Throughout his junior hockey career, Josh Maser heard it from coaches, fans and scouts who watched him progress in the WHL with the Prince George Cougars.
Strong and fast on his feet, blessed with a lumberman’s girth he utilizes to shrug off opponents, and a reputation as a relentless checker with a big-league shot that finds its mark, Maser has been hearing those voices telling him he’s made for pro hockey.
Now he gets his chance to prove it.
Maser flew from Prince George to Des Moines, Iowa on Friday and on Monday, his 22nd birthday, he’ll gather with his Iowa Wild teammates for their start of their American Hockey League training camp. The Wild signed the six-foot-two, 208-pound left winger in June and he can’t wait to start playing hockey again after 10 months in pandemic limbo.
“It was a long summer, especially coming off the way our season ended, a lot of guys are anxious to get back playing and getting in the routine of playing hockey gain,” said Maser.
“The way I kind of looked at (the long break) was it was just a good opportunity having that much time off to get bigger, faster and stronger. The American League is a man’s league and there’s going to be a lot of bigger, stronger guys, you’re that closer to getting to the NHL, and I think I took advantage of that pretty good and got some good training in.”
Maser was considering university hockey in U Sports when the Wild phoned his agent with an offer.
“I always wanted to play pro, that’s been a goal of mine since I was a little guy, and I’m looking forward to showing them what I can do,” said Maser . “I’m just trying to make the best of it this year and get some experience and get better. It’s hard to make it out of a town like Houston (pop. 3,600), just because it’s such a small place and I’m grateful for playing on the Cougars and making it to that level.”
Maser hasn’t played a meaningful game since March 7, his final game with the Cougars after four seasons in the WHL. He spent most of the summer in Kelowna, living with his twin brother Tyler, where they shared some ice time playing with a group of pros and junior players in the Okanagan.
Maser came back to Prince George in August and he worked on his hockey skills in a local rink with Nick Drazenovic and a group that included Cougars Ilijah Colina, Cole Moberg, Aiden Reeves, Brendan Boyle, Tyler Brennan, Taylor Gauthier and NHL/AHL defenceman Brandon Manning. Houston had no summer ice and Maser is grateful he was able to take advantage of coming back to Prince George to live with Kevan and Yvonne Brienen, his billet parents throughout his Cougar career.
Maser’s first function with the Wild was a COVID test Saturday morning. He’s pretty much confined to his hotel room with one other Wild player and they are in for a series of daily COVID tests before they will be allowed to join their teammates in practice. The preseason schedule has yet to be announced, with Feb. 5 set as the start date for AHL regular-season games.
The Wild were an older group last season and were one of the better teams in the AHL, ranked second in the Western Conference when COVID shut the league down. Several players made the Minnesota Wild roster this year and the team traded away some of its veterans, which should create more opportunities for Maser which will eventually lead to a contract with the NHL Wild.
“My goal coming into the season is to show them what I can do and win some games, I want to be a on a winning team this year,” said Maser, who credits his Cougar coaches, Mark Lamb and Jason Smith, both former NHL players, for developing him into a pro prospect.
Maser joined the Cougars in October 2016 in a trade from the Prince Albert Raiders. The Cougars were a first-place team at the time and went on to win the B.C. Division banner but were eliminated in the first round of the 2017 playoffs and they haven’t made the playoffs ever since. Maser played just 23 games that first season but was around to share the excitement the team’s regular-season success on the ice created for him and his teammates.
“That was one of the biggest years for me, even though I didn’t play a lot it was just awesome being around the guys like Brendan Guhle and Jesse Gabriele, guys who already had the experience of being a pro, and I looked up to those guys,” Maser said.
“I hated being out of the lineup, sitting in the stands and watching my team play without me but sometimes you have to go through that kind of stuff just to motivate you a bit and it did.
“I worked my butt off that summer and came back the next year in a lot better shape and just changed my game up a bit. I tried to get a lot faster and do the small things right, blocking shots, getting pucks deep, retrieving pucks, because that’s what I watched them do, and it works.”
Maser, the Cougars’ captain, was one of the most potent producers in the WHL down the stretch last season with eight goals and eight assists in his last 12 games. The Cats finished up their home schedule with three straight wins at CN Centre. That week they shut out Dylan Cozens and the top-ranked Lethbridge Hurricanes 2-0, then swept the Vancouver Giants in a weekend series. Maser had a hat trick in 5-4 win over the Giants and opened the scoring in second game, which ended with Moberg’s 4-3 overtime winner.
Maser finished the season one goal shy of the 30 mark he reached in 2018-19 and he led the Cougars with 48 points in 62 games when the season was cut short. At the time, the Cougars were seven points behind Seattle in the chase for the final wild-card playoff spot, holding a game in hand over the T-birds with six games left.
“Last year we knew we had a good team but we struggled putting goals and points up,” Maser said. “We never got blown out, it was always one – or two-goal games. We knew we were a better team than Seattle and better than lot of teams. At the end of the year, once guys starting buying in and saw how fun it was to win, I have no doubt we would have taken that final spot and we would have done some damage in the playoffs as the last team in.”
Des Moines, the home of the Wild, is the capital of Iowa and is the state’s largest city with a population of about 219,000in the city limits and a metro population of about 700,000. The team plays in the 15,181-seat Wells Fargo Arena.
In pre-pandemic times, each of the 31 NHL teams had a team in the AHL but this year there will only be 28 teams in the American League. Three teams – Charlotte Checkers, Milwaukee Admirals and Springfield Thunderbirds – have chosen not to play this season but will return in 2021-22. Four teams have relocated for this season due to the pandemic to make travel connections easier. The Ontario Reign will play in El Segundo, Calif., San Diego Gulls will play in Irvine, Calif., Binghamton Devils have relocated to Newark, N.J., and the Binghampton Devils’ temporary home rink is in Marlborough, Mass.
LOOSE PUCKS: Four former Cougars played in the AHL last season , including defencemen Guhle (San Diego Gulls), Josh Anderson (Colorado Eagles) and Dennis Cholowski (Grand Rapids Griffins); and forward Justin Almeida (Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins). Cholowski made the Detroit Red Wings taxi squad while Guhle is on the Anaheim Ducks’ injured list, out six weeks with a sprained MCL…. Cougar blueline prospect Keaton Dowhiniuk is featured on the WHL website and its Next Generation series. Dowhiniuk, 16, picked by the Cougars third overall in the 2019 WHL bantam draft, scored five goals and had 17 assists for 22 points in 28 games last season with the OHA Edmonton prep under-18 team. He had one assist in eight games with the Cougars.