CALGARY — Overwhelmed by the moment, Sherry Dowling fought back tears when asked to describe a mother’s pride.
Her 29-year-old son, Justin Dowling, had just punctuated a 10-year adventure through the minors by scoring his first NHL goal in the rink he grew up dreaming in.
Never mind the fact it was a highlight-reel strike that stood up as the game-winner, what mattered far more was that it came in front of three dozen adoring friends and family members who had willed him to this moment for years.
“It’s been a long, hard journey for him,” said Sherry, whose eyes watered as her son emerged from the bowels of the arena to greet his proud followers in the stands afterwards.
“It’s just amazing for him. This is it — this is what we’ve all struggled for. Today we had a group of us and we put our hands in a circle and said, ‘Score, score, score,’ because we knew he’d score today. We visualized it in the back of the net. And then… I missed it.”
Early in the third period, while her son pulled off a nifty toe-drag past Cam Talbot and threaded the puck in from a tight angle, Sherry was on the concourse grabbing a beverage — a tale that will only serve to add to the legendary family moment.
“I didn’t realize my mom was in the beer line when I scored my goal so she didn’t even see it,” laughed Dowling, whose decade-long journey through the minors includes two stops in the East Coast league and over 400 games in the American loop.
“I can hold that over her head.”
Did it ruin his storybook evening, which marked just the 34th NHL contest for the undrafted forward?
“Nope. That’s why we’ve got TV and highlights and everything, so she’ll see it eventually. It’s okay. I’m just happy they were here,” beamed the former Swift Current Broncos captain.
“I was born in Calgary and I grew up in Cochrane, 30 minutes away. I came to a lot of Flames games, a lot of Hitmen games. I’ve been in this barn a lot. It’s close to home. It’s a dream come true, for sure.”
A dream Sherry insists she never gave up on.
“Absolutely — you watch your kid grow and go through this stuff. You have to believe in it,” she said. “To do it in his hometown is what we wanted for him. I’ve seen it new on the replay now. It was beautiful.”
So was the gathering afterward, as the man of the hour shared endless hugs and handshakes with loved ones who then posed for a group photo with him holding the sacred puck.
“It felt great,” said Dowling, the Texas Stars captain last year, who spent Wednesday night’s 3-1 win over Calgary playing alongside Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin.
“I’ve had a lot of close calls with pucks sitting on goal lines, hitting posts. I think my first game last year I had one disallowed. Long time coming, but it feels good. A lot of weight off my shoulders. Tons of relief, big-time.”
Tons of memories too.
“I mean, it took a long time but it’s nice that it happened here. I think it was meant to be, actually. It’s great. Last year I only got to play a period. I got hurt. I was feeling pretty good going into that game last year. Having the opportunity to come back and play again this year and getting my first one here means a lot.”
For a time Wednesday it appeared the feel-good story would be authored by the Flames’ little-used backup Cam Talbot, who got the surprise start to give workhorse David Rittich a week off.
Talbot was the only reason the Flames were down just 1-0 after two periods, steering aside a barrage of 26 shots from the red-hot Stars.
Alas, despite the heroics of the popular teammate, the Flames were unable to give him any run support in a game in which they were a blown 3-on-1 away from tying before Dowling finished it going the other way to put the visitors up 2-0 six minutes into the third.
“I kind of got to the blue line and realized no one was really going to catch me,” said Dowling of a 2-on-1 he created.
“I tend to do that (move) a lot in practice. I don’t know if it just comes natural or if it’s just instincts almost to just do that. As soon as I got to the blue line I was like, ‘I’ve got to try that same move’ because I’ve had success with it in practice. I had no legs. I was coming to the end of the shift.”
It marked the first time in a four-game homestand the Flames lost in regulation, giving the Stars their eighth win in their last 10.
The Flames felt awful for letting Talbot’s record slip to 1-4 despite another solid outing (29 saves) that marked just his second start in three weeks.
“Myself personally, it hurts when he puts on a performance like that and make so many key saves and gives us a chance when we probably shouldn’t have had a chance after two periods,” said Matthew Tkachuk, whose team made it a 2-1 game midway through the third before Joe Pavelski’s second of the night sealed it into an empty net.
“He’s been our best player in some of the games he’s come in. On a night like tonight, all I wanted to do was reward him. The rest of the guys felt the same way.”
The Stars’ room was filled with those who understood how precious a moment Dowling was savouring.
“What a great experience, obviously,” said Stars goalie Ben Bishop, who made 24 saves.
“Your first NHL goal in your hometown, for the game-winner. It doesn’t get much better than that. I don’t think you can draw it up as a kid any better … maybe if he was playing for the other team, but I’m glad he’s on ours. We work on those 2-on-1’s every day in practice and he does a great job, and he deserved it.”