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With Marner urging him on, Cowan looks to finish the job at Memorial Cup


When Easton Cowan was sent back to the Ontario Hockey League at the end of his first training camp with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Mitch Marner had a message for him.

"He said, 'Good luck this year,' and, 'Kill it,'" the London Knights forward told TSN early in the season

Cowan, Toronto's first round pick (28th overall) in the 2023 NHL draft, did just that. In fact, Cowan is the first player to win the Red Tilson Trophy (OHL regular season MVP) and Wayne Gretzky 99 Award (OHL playoff MVP) since Marner, who took home that hardware in 2016 while with the Knights. 

"He texted me after I won the OHL MVP," Cowan said. "He texted me after the Western Conference [final] and then he texted me a couple days ago about the MVP for the playoffs. I hear from him a lot. We actually text quite a bit. It means a lot. He's a great role model for me. Pretty cool when he's texting you and pretty cool to win the same stuff he's won." 

Cowan, who will celebrate his 19th birthday on Monday, has one more box to check as he follows in Marner's footsteps in London. Marner led the Knights to the Memorial Cup title during his final season of junior hockey. The Leafs winger dominated while playing on a line with fellow current NHLers Matthew Tkachuk and Christian Dvorak

"That team was nuts," Cowan said. "I was talking to [associate general manager] Rob Simpson, actually, the other day about that team and he said it was just tic-tac-toe every goal they had with that line of Dvorak, Tkachuk and Marner." 

Marner produced 44 points, four more than second place Tkachuk, to lead the OHL playoffs in scoring in 2016. Cowan racked up 34 points, which was four more than runner-up Calum Ritchie of the Oshawa Generals, to lead the playoffs in scoring this season. 

"I played 18 games this year and he played 18 games in his playoffs and he had 10 more points than me," the Mount Brydges, Ont. native noted. "Ten more points is a lot. That's a lot of points. I wasn't even close to him so that just puts into perspective how good he was. That just shows how much of a threat he was. He played in every situation too."

Marner went on to lead the Memorial Cup in scoring with 14 points in four games. 

Cowan and the current Knights will begin their Memorial Cup quest next Saturday against the Quebec Maritimes Junior Hockey League champion Drummondville Voltigeurs. The host Saginaw Spirit will open the event against the Western Hockey League champion Moose Jaw Warriors on Friday night. 

"It was a great feeling to win the OHL championship," said Cowan, who stands 5-foot-10, 171 pounds and brings a tireless work ethic to the ice. "I can't even imagine the Memorial Cup. Everyone says, 'Job's not finished,' and it's not. We're going to Saginaw to win it all. It should be fun but, at the end of the day, it will be really fun if we win."

During a conversation with TSN, Cowan reflected on his incredible run this season and explained why playing on the big stage suits him. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.   

TSN: After losing in the OHL final last season, what's it feel like to be on top this year? 

Cowan: I really loved the team this year. Really proud of those boys in that room and everyone who's helped us get here. It's a great feeling. Again, I woke up today a champion. I got my [championship] hat on and probably won't take this off for a bit. Just an unreal feeling for all of us. 

TSN: At the start of the season, you spoke about wanting to become more of a leader this year. How do you feel you grew into that role? 

Cowan: I felt like I did a good job. I felt like I led this team pretty well on and off the ice with just being positive. We didn't have a captain this year. We just had a lot of good leaders. We had four [alternates] and even people without letters on their jerseys still led, and that's what really helped our team this year be really successful. 

TSN: You were red hot in the OHL final with 15 points in the four-game sweep of Oshawa. In what ways do you feel like you elevated your game in the playoffs? 

Cowan: I felt like I had a slow start. I went five games without scoring between the Flint and Kitchener series [in the first and second rounds] ... I feel I really upped my game in the Western Conference finals and then in the OHL finals. I love playing on the big stage. Obviously TSN [broadcasting the championship series], all the cameras, all that stuff, I love that stuff. People are like, 'Oh, do you like that, Easton? What do you think about it?' I love it, personally. I love cameras on you with everyone watching you. When the lights are on it really shows you how big you are and how mature you are on and off the ice ... I felt I really found my game there in the finals and you can't do it without your teammates. I was playing centre and wing on different lines each and every night. You're killing penalties with different guys, you're on the power play with different guys, like, it just really helps that I have a great team to support me each and every night. 

TSN: You mentioned the goal drought at the start of the playoffs. How did you work your way through that? 

Cowan: Just doing a lot of video with Rick Steadman, my assistant coach there, who is the penalty kill coach. We did a lot of video and focused on simplifying my game with stops and starts and finishing more checks. The puck's not always going to bounce your way so I feel like if you simplify your game then good things will come. So, just getting pucks deep and, like I said, starts and stops, and throwing pucks on net. I didn't score for a bit, but then in Saginaw there, I scored and it was off one of their guys' skates and in. You never know what can go in and eventually they started going in and they kept coming. 

TSN: When we spoke in November you mentioned that you are inspired by the critics. You had such a great year, did you face many doubters this season?

Cowan: Actually, I was kind of talking about that the other day with my billet dad. Like, obviously there's a lot of haters still. There's still a couple out there, you know, they find a way to hate on you and it's funny. But there's a lot of lovers now, more than there were last year that's for sure. But, yeah, haters are going to hate, it is what it is. There's going to be people that love you too, which is great. Either way you just got to keep working and staying positive and just be a kid at the end of the day. 

TSN: In Game 6 against the Spirit in the Western Conference final, you opened the scoring with a shorthanded goal and then celebrated by staring down the fans in Saginaw. Not the first or last time you did that. What inspires that?

Cowan: It happened in Saginaw and then in Oshawa the other night too. I just like that celly. I think it's kind of cool. You kind of stare down the fans and it gets the boys going. I felt pretty good too after that shot. It's just pretty funny to look back at. I did that in Flint and people thought I was yelling at the fans, but I was actually yelling at my family, who were a couple rows up. I was like, 'Let's go!' I was just looking at my dad and my mom, my grandparents, my sister.

TSN: I know how proud you were to wear the Maple Leaf at the World Juniors as an 18-year-old, but I know how hard it must've been to lose in the quarterfinals. What did you take from the experience in Sweden? 

Cowan: It's the same kind of feeling as losing in the OHL finals last year. It's just heartbreaking, really. There's no other way to say it. You come all this way and just end up a bit short. I really felt like we had a great team there and just an unlucky bounce at the end off a stick. You can't do anything about that. I felt like that drove me and Bonker [Knights defenceman Oliver Bonk] a bit more this year to really win. That drives you a bit more. Just a heartbreaking feeling and you never want to feel that with whatever team you play for, and everyone will feel the same way. We came out in the OHL finals with our foot on the pedal and never really took it off. 

TSN: Your World Junior teammate Denton Mateychuk was named MVP of the WHL playoffs. What will it be like going up against the Moose Jaw defenceman at the Memorial Cup? 

Cowan: I noticed right from the day I met him there, he's a leader on and off the ice. He's really dynamic back there. I feel like he kind of plays a bit like Morgan Rielly, honestly. He's a really good, sound, 200-foot player, who can run a power play and be good in the D-zone. He's a heckuva player and I'm really excited to play against him. I'll probably see him out on the ice a lot. He'll probably be against our line a lot so it will be cool. It will be a great experience for everyone. I texted [Moose Jaw forward Matthew] Savoie. I roomed with him in Sweden. And, I've been close with [Moose Jaw's Brayden] Yager since u17s. I texted both them and said, 'Congrats.' We're all pumped to see each other but, at the end of the day, we all want the same thing. We can be friends off the ice, but when it comes to on the ice we'll be ready to go. 

TSN: Your phone must be full of messages after some of these wins. Have you heard from anyone that surprised you? 

Cowan: Not really. Obviously my Snapchat is blowing up from all my friends and on Instagram my messages, but not really anyone specific. There's been a lot of cool people who have reached out from the Leafs organization like Marner, and then a bunch of my old friends that I haven't talked to in a while, like, since elementary school. They're all texting me and that stuff is pretty cool. Obviously, you kind of drift away from some of your friends but just to hear that they’re still watching you and making sure you're good and really supporting you still, that means a lot to you deep down. 

TSN: What's your secret to dealing with pressure? 

Cowan: Just live in the moment. I know people are going to hate. I know people are going to love you. Whether you're playing a TSN game or not, you play the same way, you show up to the rink the same way, and that helps me a lot. Obviously [fellow Leafs prospect Fraser Minten] helps me out a lot. He'll text me here and there. I will text him a lot. He texted me, 'Congrats,' and told me he's watching the games. I don't got the package for the WHL, but I was watching him on the app and stuff and he had a great playoff run. We text a lot and he's helped me out a lot because he has some experience in the NHL and dealing with it a bit a year before me. 

TSN: What did you think of his celebration after the Game 5 overtime winner in the WHL finals? 

Cowan: Yeah, that was cool. [Leafs director, player personnel and amateur scouting] Wes Clark texted me and loved that celebration too. That's another guy who's really helped me is Wes Clark. He's been here for me since he drafted me or had a part in drafting me. It means a lot that he's always there for me. I've had ups and downs throughout the year and he was still texting me and sending me motivational stuff and helping me out and that little stuff goes a long way.

TSN: Who else have you heard from with the Leafs? 

Cowan: [General manager] Brad [Treliving] and [president] Brendan [Shanahan], they text me a lot. And [assistant general manager, player development] Hayley [Wickenheiser] texts me too. My old player development guy, who is now an assistant coach with the Marlies, Rich Clune, he still texts me and still does video with me. We're really close. It really helps me a lot when I can do video with them and hear from them and then also do video wth the Knights and have feedback from both teams. It means a lot and helps you really elevate your game. 

TSN: What about Leafs Nation? Have you been hearing from the fans? 

Cowan: Every once in a while I'll just be scrolling on Twitter and there will be a tweet that's hyping me up, which is pretty cool. I'll be out at the mall and fans will be coming up to me. After games, when you're out to see your family, little kids come up and it's a great feeling. To know you have that support from Leafs Nation and Knights fans, it's been great this year. It's really helping me a lot.