Dawes searching for his oasis

PAUL FRIESEN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:26 AM ET

The first time Nigel Dawes crossed paths with Wayne Gretzky in a dressing room, it was at the World Junior Hockey Championship in Grand Forks.

It was four years ago, and Dawes was a member of Team Canada when Gretzky dropped in, a visit that eventually led to a gold medal hanging around the Winnipeggers' neck.

If only his latest encounter with Gretzky produces similar results.

Gretzky is now Dawes' head coach -- a deadline trade sent Dawes from the New York Rangers to the franchise he used to adore, growing up in St. Vital.

But it hasn't been all sunshine in Phoenix, just like it wasn't all sweetness in the Big Apple.

Dawes' second full season in the NHL has contained a few hiccups, as the 24-year-old struggles to find a consistent game.

We caught up to him after a recent two-game stint in the press box.

"I've struggled a little bit since I've been out here," Dawes said from Arizona. "It's kind of been the story of my season so far. A lot of ups and downs."

Dawes doesn't call it a sophomore slump, but his numbers are down: from 14 goals, 29 points and a plus-11 rating as a Rangers rookie, to 10 goals, 20 points and a minus-6 rating through the same number of games this season.

Not the career curve you want at his age.

Dawes wasn't even that surprised at the trade, saying he suspected something might go down.

But while he was hoping to find an oasis in the desert, the drought has, instead, worsened -- Dawes collected an assist in his first game with Phoenix, but is pointless in seven games, since.

While we often hear how well other Winnipeggers are doing -- Jonathan Toews becoming captain, and now nearing 30 goals in Chicago, for instance -- Dawes' story is more typical: few highlights, fewer headlines, and a struggle just to stay in the lineup.

Bottom line: this NHL gig ain't easy.

It's not always in your control, either.

"I've had three coaches (fired Rangers boss Tom Renney, replacement John Tortorella and Gretzky) in a month," Dawes said. "I was just getting used to a new system in New York, and then coming here and getting used to another system. It's been a change."

So has being pulled from a heated playoff race in New York.

The only thing heated in Phoenix is the forecast, as the Coyotes are looking a tad mangy, languishing near the Western Conference basement.

"It's my first time being in this position," Dawes said. "You've still got to go out there and play hard. There's always things to play for. We have so many guys here. Obviously we picked up a lot of guys at the deadline. Everyone's really playing for jobs for next year and the years to come."

Dawes' future is uncertain, too, as he's in the final months of his contract and set to become a restricted free agent this summer.

For players like him, million-dollar salaries, one-way deals and no-trade clauses must seem a world away.

Not that he's complaining.

Dawes looks at the bright side: he was wanted in Phoenix and he's part of a young team building for the future.

All the 5-foot-9 Winnipegger can do is try to stand taller than the rest of the young Coyotes. He's still in the NHL, after all.

"I'm doing the same thing, just a different location."

Ironically, there was even a small element of going home to his being traded, even though the franchise is now in Phoenix.

"My grandparents are probably the happiest people," Dawes said. "They spend the winters out here. They had never seen me play live, so they finally got to come out to a game and watch me play."

A golden memory for someone, at least.


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