(Courtesy of Perry Bergson, The Brandon Sun) — Seeds planted in Matt Lowry’s junior hockey career have certainly taken root.
Now 30, the former Brandon Wheat Kings forward has returned to the family farm northeast of Neepawa and finds the lessons he learned in hockey have a direct application as he works the land.
“You’re communicating and getting everybody on the same page and not running into trouble,” Lowry said. “That’s one of the bigger things. And just that hard work never fails. Sometimes you just need to grit it out and put the work in to get the job done. Those are some of the things that translate over to farming.
“Also, have some fun with it. Surround yourself with good people and life will be a lot easier and a lot more enjoyable.”
Lowry’s path that would lead him away from the farm began on the dugout behind the house with his brother Clark, who is three years older.
The younger brother started skating around age five or six, and after Clark started playing hockey, Matt wanted to follow in his footsteps.
He would have to wait, however, because his mother Lynda insisted that he complete the CanSkate program first and learn to skate properly.
Lowry put his time in on the ice in several locations. Once he started playing hockey, he practised in Neepawa, but he also skated on natural ice in Eden and Arden.
Like all farm kids, he depended on his mother and father for rides. He, Clark and sometimes their figure-skating sister Robyn would pile into the car for their turn at the rink.
“We would all usually go together,” Lowry said. “I would usually be on the ice first and my brother would wait for his ice time, and then once I was done, I’d usually be running around the rink shooting pucks outside the rink waiting for his ice time to be over. When that was done, we’d jump in the van and head home. We did everything together.”
Lowry played his minor hockey in Neepawa, and watched the Manitoba Junior Hockey League’s Neepawa Natives and occasionally the Wheat Kings.
He admits he was awestruck by the Western Hockey League.
“It never really seemed like something that was possible,” Lowry said. “It always seemed like these were grown men that I just adored and watched whenever I could come in from Neepawa. It just felt like it was another level that I was in awe about.”
Around age 13, he began to set a goal that he too would find his way to the league.
Still, he would chuckle when players from other towns would brag about their programs and teammates. He was on the ice with the kids he had known all his life.
“I played on a line with the coach’s daughter when I was in bantam because that’s who we had,” Lowry said. “It was whoever wanted to play. We all played together and had fun together.”
He joined the Yellowhead Chiefs when he was 15. Hopeful he would be chosen in the 2003 WHL bantam draft, Lowry snuck onto the school computers every chance he got that day to check if he had been picked.
His teacher eventually gave him heck, but he saw his name when the Medicine Hat Tigers selected him in the sixth round.
He returned to the Chiefs for two years of midget AAA, playing one game as a 16-year-old with his hometown Natives in the 2004-05 MJHL season.
Lowry cracked the Neepawa lineup full-time as a 17-year-old in the 2005-06 season, scoring 19 goals and adding 17 assists as a rookie in 60 games. He also got his first taste of the WHL when the Tigers called him up for three games.
He made his debut with the Tigers in Prince Albert against the Raiders on Dec. 14, 2005, and played again three nights later in Medicine Hat against the Lethbridge Hurricanes. At the end of the season, he was called up again.
“I remember being so excited,” Lowry said. “They had quite the good team and I was eager to show what I had in the last game to maybe see if I could sneak into some games if there were some injuries come playoff time. I remember trying to finish my check and I actually connected with a guy’s knee and I ended up getting kicked out of the game.”
He would be tossed exactly six minutes seven seconds into that game, but would stick with the Tigers as an 18-year-old for the 2006-07 season.
Lowry scored 10 times and add 13 assists in 63 games after being a healthy scratch early in the season. He would take on an energy role, occasionally fitting into the top six when players were hurt.
The Tigers won 52 regular season games, and then powered their way to the league final, where they would meet the Memorial Cup host Vancouver Giants in one of the greatest championship series in WHL history.
The Giants blanked the Tigers three times, but Medicine Hat won three times by a single goal to send the series to a seventh game. To ratchet up the pressure, the game went to double overtime, with Brennan Bosch netting the winner 7:16 into the fifth period for a Medicine Hat championship.
Lowry said the arena even got foggy, adding to the old-school feel of the series. He recalls the moment Bosch’s shot went in from the high slot.
“I’ll remember it for the rest of my life,” Lowry said. “It was just absolute joy and an amazing time to share with my teammates.”
Lowry would play his final game with the Tigers on May 27, 2007 when the Giants beat them in the Memorial Cup final to earn a measure of revenge.
On Sept. 14, 2007, Lowry became a Wheat King in exchange for a 2008 sixth-round bantam pick.
“It definitely caught me off-guard but I knew that there were some younger guys who were coming in and we were adjusting from losing a lot of our guys who went off to play pro or graduated,” Lowry said. “There was a little bit of uncertainty.”
General manager and head coach Willie Desjardins told him that he had better offers out west, but chose instead to send Lowry home where he knew he’d be happier.
“I’ll always be thankful for that and remember that,” Lowry said.
He settled in with a Wheat Kings team he had grown up watching, joining a dressing room where he knew a number of guys and his family could easily come and watch him play.
Lowry responded with a career season, putting up 61 points in 72 games on 24 goals and 37 assists. He said part of it was trying to prove his worth to his new team, and part of it was his linemates.
“I was put on a line with Andrew Clark and Tyler Dittmer, two tremendously skilled players and we just kind of hit it off,” Lowry said. “Our styles kind of complemented each other. We all played differently but we gelled fairly well together. It just kind of snowballed, where we produced off the start and it just kept snowballing.”
On a Brandon team that had just welcomed rookies Brayden Schenn and Scott Glennie, the Lowry line combined for 174 points and the team won 42 games before losing in the first round of the playoffs.
Lowry would return for his overage season in 2008-09 and once again improve on his output. In 71 games, he scored 13 goals while setting up 64 as the team won 48 games.
“We just kept growing as a team and a lot of the same players were back,” Lowry said. “We had our baby blue-line (Schenn, Glennie and Matt Calvert) …and they were just tremendous that year.”
He said the team was full of guys who were willing to work and kept pushing the pace. They would ultimately fall in the Eastern Conference final when they were swept by the Calgary Hitmen.
“As hard as we worked and as good as we were, we had a tough time with them,” Lowry said. “We just weren’t able to tip the scales our way, and my career kind of came to an end, which was very sad because you’re moving on from guys you’ve played hockey with for two years and some great individuals.”
One of Lowry’s Brandon highlights was billeting with the Anderson family: Craig, Jen, Calder and Bailey. Another came when he met his future wife Jenna near the end of that second season with the Wheat Kings.
After graduating from Brandon, Lowry signed a deal with the American Hockey League’s Binghamton Senators. He attended Ottawa’s development camp, and after being sent to the AHL club, went back and forth between Binghamton and the ECHL’s Elmira Jackals.
At the end of the year, he was a free agent again so he decided to return to school.
“I always knew that I wanted to fall back on farming when hockey was done so with having the WHL scholarship, (Wheat Kings owner) Kelly (McCrimmon) was still able to get me a scholarship because I didn’t start playing a second year of pro,” he said.
He redshirted at the University of Manitoba that year, practising with the team and playing senior hockey with the Neepawa Farmers. He would go on to play two full seasons at the U of M, earning his agriculture diploma, and scoring 16 goals and adding 25 assists in 56 U Sports games.
After he graduated, he returned to the minor pros.
“Once I had my schooling done, I felt more comfortable going out and trying to grind out through the East Coast and seeing what would happen and if I could make it a career or maybe get called back up to the American League,” Lowry said.
After spending the majority of the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons in the ECHL — with a 19-game callup to the AHL’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers in the former — Lowry headed overseas to join Hudiksvalls HC of the Swedish Division 1 league.
“It was a great experience,” Lowry said. “I always wanted to travel around a bit and see the world. It was a good experience for my wife and I. It was a fantastic country with tremendous people who spoke very good English … I’m glad I did it.”
That would be his fourth and final season of professional hockey. He realized his future lay back on the grain farm, and the two duelling careers simply didn’t work. He was either missing the start or the end of the farming season every year.
“As my dad started to slow down on the farm and was taking more of a management role, we decided to move back home and take more of a role on the farm and start a family,” Lowry said. “It was something we talked about for a bit but I was quite comfortable with the decision. Knowing how much I enjoy farming definitely helped out in the decision. I knew that I gave hockey a good run and a shot and I’m happy with what I attempted and what I accomplished.”
He’s now back on the farm with Jenna and their 18-month-old daughter Leighton. The couple is expecting another child early in 2019.
Lowry left the pro game completely healthy, and still plays senior hockey with his friends on the Neepawa Farmers. He also lends a hand with the Natives when he can, and hopes he can share the benefit of his experience with their young players.
“I’m just trying to give back a bit and trying to help develop some kids,” Lowry said. “Hopefully they can go on to have good careers and enjoy hockey as much as I did.”
Looking back, he said he can’t believe how fast his junior hockey experience went. It’s a another message he shares with the young MJHLers.
“I try to press that on to the individuals that this is a fabulous time to be playing hockey,” Lowry said. “You show up at the rink every day and hang out and get to play junior hockey. It’s just a tremendous experience, but the funny thing about it is the next thing you know, it’s over and you kind of wonder where it all went.”