Standing in the locker room after his first NHL training camp session Saturday, Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler couldn't stop a smile from spreading across his boyish face when recalling draft day.
Fowler was slated by many experts to be a top-five pick at the 2010 entry draft, but he had to wait until pick No. 12 when Ducks General Manager Bob Murray announced his name over Staples Center loudspeakers. But it was worth the wait when Fowler's favorite player, Scott Niedermayer, was the first to greet him on the stage.
"It was kind of fitting he was the one who handed me my jersey when I got drafted," Fowler said. "He's always been a huge role model and someone I've tried to pattern my game after."
From the moment the future Hall of Famer gave him a Ducks jersey, Fowler has been eager to fulfill the high expectations the team placed on him on draft day. Coupled with Niedermayer's retirement just days before the draft, Fowler's selection marked the beginning of a new era for a team that used its once-formidable blue line corps as a gateway to the 2007 Stanley Cup championship.
Still, Fowler understands how rare it is for an 18-year-old defenseman to play in the NHL. His impressive junior resume might have made him the No. 12 pick in the draft, but the Michigan native knows he'll need to prove himself again if he wants to play in front of his friends and family during the Ducks' season opener at Detroit on Oct. 8.
"I'm still just like a little kid right now, trying to soak it all in," Fowler said, "but at the same time trying to compete and be the best player I can be."
So far, that strategy has worked. Fowler is coming off a highly successful junior season that made him one of the top defensive prospects available in the draft. He recorded eight goals and 55 points in 55 games with the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League last season, finishing seventh in league scoring among defensemen. He went on to get 16 points for Windsor in the playoffs.
But the highlight of his final amateur season came in January when he helped lead the United States to its first World Junior Championships gold medal since 2004. It was during that tournament that many NHL scouts became convinced of Fowler's abilities.
Ducks Coach Randy Carlyle says Fowler already possesses the skills to be an everyday NHL player. Carlyle is impressed by his skating and passing skills and says he could be a valuable addition to a team that's still irked it didn't make the playoffs last season after finishing 22nd in the league in goals against (2.96 a game) and No. 24 in penalty killing (79.3%).
The only question is whether Fowler is consistent and mature enough to perform at the top level.
"We like what he does," said Carlyle, who is entering his sixth season with the Ducks. "We like his skills set and we think that he has unique abilities. ÃƒÂ‚Ã‚Â… He just has to continue to go out there and do it day in and day out."
Fowler's chances of making the team have also been aided by the Ducks' lack of depth on defense. Fowler has a good shot of making the team as the No. 5 or No. 6 defenseman.
Luckily for Fowler, he should receive plenty of help from the Ducks' veterans on defense. Carlyle says he expects the team's veterans on defense to help Fowler and other young blueliners make the transition to the faster-paced, harder-hitting NHL game.
Paul Mara, who signed with the Ducks on Thursday, and Andy Sutton fulfilled those roles during Saturday's training camp session.
"Those guys really welcomed me and took me under their wing," Fowler said. "They treated me just like a normal player."
And being a normal, everyday NHL player is something Fowler hopes to become over the next three weeks. He's not trying to be the next Niedermayer -- at least not yet.
"Obviously, some things are going to be different for me from here on out," Fowler said. "I'm just trying to prove myself and show the Ducks that I belong here."