, hard to play against and kill penalties.
“He’s not going to blow you away with any one skillset,” said Gleason, who now coaches Holy Family in the Twin Cities. “But everything he does, put together, as a coach, how can you not trust him?
“At the end of the day, I don’t think his game has changed much since his freshman year at UND. Someone just recognized that he can do everything really well and he got that opportunity and he’s obviously run away with it.”