Over the span of 48 hours, Evan Cowley found himself speechless on more than one occasion.
It started when he looked around the Buffalo Sabres’ Harbour Club and realized that his peers were 40 of the top draft-eligible American players.
The Wichita Falls goaltender from the North American Hockey League stood wide-eyed as he met Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff and the NHL’s all-time winningest coach Scotty Bowman during a welcome reception for the inaugural CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game.
The haze of disbelief continued as Cowley made his way through the concourse at the First Niagara Center and looked out at the immaculate ice surface adorned with the event logo reflecting back at him.
In less than 24 hours Cowley would be playing for U.S. Olympic hero Rob McClanahan in front of more fans than ever in his lifetime inside an NHL arena.
“I can’t describe it. There aren’t words,” said the Evergreen, Colo., native. “It’s kind of unreal. It’s an unbelievable honor. Anytime you get to play in a pro arena you have to step back and admire everyone that has played there.”
Cowley, a last-minute replacement player, stopped 15 of 17 shots and teamed with fellow goaltender Cal Petersen (7 saves) to help Team McClanahan defeat Team Housley, 5-2, in the inaugural CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game in front of 5,519 fans.
Yet, unlike most hockey games, the final score was not the story of this late September night. This was a game of opportunity for Cowley and the 37 other American draft-eligible prospects that took the ice.
With seven months remaining until many of these players will hear their names called at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft in Newark, N.J., this night offered these talented Americans an opportunity to show what the future could possibly hold for themselves and the NHL clubs that take a chance on them.
“Obviously [during] your draft year you’re going to have a couple of eyes on you every time you’re out there playing, watching your every move,” said Seth Jones, who could potentially become the seventh American to be selected as the No. 1 overall pick.
“It was a real good experience for all of the guys to get out there and showcase their talent and show [scouts] what they can do and why they have a chance to get drafted.”
And that’s why more than 150 professional and collegiate scouts were on hand to get another look at those players who the NHL’s Central Scouting Service have identified as players who could be the stars of tomorrow.
“It’s exciting to be able to put  of the top prospects onto the ice going into their NHL draft year and certainly their seasons looking ahead, not only this year but in the future with USA Hockey and our international teams,” said USA Hockey Assistant Executive Director of Hockey Operations Jim Johannson.
In hosting the event, Buffalo added to its impressive pedigree as a preeminent hockey city in the United States. Over the years the city has rolled out the red carpet for numerous USA Hockey youth national championships in addition to hosting the 2011 IIHF Under-20 World Junior Championship.
“We have stated many times we want to become a hockey destination for all ages of players,” said Sabres owner Terry Pegula, who was on hand for the festivities.
“This is another piece of the puzzle that fits into our plan of making Buffalo a destination. Even kids younger than these guys will come here and remember their visit and say 'I enjoyed myself.' ”
Pegula’s words were echoed by Phil Housley, who launched his 21-year NHL career in Buffalo and returned to coach against McClanahan.
Along with getting a chance to showcase their talents, the players were able to tour the Sabres’ state-of-the-art facilities and learn about the latest equipment from CCM, the title sponsor of the event.
“Obviously it was pretty cool,” said Waterloo Blackhawks goaltender Cal Petersen. “It just goes along with how great an event this is and to play well is something I will remember for a very long time.”
Mike Downing (Dubuque Fighting Saints/USHL) also recognized the game had an even greater impact for hockey fans due to the NHL lockout.
“It was just a great experience all around,” Downing said. “All of the fans went to see the game because of the lockout, and I think that is what made it so special.”
Hudson Fasching will go down in history as the first to score a goal in the inaugural event when he slipped a shot past Eamon McAdam at 15:54 of the first period on a great pass from Ryan Fitzgerald during a 3-on-1.
“It’s exciting to be able to put
“It’s just a great honor to be able to do that,” said the forward on the U.S. National Development Under-18 Team. “Its just awesome that I can be the guy to start it all off.”
Fitzgerald went on to record two more assists to earn the first ever Most Valuable Player award.
“People haven’t seen me play against these type of kids, and I just wanted to show I can hang with the big boys out here and play with the best,” said the Valley Jr. Warrior of the Eastern Junior Hockey League.
With players from the USHL, NAHL, CHL, EJHL and the NCAA playing in the game, it was an opportunity for everyone out there to prove himself on the ice.
“It’s a place to be seen, and it’s an opportunity for scouts to see you,” said U.S. National Team Development Under-18 forward J.T. Compher. “You’re not going to skate around and not go hard.”
Compher was thrilled to be in on the ground floor of an event that future generations of American hockey players will certainly strive to be a part of.
“This is going to be something a lot of kids will want to play in because of the scouting and how much fun it’s been so far.”