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Inside Mike Babcock’s unexpected return to coaching – Sportsnet.ca

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BACK TO WORK

By David Singh in Saskatoon,
Photography by Carey Shaw
BACK TO WORK
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He was once the best-paid coach in hockey, with a Stanley Cup and a pair of Olympic golds. So what is Mike Babcock doing behind the bench at the University of Saskatchewan? And has he learned anything from his fall from grace?
By David Singh in Saskatoon
Photography by Carey Shaw

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I
t might not be a real word according to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, but the phrase carries weight around this team. “Exactism” means just what you think: Sticking to a plan with extreme precision. That can translate into a hockey practice beginning exactly on time, or it can manifest in three forwards positioning themselves perfectly at pre-determined points on the ice during a forecheck. Exactisms are designed to create efficiency, establish routine and ensure there’s no grey area, so everyone knows what’s expected of them.

On this afternoon in late September, exactisms are all over the place at the rink inside Saskatoon’s Merlis Belsher Place. Mike Babcock, head coach of the University of Saskatchewan Huskies, is running practice and abiding by the term he brought to the men’s hockey squad. Chewing a large wad of gum and wearing a grey Huskies baseball cap and matching zip-up, Babcock is engaged, dashing all over the ice as he provides instruction. After guiding several players lined up on the blue line during shooting drills, he heads back to the bench to grab his whistle. He then calls everyone to the faceoff circle to tee up their scrimmage. As it unfolds, the 58-year-old skates up and down the ice following the puck. His energy is brisk, his eyes remain fixed on the action and his head is constantly swiveling. Babcock describes himself as “a bee in a jar,” and the comparison is apt.

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This 2,700-seat arena is located on the edge of campus, which is just east of Saskatoon’s Central Business District. An empty field sits across from Merlis Belsher Place, lush green despite the lack of rain this summer. On the other side of College Drive is a herd of grazing cattle. When the wind is strong, the smell of manure wafts to the front doors of the arena and to the neighbouring football field. This is home for Babcock, who grew up about a mile away and played defence for the Huskies during the 1981–82 campaign.

That stint on the university’s blue line was near the outset of his storied hockey journey. Along the way, Babcock became, for a time, the most desirable bench boss on the planet, collecting two Olympic gold medals and one Stanley Cup ring, while amassing more wins than all but eight other head coaches in NHL history. Now, 40 years since he was last a Huskie, a long, winding road has led Babcock home. The nearest NHL arena, Rogers Place in Edmonton, is 522 kilometres from here. He’s far removed from the spotlight, plying his trade not with established NHL superstars, but university students, some of whom don’t even have a desire to pursue a future in the sport. He’s also arrived on the heels of what can be considered the lowest point of his career — Babcock was fired by the Toronto Maple Leafs in late 2019 and saw his public image tarnished by accusations of bullying. He knows that some view his current situation as an epic fall from grace, but the long-time coach prefers to look at it from a different perspective, one rooted in family and his own unique values. After a layoff that was rife with controversy, Babcock is working again, doing what he does best. But as he writes this newest chapter, he’s also defiant about the past and more than willing to push back on public perception.

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Babcock in the communal coaches office at U. of S. (Carey Shaw/Sportsnet)

T
he rhythm is hammered out in perfect unison. Tap. Rest. Tap-tap. Rest. Tap-tap-tap. Rest, repeat. Huskies players are spread out around the boards smacking their sticks on the ice. As the taps gather speed, Babcock’s son, Michael Babcock III, skates around half the rink, with a puck in each hand. He waves his arms slowly as if he’s conducting a symphony. When he arrives at centre ice, the players close in on him. Michael — who has blonde hair and his father’s strong, square jawline — takes a bow, drops the two pucks and then skates off as the Huskies go about shooting around prior to the official start of practice.

Put simply, Michael is the sole reason his father is here coaching the Huskies.

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Late last December, Dave Hardy, then-Huskies chief athletics officer, reached out to Babcock about the opening created when Dave Adolph decided to step down after 28 years at the helm of the university’s men’s hockey team. It was a complete shot in the dark, but Hardy — who was the basketball coach at Babcock’s high school — figured their longstanding relationship could at least help his cause. After they spoke, Babcock told his wife and three kids about the possibility in the days leading up to Christmas. The family was together at their home in Michigan and, while drinking some wine before dinner, they shared a laugh at the idea of Mike Babcock coaching a university hockey team. It was his wife, Maureen, who first started to take the idea seriously. Her parents, who are 90 and 88, reside in Saskatchewan and if Babcock took the job, they could be surrounded by family. True, Babcock acknowledged, but if they wanted to be closer to everyone, they could simply a rent a house in the area. He wasn’t convinced a job needed to come into the picture.

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“We have a lake home in Michigan — that’s where our home is. But this is like, Old Home.”
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After the holidays, Michael went back to Boston, where he worked for a company that sells data on electrical and mechanical components. He began mulling what life could look like if his father returned to Saskatoon. “My sisters joked around like, ‘Oh, you should go with him. It’ll be fun,’” Michael says. “And so, I thought about it more and more. I thought it would be the coolest thing that him and I could share.”

His father visited three weeks later, and by that time Michael had solidified his plan. The two went skiing in New Hampshire and as they sat on the chairlift, the 26-year-old told his dad that he wanted to quit his job and go back to school. If Babcock took the head coaching gig at U. of S., then Michael could do a 12-month general MBA there while working with his father as an assistant on the coaching staff. “I said, ‘You serious about this?’” recalls Babcock. “He said, ‘Yeah, I’ll go there and take my MBA, you coach the team.’ So that’s why I’m here.”

Michael played NCAA hockey for four years before spending the 2019–20 campaign in a professional league in France. He didn’t have any prior coaching experience beyond working in hockey camps or as a power-skating instructor. But he’s always been around the game and was up for a new experience. “I never thought one time that I’d have an opportunity to coach with my dad,” he says. “So, for me, the opportunity to do that just seemed too good to pass up. I also thought there’s a chance to further my education, which was really important to me.”

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He notes that being around his maternal grandparents was also a draw. He visited Saskatchewan every summer until he was 20, but now he can spend extended time with the large number of family members who still reside in the province. His father has been enjoying that element to life here, too. Babcock and Maureen live two blocks away from his sisters, and family gatherings are now a regular part of life.

“The other night my wife and daughter were in town,” says Babcock. “Next thing you know, I got two sisters, their husbands, their daughter, her husband, two grandchildren [coming over]. We’re having a barbecue. I went to my nephew’s football game the other day.

“It’s just a totally different experience than we’ve had,” he adds. “Because we’ve never lived at home. We’ve only stayed at home in the summer. … We have a lake home in Michigan — that’s where our home is. But this is like, old home. My best buddy dropped by last night for beer. It’s just different.”

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Huskies players participate in an intra-squad exhibition game (Carey Shaw/Sportsnet)

B
abcock leans back in his chair and offers a smile. “I don’t have an office yet,” he quips. His workstation at Merlis Belcher Place is situated in a communal coaches’ room used by the whole staff. There’s not much in the way of creature comforts, other than the box of Tetley tea and the microwave it sits on. Babcock is seated at one end of the room with a MacBook in front of him. Is he good with technology? “You have to be,” he says. “You don’t have 15 people working for you like you do with the big team.”

Gordie Ballhorn, a fourth-year defenceman on the Huskies, says that players were nervous during the first couple skates under Babcock. “You could see maybe some of the guys were gripping their sticks a little too tight and didn’t want to make mistakes,” Ballhorn says. “But once we were able to kind of get by that and everyone took a breath, they realized he’s a coach and he’s here to help us. Then, it was good for everybody.”

Watching Babcock with his players, you see a different side than the hard-driving, almost militaristic, leader he’s viewed as in some corners of the hockey world. Here, when they’re not on the ice, he jokes around with his players, laughing about the differences between Toronto and Saskatoon and getting their opinions on restaurants in the downtown core. The vibe seems like a happy medium between loose and workmanlike.

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A unique aspect of Babcock’s coaching, according to Ballhorn, is that he can draw on his experience with NHL superstars and relate that to what he sees from Huskies players. The coach will frequently tell Ballhorn, a defenceman, ‘This is how Morgan Rielly executed on the Maple Leafs,’ or ‘This is what Duncan Keith did on the Canadian Olympic team.’ Babcock also leans on his contacts across the NHL to send him videos of pro players executing skills such as faceoffs or forechecks. Just the other day he showed the Huskies footage of Chris Kreider, Brayden Point and Anthony Cirelli to demonstrate such teachings. “It’s cool to have him be able to relate things from some of the best players in the world to your practice, where you think, Hey, I never would have thought of that,” says Ballhorn. “It’s coming from someone who has a different vision of the game and who’s been at the highest level.”

Adds Derek Hulak, a first-year assistant coach, about Babcock’s willingness to impart instruction: “He almost can’t shut it off. It’s all the time. He’s helping and teaching us coaches, he’s helping and teaching the players.”

Brandin Cote is the associate coach under Babcock, selected earlier this year from a group of 127 candidates. The plan is to have Cote, who played for Babcock with the WHL’s Spokane Chiefs from 1997 to 2000, learn from the NHL vet and then assume head coaching responsibilities when he leaves. Along with the certain knowledge he’ll never beat the veteran coach to the arena in the morning — Babcock rides his bike every day and claims he can arrive before Michael, who makes the trip by truck, if they leave at the same time — Cote has some familiarity with Babcock’s exactisms. “If you listen to him talk, he doesn’t want to be long-winded,” Cote says. “He wants to get to the point, tell you what you need. ‘Okay, good.’ Move on. And that’s really how he’s been ever since I’ve known him.”

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Practices under Babcock are fast, intense and purposeful. “At the start, our guys weren’t used to that and it was almost chaotic out there because they weren’t used to having that sort of efficiency with the practice,” says Cote. “Now you can see guys starting to get the idea of the rhythm and the routine that we want to have and how he runs it. And you can see our practice is getting more efficient and crisper as well.”

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Babcock, for his part, is not in new territory as leader of a post-secondary school team — he coached at Red Deer College and the University of Lethbridge in the late ’80s and early ’90s. He says he understands the mentality of these players and the challenges that come with being a student-athlete. He admits he hasn’t had to think about minutiae like booking team meals or fundraising in decades, but says he’s adjusting. His goal for the season is simple: “Have as much fun as I can [and] enjoy my son and my family,” says Babcock, sitting up in his office chair. “My job is to get Brandin Cote, Derek Hulak and Mike Babcock [III] up and running. That’s my job. So, to have as much fun as we can with these guys and do the best we can. But the impact on Saskatchewan hockey is going to be more so from these coaches in a 10-year run than it is from me.”

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Babcock keeps an eye on things during a late-September exhibition (Carey Shaw/Sportsnet)

N
ews of head coach Sheldon Keefe’s fresh two-year extension with the Maple Leafs is only about five minutes old when Babcock skates onto the ice for another day’s practice. He heads straight to one of the nets to retrieve some of the pucks that his players have launched during their warm-up. Watching from the stands, it’s hard not to compare his current situation to that of Keefe, the man who replaced him after he was fired by the Maple Leafs in November of 2019.

It wasn’t long after Babcock’s departure that reports emerged asserting the coach had asked Maple Leafs forward Mitch Marner, then a rookie, to rank the work ethic of his teammates. According to the Toronto Sun, which first published the story, after his request was fulfilled, Babcock shared the list with the players who’d ended up at the bottom.

That story was soon followed by allegations from Johan Franzen, a forward Babcock coached for 10 years with the Detroit Red Wings. Former Red Wings defenceman Chris Chelios had revealed on an episode of the podcast Spittin’ Chiclets that Babcock “verbally assaulted” Franzen during a playoff series against Nashville. Franzen confirmed that to Swedish newspaper Expressen, adding that he felt Babcock was “a terrible person, the worst I have ever met. He’s a bully who was attacking people. It could be a cleaner at the arena in Detroit or anybody. He would lay into people without any reason.” Franzen, who retired in 2015 because of post-concussion syndrome, lauded Babcock’s attention to detail and preparedness as a coach, but said he “makes his players very anxious, they are scared to death of making mistakes.”

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“If I’ve done something wrong, I have to own that.”

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After his firing, Babcock spent some time away from the sport before joining the University of Vermont on a volunteer basis to advise its coaching staff. He also worked as a studio analyst for NBC Sports and was reportedly in the running for the head coaching job with the Washington Capitals that ended up going to Peter Laviolette.

Babcock’s time with the Huskies marks his return to the ice and before he took the position, he called Larry Tanenbaum, chairman of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, to get permission. (The Maple Leafs owe Babcock $5.875 million per season until June 30, 2023.) He is committed to the University of Saskatchewan until the end of March. What comes after that, from a hockey perspective, is unclear to him.

“I don’t know. Do I take phone calls from people? Sure,” says Babcock, who wouldn’t disclose who those calls are from. “But this is what I’m doing. So, when I took phone calls this spring, I had made a commitment. This is what I’m doing.… I’m here till March.”

When asked if he wants another job in the NHL, Babcock says it would have to be the right fit with the general manager he’d be working under. “I think it’s important for every general manager to have his coach,” he says. “All the general managers I worked with over the years are lifelong friends. I’ve only got one situation that didn’t work that way. In saying all that, it worked spectacular for me. Got [to Toronto], we ended up getting Auston Matthews. We improved the franchise drastically. [But] there wasn’t a fit for myself and the new general manager,” he adds, referring to current Maple Leafs executive Kyle Dubas. “Move on. That’s it. But you want to work for people that want you to work for [them].”

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The subject of his former workplace prompts Babcock to think more broadly about the past. He has publicly stated his side of the Marner and Franzen incidents multiple times, but brings up both, and doesn’t hesitate to share his thoughts again nearly two years later. Of the criticisms levelled against him in their wake, he says that “some of this stuff doesn’t add up” and contends that if he were unfit to be a head coach, he wouldn’t have managed to hold down a position in Detroit for 10 seasons or been hired to coach Olympic and World Cup squads.

He’s asked to clarify what it is that doesn’t add up. “The reality is, after the fact, especially in today’s social media world, you can say whatever you want,” he begins. “It’s not my job to go out and say, ‘No, that didn’t happen.’”

He then says the Marner incident didn’t happen in the way it’s been portrayed. “That’s a complete farce the way it’s talked about and the way it happened. It didn’t happen like that,” he says. “I asked the kid to do something. He did it. The next player came in … So did I ever try to put Mitch Marner in a tough place? Mitch Marner played great for Mike Babcock.”

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Babcock says he feels bad about the way Franzen remembers him, but the long-time Detroit forward’s words don’t seem to weigh too heavily on him given their gravity. “If I’ve done something wrong, I have to own that,” he says. “But I’m good with my life. I’m good with my moral fiber. I’m good with my family.”

When asked what he’s learned over the past two years, whether he has any takeaways from that period, Babcock says “sure,” before reemphasizing his previous point: “It’s real simple for me. Anything in my life that I’ve done that I should be feeling bad about and I should apologize for, I’m good with that. I have to own it and I should do that. But some of the math doesn’t add up. It just doesn’t.”

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Does he ever think about legacy and wonder how all this contributes to his?

“Yes, I guess I would have to say this: I’m real proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish and what I’ve done, the impact I’ve had,” he says. “The impact I’ve had on the coach’s association. All the guys that coached with me went on and became head coaches in the NHL. All the guys I’ve helped along the way. All the players I’ve helped. I’m proud of that. Won at every level and really tried to help other coaches along the way. In the end, people are going to say what they want to say, but the facts are the facts. Yeah, I’m comfortable with that. So, I turn this around to you and ask you this. If someone says you did this and you didn’t do it, did you do it?”

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Assistant coach Michael Babcock III, his father’s sole reason for coaching the Huskies (Carey Shaw/Sportsnet)

M
ichael doesn’t quite know yet if he wants to pursue a career in coaching. His life right now is a balancing act between immersing himself in a hockey team and working toward his degree — he often spends mornings digging into his coaching work, then afternoons at the rink, before rushing off to evening classes and completing assignments after that. The grind will certainly get tougher for him as the season wears on but what’s certain is both undertakings should open doors for him in the future.

Through their first four games of the season, Babcock’s Huskies are TKRECORD. During that run and the pre-season work that led up to it, Michael has been able to truly see his father in his element for the first time. He says he’s been surprised by Babcock’s ability to soak up as much information as possible amidst the speed of the game. “His way to see something happen, figure out what’s going on, figure out how we can fix it and how we can use that to our advantage, especially on the bench, has been something that I think a lot of people who, until you would do it, would take for granted,” says Michael.

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Babcock doesn’t try to be what he calls an “advice monger” to his children. In Michael’s case, he says the ball is in his son’s court. He will be there to offer what wisdom he can, but any decision his son makes in hockey, school or life will be entirely his own.

If this ends up being the last stop in Babcock’s career in hockey, he says he’s okay with that. The chance to work with his son in his hometown is something he views as precious. “I’ve always planned on retiring at 60,” he says. “I’d have to work fast. You know, if you go back to the NHL, you’re going back for five years.”

Asked about his level of pride in his son, Babcock considers a picture that’s bigger than just hockey. “This is what the measure for my wife and I is: The impact our kids have on society. So, when someone sits down one day and says, ‘What matters to you?’ I’m not going to say the Stanley Cup or Olympic gold medals. I’m going to say my kids. And maybe one day their successful marriages and their grandkids and all those. That’s what matters to me. That’s the measure of me as a man, not this other stuff.”

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Photo Credits

Carey Shaw/Sportsnet (5)

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Big Reads

Meet the Texas non-profit developing a new game plan for growing hockey – Sportsnet.ca

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THE STICKS, THE ACCESS, THE FUTURE

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Photography by Josh Huskin
THE STICKS, THE ACCESS, THE FUTURE
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With hockey holding on by a thread in south Texas, RGV Roller is fighting to reignite interest in the sport and offering a blueprint for how to grow the game
Photography by Josh Huskin

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J
uan Pablo Lopez has made this journey south from Progreso so many times, he’s got it colour-coded by month. Hit the eight-mile shot down to the Mexican border in September and the fields bordering Highway 281 glow white in the heat of the Texas morning, miles of cotton like freshly fallen snow floating above the sun-baked leaves. In October or November, it’s the deep red of the sorghum that crowds the asphalt on both sides, and by April, the corn crops’ neatly lined bands of green run alongside you. It’s the latter flying past the windows of Lopez’s old Volvo wagon now as he approaches the Donna-Rio Bravo International Bridge.

Arriving at the border, the calm of open fields and blue skies is interrupted by silver gates, barbed wire, orange pylons and weighty barriers, funnelling traffic toward cameras and floodlights — the familiar paraphernalia of American displays of power. But when Lopez pulls up to the agent waiting for him at the window, the conversation is less formal than the mess of concrete might suggest. Staring with undisguised curiosity at the mass of gear stuffed into the back of Lopez’s car, the agent simply cracks a smile: “Really?”

On past journeys, coworkers have been called over with a laugh, Lopez’s frequent crossings an inside joke among the border agents. Some have even asked if they can join him after first catching sight of the gear.

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Eventually, the wagon lurches off American pavement and into Tamaulipas, the Mexican state lying south of Texas along the Gulf Coast, Lopez crossing from one half of the Rio Grande Valley into the other. From the border, it’s another seven miles to his final destination in Rio Bravo. On the way, he stops at his mother’s house, these trips his only opportunity to visit. She insists he eat before he leaves, as she always does, hoping to fortify her son before an afternoon in the oppressive heat. But Lopez’s anticipation outweighs his hunger, and soon he’s on the road again.

After winding through Rio Bravo’s bustling streets, he finally parks the wagon and steps out with butterflies in his stomach. He retrieves his gear from the trunk, and pauses for a moment, just to take in the sight of it. There, nestled amid a crown of lush green trees, encased in an oval of sky-blue concrete that delineates where town ends and oasis begins: a hockey rink.

Laying his gear down at the rink’s edge, Lopez crosses over the faceoff circle and climbs up into the grandstand to look out over the concrete paradise. It’s hardly his first viewing. The 42-year-old has been coming here nearly every weekend for more than two decades, since back when it was first opened as a futsal park and he and his friends quickly sealed its fate by covering the goals at each end and dropping hockey nets in their place. Even then, his love for the game was already well-established. As a teenager Lopez was so addicted his mother once followed him around town because she refused to believe the reason her son was coming home late every night was because he’d devoted himself to this strange sport. She relented after finding him roller-skating by himself, wiring pucks into a net at 11 p.m.

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“How do we get people like me, who grew up in a poor community, people in colonias, those communities who have been harder hit, to get involved in the sport?”

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He’s doing the same this afternoon as the usual cast of characters filters in for game time and sets up by the boards. Soon after, the puck finally drops, and in that moment, it’s all worth it. So deep is Lopez’s love of hockey, the weekly 30-mile journey across the border to Rio Bravo is a small price to pay for these games — for the chance to show off his silky hands; the chance to set up behind the net, flip the puck onto his blade and hit netminder Javier with his own iteration of The Michigan Goal.

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Hidden away in Tamaulipas, a small but dedicated hockey community has been hitting the pavement for games like this for years. And on the other side of the Valley, Lopez and fellow hockey lover Nathaniel Mata are hoping to tap into the same model that nurtured that passion, to build upon what Mexico already has and help the game flourish across the border, as well. But after seeing once-loved teams leave town, after seeing the area’s only ice rink shut down by the pandemic, hockey is hanging on by a thread in south Texas. Now, Lopez, Mata and their non-profit, RGV Roller, have aligned to reignite interest in the sport, fight for its place in the Valley, and offer the hockey world a blueprint for how to grow the game even in the unlikeliest of locales.

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Juan Pablo Lopez has been a fixture in the Valley’s hockey scene — on both sides of the border — for most of his life (Josh Huskin/Sportsnet)

T
hough Nathaniel Mata’s love for the game flourished in the Valley, he was first introduced to hockey in California. Born in San Jose a few years after the excitement of the Sharks’ arrival in the Bay Area, Mata got one glorious year enrolled in ice hockey as a five-year-old, after his parents came across sign-up sheets at the mall and decided to take the plunge. But the cost quickly proved too great for his family to justify, despite young Mata’s already-blooming affinity for the sport. “I wasn’t an only child anymore, I had a couple of siblings, so it was just a little too pricey for my parents,” he says. “I think that’s a story that a lot of people might not realize is pretty common, parents not being able to let their kids continue a sport that can cost so much money.” He switched to basketball, baseball and other less expensive sports, wishing for another shot on the ice that never came.

A few years later, the family relocated to the Valley’s McAllen, Texas, and the dream seemed to fly completely out the window. While the state boasted its own NHL club at that point, the bright lights of the Dallas Stars’ American Airlines Center faded long before they reached Mata’s hometown seven-and-a-half hours south. He eventually found one brief glimmer of hope, stumbling upon a beautiful, city-owned outdoor roller rink, complete with stands and a pavilion roof to blunt the Texas heat. But the opportunity to play didn’t extend much further than the presence of brick and mortar. “There was one point that the city said, ‘Okay, we’re going to have [a program where] kids learn to play hockey,’ and I signed up,” Mata says, remembering his 10-year-old self’s excitement. “I went, and nobody was there. The city didn’t show up, there was no coach. My mom took me. I was so heartbroken.”

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It was the sting of that disappointment, and a couple decades of struggle to keep up his fandom in his mostly hockey-less corner of Texas, that spurred Mata — RGV Roller’s president — to put the organization’s wheels into motion in September 2019. By that point, he’d found his way back to the game. After years of trying to nudge neighbours into giving the sport a try, Mata eventually came across Lopez and his fellow Tamaulipas expats playing at that same McAllen rink. He went out, bought some roller skates, and decided to dive in. It wasn’t quite the on-ice dream he’d once had in California — it was something different, and it was glorious. But even with his own desire to play finally satisfied, Mata couldn’t shake the need to ensure other kids in south Texas didn’t have to endure a similar years-long wait just to find a game.

He saw only one solution. “The way to grow the sport is with youth and it’s with kids and it’s with making the sport affordable,” Mata says. So, he went to work plotting out his vision for a Valley hockey youth movement. He brought together those on the scene who also seemed to see the importance of involving the next generation, assembling a board that reflected both sides of the Valley’s hockey experience. “I think I come with an interesting perspective to RGV Roller, because a couple of the people on our board are people that have played hockey a lot of their life, and I’m someone who has loved hockey my entire life, but I didn’t really get to play,” he says. “I pour my heart and soul into this, because I feel like I was deprived of this great sport for so long.”

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Jacqueline Arias joined the budding project as a board member soon after. She and Mata had met while working for their university paper, often sitting in the stands of the McAllen rink in those days talking about how they wished hockey had a greater presence in their town. Arias brought with her the perspective of someone who had grown up with even less of a connection to the sport, its total absence from her younger days fostering a deeper understanding of the barriers RGV Roller would need to navigate. “I grew up in Donna, Texas, and it’s a pretty poor community,” Arias says. “For us, it’s pretty hard to get access to pretty expensive sports. It’s not really in our high schools or anything like that. So, for me, it’s, how do we get people like me, who grew up in a poor community, people in colonias, those communities who have been harder hit, to get involved in the sport? How do we provide that avenue?”

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The first step was simply access. In January 2020, RGV Roller officially announced itself to the south Texas community with a cookout and a free session at that rink in McAllen. Sticks were available for kids to pick up and try out, to get a tangible feel for what the sport’s all about. Looking back on his own introduction to the game, and at Arias’s, Mata felt putting sticks in hands was key. “If you experience [hockey], it’s so much different than if you just watch it,” he says. “You’re doing something that’s foreign — it’s not just dribbling a basketball, it’s not just swinging a bat. If you’re Canadian, maybe it feels like it’s a part of your DNA, but I mean, for me, it was really different. And I think for a lot of people down here, it still is different. But it’s so much fun.”

The first few months of 2020 saw early signs of life. That January event drew a crowd of 50, more than they’d expected for their low-key debut. Momentum continued to pick up at a second event the next month, young parents from the area flocking to the rink, eager to find out when they’d be able to sign their kids up. “We had a really good community turnout, just parents on Facebook finding our event, that never knew about hockey either,” Arias remembers. “And their kids loved it.”

Joe Haske, who’s played with Lopez for years since moving to the Valley from Michigan, remembers feeling the community’s attention shift. “We were playing on some of the basketball courts when we couldn’t play anywhere else, and a lot of kids would stop and watch us,” he says. “They’d take their parents over and wanted to see us playing. Their parents would ask how they could get their kids involved. They wanted to get to the rink and play.”

“That was right before the pandemic hit,” says Arias. “We really thought we were so close. 2020 was supposed to be the year that we kicked off everything. We were hoping to do summer camps for kids. [Lopez] is a teacher and a coach, so we were ready to start those big camps. But, yeah, the pandemic.”

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“Hockey doesn’t only exist in the NHL,” says Nathaniel Mata, “and it doesn’t even exist only on ice” (Josh Huskin/Sportsnet)

T
he roots of RGV Roller’s fight to grow the game on the American side of the Valley start across the Rio Grande, 35 miles west of McAllen, in Diaz Ordaz. The border town is tiny — one long road runs its length, with a handful of smaller ones branching off only about a mile in each direction — but ask anyone who knows their way around the Mexican hockey scene, and they’ll tell you of the legacy of that hidden gem. For years, players from across the Valley could head to the very end of that main road and find a rink there at the town’s edge. And in that rink, more often than not, they’d find The Doctor, one of the country’s greatest hockey coaches, who built one of the country’s greatest hockey programs. The Rio Bravo clan, the McAllen effort, RGV Roller — it all traces back to the end of that road in Diaz Ordaz, to The Doctor.

It was late 1992 when the seed was first planted in Diaz Ordaz. Dr. Juan Carlos Hernandez and his son, Miguel, found themselves hooked by a silver-screen classic called The Mighty Ducks. A source of lovable nostalgia in Canada, the film’s impact on hockey in the Valley was more profound, sparking a wave of kids running around with brooms imitating slap shots and slow-motion dekes. For Miguel and his cousins, a greater love for the sport bloomed when The Doctor replaced those brooms with sticks and roller skates, and started coaching the kids in his backyard. An hour away, in Rio Bravo, Lopez and his childhood friends had begun taking to a basketball court at a local church, trying to figure out the sport for themselves, too.

That early interest grew slowly and steadily in both towns for a few years, until Lopez heard word of what was going on in Diaz Ordaz from his father, who worked at a local hospital with The Doctor. In 1996, Lopez — by then a hockey-obsessed teenager — started travelling to Diaz Ordaz with his friends every weekend, taking a bus to go visit The Doctor and his growing crop of young players. The visits opened up a whole new world for Lopez and his band of Rio Bravo puck lovers. It expanded their community and granted them the experience of playing for a coach just like in the film — a Gordon Bombay for these young Charlie Conways. The uptick in players only meant more hours poured in by The Doctor, who eventually moved his coaching from the backyard to a nearby basketball court, and then to a local futsal facility.

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“All you’ve got to do is drive down that main road and you’re going to get to the rink. And it doesn’t matter what time of day it is, who you’re with, or if you reserved a spot. You can just play hockey.”

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As it turned out, enough kids in enough towns throughout Mexico had picked up roller hockey in the years since The Mighty Ducks’ arrival that in ’96, a tournament was launched, bringing together teams from every state. It was there that The Doctor’s squad became the stuff of local legend. In the second year of the tournament, the Diaz Ordaz crew entered representing Tamaulipas. They wound up claiming a gold medal, starting a run that saw Tamaulipas finish as the country’s best for more than a decade straight. So dominant was the team from that tiny border town that Diaz Ordaz was selected as the site of the country’s first proper roller hockey rink, built at the end of that main road in the late ’90s.

Ask Lopez or any others on that Tamaulipas team what it was that allowed them to put together their sterling run, and the answer is always the same: The Doctor. “He might’ve not been the biggest expert in hockey but he was a very good leader,” explains Bruno Arjona, who was part of the next wave of kids to train with The Doctor, his first trip to the Diaz Ordaz rink in 2006, at age 11. “He tried to learn as much about hockey as possible, soak it in, and then in his own way, teach us what he learned.”

Unconventional as the method was, it allowed a small-town kid like Arjona access to big dreams. Weekends in Diaz Ordaz eventually turned into a trip to the AAU Junior Olympic Games, to represent Mexico. Soon after came two roller world championships, and then four Division III world junior championships with Mexico’s national ice hockey team. “I’ve worked with a lot of coaches during my years, and a lot of coaches … [who] have played some very high-level hockey and that definitely know hockey more than him,” Arjona says of The Doctor, “but he’s the best coach I’ve ever had.”

The legacy of that humble dream factory in Diaz Ordaz has been far-reaching. The Doctor’s program became a feeder for the Mexican national teams, granting others like Arjona the chance to travel the world and represent their country. It took Julian Ramirez, one of The Doctor’s nephews, a step further. A toddler waddling around when Lopez and Co. were learning the ropes, Ramirez became the first Mexican national invited to an NHL development camp when he later earned a brief spin with the Stars. The program didn’t just help the kids in Tamaulipas find a life in the game, though — it also instilled in many of them the desire to pay The Doctor’s work forward.

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Miguel eventually moved to Playa del Carmen and, inspired by his father’s efforts, started a hockey program of his own. Eduardo Grosso, another Diaz Ordaz alum, went on to help run a kids program in Mexico City that recently earned a partnership with the Los Angeles Kings. Meanwhile, Lopez and many of the others he grew up playing alongside in those early days, moved across the border into south Texas, hoping to one day find a way to spread the good word of the game on the American side of the Valley.

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For them, there was one key lesson to be learned from Diaz Ordaz. “In this little town, Diaz Ordaz, where we would train for the Tamaulipas team, the facilities are actually much nicer than the facilities we have here on [the American] side of the border. But most importantly, they’re open,” Arjona says. “It’s accessible to the public. All you’ve got to do is drive down that main road and you’re going to get to the rink. And it doesn’t matter what time of day it is, who you’re with, or if you reserved a spot. You can just play hockey.”

That accessibility was crucial for allowing natural, early interest in the game to grow into full-fledged obsession, says Lopez. It’s what allowed them to feel like they were part of the hockey world, even if they didn’t have an ice rink or thousands to spend to play. Looking at other sports that have managed to grow in communities hockey hasn’t yet reached, the value of creating such an environment becomes even clearer. It’s simple, yet all-important — for hockey to take hold in places where soccer or basketball or baseball reign supreme, it has to, at the very least, be as present and available. It has to be as easy as walking up to a field or a court with a ball and letting your imagination run wild.

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Jacqueline Arias met Mata while both were working at their university paper. In those days, they often spoke about their wish for hockey to have a greater presence in south Texas. (Josh Huskin/Sportsnet)

T
hough the Valley stretches across an international border, the region can’t be defined by either country. “It’s two cultures at once,” says Mata. “A lot of people speak Spanish, a lot of people have family in Mexico, they travel back and forth. … It’s really like two distinct cultures coming together to make another culture — the Valley culture. It’s Texas [and] it’s Mexico, all together.”

While fretting about the border has consumed the American news cycle for the past half-decade, that tension seems a world away for many in the Valley, says Mata, especially those who remember a time when families on either side felt even more connected than they do now. “Before the cartel wars in the late ’90s and 2000s got bad, it was very much [that] there wasn’t really a border,” says Arias, who’s lived in the Valley her whole life, on both sides of the Rio Grande. “The culture and community was: your family lives on one side of the river and your family lives on the other side, and you say hi to them every morning. Our cultures are very much intertwined.”

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For the hockey lovers on the American side of the Valley, though, those deep bonds haven’t resulted in the embrace of the game they’ve seen in northern Mexico. For them, the sport’s growth has been far more strained. Craig Lewis has been there from the very beginning, the Peterborough native having arrived in south Texas in ’79. Back then, the hockey scene in the McAllen area was nonexistent. “I still remember watching the 1980 Olympics and nobody down here understood the magnitude of the U.S. beating Russia,” he remembers with a laugh. “I had no one to share that with.”

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He tried to spark some interest himself. By the early ’90s, he was organizing pick-up games, coaching his two boys and a few other kids in the area who tagged along until more quintessentially Texan sports pulled them away. But the efforts gained little momentum among those who weren’t already familiar with hockey, having played elsewhere.

Even the presence of a bona fide pro team did little to bring about lasting growth. The Central Hockey League’s Rio Grande Valley Killer Bees arrived in south Texas in 2003, filling a 6,500-seat arena regularly for a few years before fizzling out after nine seasons. A junior-A team of the same name sprouted up a year later, only to fold after a pair of seasons. A third iteration of the Killer Bees, another junior team, gave it a try a few years after that. It failed the same year it was founded.

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The hits for the hockey community in south Texas just kept coming. In 2005, that outdoor rink in McAllen was built, Lewis having pushed for its approval for years. But the city opted to keep it under lock and key for paid rentals, despite Lewis’s repeated protests, limiting its use to those willing and able to pay to play. More recently, a warehouse in the area was converted to an ice rink, becoming a regular spot for the expats. It was permanently shuttered in March, days before Lopez and Co.’s rec league championship final, the pandemic rendering it too costly to keep afloat.

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“I think you grow hockey by giving hockey, not by telling hockey people, ‘Hey, you should accept new people.’”

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But even after all the starts and stops, the Valley’s hockey lovers refuse to give up. And in RGV Roller, Mata hopes he’s found the key to finally unlocking the region’s passion for the sport — not by mounting a grandiose plan to bring another pro team to south Texas or get a sprawling ice rink built in McAllen, but by implementing the simple, organic approach that allowed the game to take hold in Diaz Ordaz. “I think you grow hockey by giving hockey,” Mata says, “not by telling hockey people, ‘Hey, you should accept new people.’ I think new people just need to make their own path, and that [starts] by giving them the gift of hockey.” So, that’s what they’ve tried to do.

Their efforts resumed in the early months of 2021, a year after RGV Roller took its first steps, when Texas reopened. While Mata and his team were wary of the loosening restrictions, it did mean they could begin rekindling the fire they’d sparked 12 months prior. They soon found it had never really gone out. They began holding open skates twice a month, 20 to 30 kids and their parents filling the rink each time to take a spin around, shoot some pucks, and begin falling in love with the sport. They launched an adult roller league, their first season enough of a success that plans have been made for a second season to fill the second half of the year. And as Mata, Lopez and the rest of the local veterans started hitting the McAllen rink for that inaugural campaign each week, a funny thing happened: the stands started to fill, locals coming out to watch what would be akin to a run-of-the-mill beer league elsewhere in the country. McAllen’s mayor took in a game, they had frontline workers drop pucks for ceremonial faceoffs, and they finished the year by handing out a comically large championship trophy in front of a cheering crowd.

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It’s come slowly, but the RGV Roller team has seen the impact of their focus on that grassroots approach. “We have this one little girl who hasn’t missed a single skate,” Mata says. “She went from just wearing the regular Rollerblades to a pair of hockey skates that she’s into now. She got a Mighty Ducks jersey.” Though the lingering pandemic has delayed their ability to dive headfirst into their lengthy list of plans — and prevented them from opening up the rink to full capacity — their next steps are plotted out: a slew of learn-to-skate and learn-to-play camps; an equipment bank to lend gear to kids who can’t afford it; a development league for new players, who can eventually move on to join Lopez and the other veterans; and an adopt-a-player program that will see each of those veterans mentor a younger member of the fledgling hockey community, coaching them and donating gear.

But while the seeds have been planted and the early returns suggest RGV Roller might just create something long-lasting in south Texas, Mata hasn’t lost sight of the bigger picture. “I see it almost as hockey’s last stand down here,” he says. “Because we had an ice rink, and we had a minor-league hockey team, that then turned into a junior hockey team, but those teams have left — years ago now. The ice rink closed. So, it kind of feels like we’re holding onto hockey by a thread, and I’m really trying to make sure there is a future for hockey here.”

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Even after all the pandemic-inflicted stops and starts, RGV Roller’s principals remain committed to their core mission and vision (Josh Huskin/Sportsnet)

F
or Lopez, Mata, and the rest of the Valley’s hockey lovers, the endgame is a south Texas community still enamoured with the sport decades down the line. It’s a vision wherein hockey not only survives on the American side of the Valley, but thrives. But their efforts also mean something for the sport as a whole.

Step back and take stock and hockey’s need for growth is clear. Reaching out and finding new fans, new players, new communities to be part of the game is more than a nice-to-have at this point, it’s a necessity. To slow the waning of participation numbers, make up ground on the other already-mammoth North American sports, and diversify a sport sorely in need of new perspectives, hockey needs to expand its borders. And doing that is going to take engaging and embracing places like the Valley, that brim with untapped talent and potential.

The bridge to those communities is the same one that allowed all those kids in Diaz Ordaz to fall in love with the sport back in the day, and that’s delivering promising early returns in McAllen today: an environment where the game is easily accessible. “Unless we give equipment to young players and to low-income families, they’re just going to go play soccer, or they’re just going to go play basketball. That’s something that I know from my family,” Mata says. “They wanted me to play sports, but they didn’t want me to take all of the money for three kids to play one sport, for one year. It just doesn’t work that way.”

Growth must also come from making that investment in new communities, Mata continues, “because, otherwise, it’s going to be the same communities producing players. I mean, we’ve seen Auston Matthews come out of Arizona. We’ve seen Matt Nieto come out of California. There’s no reason that even low-income communities in these states can’t produce hockey players. And it’ll only help hockey grow.”

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“We’ve got to spread this sport here. We’ve got to get our beautiful community of colour involved.”

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It’s not just the addresses of the rinks, though. It’s also about expanding what we think of as hockey, and who we think of as hockey players. It’s about showing communities of colour that they can be part of this game, too. “They might not think it’s for them, they might think, ‘Oh that’s an up-north sport, that’s a white sport’ … Yeah, if you turn on the TV, that’s how it looks. But hockey doesn’t only exist in the NHL, and it doesn’t even exist only on ice,” Mata says. “When I was a kid, I played a lot of street hockey, and it was definitely hockey to me, you know what I mean? It wasn’t kind of hockey, it was hockey.”

Those leading the big-picture efforts to grow the game also see value in focusing on roller hockey as a means of combatting the sport’s accessibility issues. “Those are all of the things that we have been speaking about — how do we make the sport more culturally available, more safe and welcoming in communities?” says Kim Davis, the NHL’s executive vice president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs. “We know that street and ball hockey and roller hockey are going to be some of the ways in which we can do that. … It’s low pressure, so you can dip your toe in the water to see if you like it. It starts as a low time commitment. It’s close to home, low travel. These are all of the perceived impediments, particularly for communities of colour, that hockey faces. And I think the idea of ball and street and roller hockey is a wonderful way to eliminate those impediments.”

What’s happened in the Valley — from RGV Roller all the way back to The Doctor and his Tamaulipas dream team — shows the potential of that approach. Of what can happen if space is made for newcomers. “It breaks down one of those myths about communities of colour, that because a community may be socio-economically disadvantaged, that they aren’t going to engage,” Davis says. “If you inspire a community and family to be part of something, and their kids are interested in it, they are going to find ways — through family collaboration, through communities working together — to provide the resources and to provide the access for the kids. And they’re going to consume the sport, so that builds fandom.”

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Maybe one day, down the line, the gap between the Valley and the big leagues won’t be so great. Maybe the wild chapters authored so far — from The Mighty Ducks miracle in Diaz Ordaz to the roller revolution in McAllen — are just the beginning of a story that ends with their own Hollywood-esque ascent. What’s the harm in dreaming big? “There’s so much talent down here, and maybe it’s not junior or NHL professional talent, but at the same time, who knows?” Mata says. “If the resources were here, if we had a bigger hockey infrastructure, I think the sky would be the limit. … If you put a street hockey rink on every few blocks, and then every couple of towns has a roller rink, and then every region has an ice rink, I think you would see the farm system created organically.”

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Lopez can see it, too. He need only look to how much things have already changed in the Valley since he was that kid shooting pucks into the night by himself to understand what could one day be possible. “We just grew up in a small community, [but] had we had the right focus, I believe more players would be trying out for the NHL from Mexico,” he says. If it seems unlikely, just look back at the sport’s roots, at other countries that once seemed unimaginable hockey hotbeds — until they weren’t. “Ten years from now, instead of looking across the ocean into Europe, and bringing players from Europe, we’re going to look to players from Mexico. Because 10 years from now, I believe it’s going to grow a lot,” Lopez says. “If the formula works over there in Canada, I don’t see why the formula wouldn’t work over here.”

But before they fully take on the loftier aspirations they have in mind — those visions of showing the hockey world that roller can be the key to growing the sport, to unlocking the potential in communities all over North America that have been underestimated and overlooked — RGV Roller has one central goal to focus on first: making sure the love of the game has room to bloom, flourish, and grow tall in the Valley.

“We’ve got to spread this sport here. We’ve got to get our beautiful community of colour involved,” says Arias. “Our area is really poor, the poorest in the state of Texas, across the entire U.S.-Mexico border. And that would be the dream, right? To get our community access to that. Because it’s something we’ve never had before.”

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Inside Conor Garland’s fearless and endearing approach to the game – Sportsnet.ca

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KILLER INSTINCT

KILLER INSTINCT
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Despite his natural gifts and standout numbers, Conor Garland was doubted at every stage on his path to the NHL. Now, as his Canucks begin to navigate their way out of the dark, the fiery winger is emerging as a leader by doing what he’s done his whole life

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O
nly two things occupy more space in Conor Garland’s mind than hockey: an undying dedication to all things Boston sports, and sharks.

It’s early October, and clad in his customary post-practice threads — a navy Adidas windbreaker and matching Vancouver Canucks cap, its green brim pulled low — Garland’s eyes light up when rumours of his obsession with the creatures are raised. “I love sharks,” he says, a wide smile breaking through his scruffy beard, escalating quickly into a chuckle. “I grew up on the ocean — I actually don’t swim in the ocean, because I know that they’re closer than people think. I don’t know, I just love sharks.”

Garland’s been a shark-head as long as he can remember, since he was a kid on the South Shore, an hour southeast of Boston, collecting them as stuffed animals before eventually graduating to figurines. Teammates from those younger days offer a knowing laugh when the subject’s broached, and lament the number of discussions they’ve had with Garland about his favourite film (Jaws, obviously). “He’s never seen a shark in person in his life, which is the funniest thing,” says Seattle Kraken winger Ryan Donato, who grew up down the street from Garland and remains a close friend. “I go fishing all the time and I invite him out with me, and he’s like too afraid to see a shark in real life. But he’s completely fascinated by them.”

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“He would just show me a picture [of a shark] and be like, ‘What kind?’ And listen, I can get it.”

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No one understands the depth of Garland’s marine love better than Cam Askew. A fellow Massachusetts native, he and Garland became best pals during their run as linemates for the QMJHL’s Moncton Wildcats. Sitting next to each other on the team bus for three years, Askew would routinely pull up photos of random sharks on his phone during daily rides, putting Garland’s knowledge to the test.

“He would just show me a picture and be like, ‘What kind?’ And listen, I can get it,” says Garland, beaming with pride. “Nine out of 10 times, I can get it — or, like, a relative of it.”

Watch Garland man the right wing for the Canucks, and the obsession makes a strange kind of sense. Whether during his time in the big leagues, his dominant run in junior hockey, or any of the teams he suited up for prior, one thing’s long been true of Garland’s game: he doesn’t float or meander. He doesn’t hesitate. He’s a shark in the water, fearless and intentional in his approach to the game — and in his faith in his abilities. “Conor’s a guy that sticks to his guns,” Donato says. “I mean, he liked sharks as a kid and he likes sharks as an adult. … Whatever he really feels or believes, he’s kind of stubborn in the way he thinks [about it], whether it’s watching one movie, Jaws, or opinions about anything. It’s just the way he is.”

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If not for that stubbornness translating into a steadfast belief in himself, Garland might’ve never made it to this point. Turned away by team after team in high school, told he was too small to play more times than he can count, buried on the fourth line when he finally began his pro career, he’s been doubted at every turn. Now, after clawing his way to the big leagues and fighting to become an everyday NHLer, Garland finds himself against the ropes again. His Canucks have dug themselves a deep hole, allowed the doubts to stockpile, their early struggles prompting ownership to clean house above them. But Garland’s been here before. And as his team begins to navigate its way out of the dark, the fiery winger is emerging as a leader by doing what he’s done his entire career.

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O
ne of the earliest memories Garland can recall is a hockey memory. He was five years old, back in his hometown of Scituate, Mass., when his dad, Garry, woke him up at five in the morning saying something about a surprise in the backyard. Making the sleepy trek outside, Garland came upon a frozen rink, painted with red and blue lines just like the ones he marvelled at on TV. Garry revealed a row of letters painted into the ice spelling out his son’s name, and at the centre of the sheet, the spoked ‘B’ of his favourite NHL club. Even with school a few hours away, there was no stopping a young Garland from grabbing his skates and going for a spin.

“I loved it right from the start,” he says of the sport. Moments like that one played a key role in why. “My dad played in the minors for a little bit. He played growing up and made it on his own … [so] he wanted to give me every opportunity to be successful, opportunities he wasn’t presented with.”

It didn’t take long before the impact of those opportunities started showing up on the ice. “Without sounding, you know, arrogant or bragging, when I was eight or nine I remember saying to my dad, ‘It’s weird, I’ve never not scored in a game. I’ve never played a game without scoring a goal,’” Garland says. “I remember him telling me, ‘Yeah, that’s not normal.’” But as quickly as Garland excelled past the other young skaters in his town in those early years, reality pulled him right back when he was around 12 years old. The kids he was going up against started coming back every season taller, sturdier, while Garland’s growth plateaued. “I was almost a foot smaller than some guys, and close to 80 pounds lighter. Then I struggled a lot,” he remembers. “But, you know, I think having that confidence … that belief, it got me through those years.”

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“I think having that rejection at a young age usually doesn’t happen for NHL players. But that was almost better for me, just to have it at a young age and then have a chip on my shoulder.”

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The further Garland travelled on the path toward his big-league dream, the more obstacles were dropped in his way. Leaving Massachusetts in 2010 for Shattuck-St. Mary’s, the famed Minnesota boarding school that helped mold NHL stars like Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon, 14-year-old Garland was passed over for the school’s top team, relegated to the Tier 2 squad. Before he had a chance to go back and vie for a top spot, he had to leave Shattuck altogether. “My mom got sick that summer,” he says. “She had Lyme disease and it led to a small stroke and Bell’s palsy, so she was sick for a couple of years. It was at the point where I couldn’t be cross country. I had to be home with my family.”

His mother, Bridget, thankfully recovered, he says, but back then, the situation was a lot to bear for a teenager far from home. And amid the turmoil of leaving school, heading back to Scituate, and worrying about his family, Garland had another wrinkle to sort out: he needed a team. “I came home and didn’t really have a place to play,” he says. And despite dominating his lone year at Shattuck to the tune of 65 goals and 116 points in 52 games, the Boston high-school circuit seemed uninterested in his talents. “I was asking teams to play. I tried to go to B.C. High [Boston College High School] and the coach didn’t think I could play there. And then at Thayer [Academy], Tony Amonte didn’t think I could play there.” Only one coach didn’t turn him away — Boston Junior Bruins bench boss Chris Masters. So that’s where Garland went. “I think having that rejection at a young age and having people to prove wrong at such a young age usually doesn’t happen for NHL players,” Garland says. “Usually they have it easy until they start to get to the pros and then they have a little bit of a struggle. But that was almost better for me, just to have it at a young age and then have a chip on my shoulder.”

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Masters didn’t need much convincing to toss a jersey Garland’s way. He’d had him on a summer team as a six-year-old, and knew what the young winger could do with the puck on his stick. More than just Garland’s raw skill back then, it was how he’d fared compared to the others on that summer squad that most impressed Masters, that team dotted with future superstars like Jack Eichel and William Nylander. Despite that lofty competition, Garland still managed to separate himself from the pack. “He was a standout on a team of standouts,” Masters says.

When the two reunited in 2011 for the Junior Bruins, it was much the same, even with Eichel returning to the squad as well. “He was a top player from the very first practice,” Masters says of Garland. “He was a great skater, [had] great speed, quickness, anticipation. He was really smart offensively, had a scorer’s touch, but also was really creative.” But there was something distinct that separated Garland from the other high-flying scorers in the area at the time. “He’s also a kid who has no fear,” says Masters. “He would go across the middle. He’d go to the net. He would go into corners. He wouldn’t take the long way to get to a corner or to a puck.” That was no small feat given how exaggerated the size discrepancy between Garland and his opponents was at that point. But he learned to bob and weave around that obstacle like he had all the others. “He was tough to track down,” says Masters. “He was small, and he was playing against kids who were 18, 19, in some cases 20. And he’s probably a pretty frustrating kid to play against — he can make you look silly. But you can’t hit what you can’t catch.”

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Gifted, driven and fueled by years of stockpiling doubts, Garland was already a handful. But on the Junior Bruins he found something he hadn’t in Minnesota, something that pushed him to an even higher level: the chance to skate alongside someone who could see the game as he could. “We made each other better,” he says of leading that team alongside future second-overall pick Eichel. “You could feel in practice — I wanted to show that I was the best; he wanted to show that he was the best. In games, he wanted to produce, I wanted to produce. … We just pushed each other. It was great to have somebody like that at such a young age.” Likely less enjoyable for the rest of the Empire Junior Hockey League — the pair led those Junior Bruins through the season easily, dropping only six of their 40 games, Garland pacing the team in goals, assists and penalty minutes.

There’s one particular game that stands out among the rest for Masters, one night that encapsulated who Garland was at that time. “It was a game at Bridgewater, which is down on the South Shore where he was from,” the coach says. “We were a top team in the league, the team we were playing was kind of middle of the pack. He wasn’t having his best game, taking some bad penalties, cheating it a little bit in the defensive zone.” So Masters turned to a tried-and-true coaching tactic — “I sat him for about 10 minutes.” Garland remembers it well, too. “When you’re that young and you get benched, you don’t pout but you’re just angry,” he says. “Back then, I probably didn’t understand it. So, I was just angry.” Chip on shoulder activated.

“After that 10 minutes,” Masters continues, “I said, ‘Hey, you understand why you got sat?’

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‘Yep.’

‘All right, let’s see if you’ve learned from it.’”

Garland hopped over the boards and the ice tilted. “In the third period, he scored a hat trick and we won the game by a goal,” Masters says with a laugh. “He had the right attitude, which was, ‘I understood it. I got it. Now I’m going to go out and do my thing.’ And he just took the game over.”

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T
he first time Conor and Garry Garland sat in the turquoise seats of the Moncton Coliseum, peering out at the lattice of blue beams hanging above the ice, they were enthralled by the sight. It was December 2012 and the younger Garland had made the tough decision to forego a scholarship offer from Penn State University to head into unknown territory in the QMJHL. And here, taking in the first Canadian arena he’d call home, the impact of the decision hit him.

“This is different,” Garry said to his son as the two gazed out over the ice. “This looks like the NHL.” Garland remembers agreeing then, and he does still. “It was special,” he says. “I mean, I was 16. I was so young and it felt like you were in the NHL at the time. You’re playing in a big market, you’re playing juniors, you’re wearing a half-shield, you’re playing with some [future] NHL guys. … They used to have a huge [inflatable] wildcat, and you’d skate out of that. Just doing that, I remember thinking, ‘This is the best thing ever.’”

By the midpoint of his second year in the Q, Garland felt he’d figured the league out. The game slowed down, the patterns became predictable. A broken wrist delayed his breakout, but the winger came back in Year 3 and piled up 129 points in 67 games, tying for the CHL scoring lead and earning QMJHL MVP honours.

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“He’s by far the most competitive player that I’ve ever coached. He just had ‘compete’ ingrained in his DNA.”

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It hadn’t taken long during that campaign for Garland’s teammates to realize it was going to be a special year. “I think we kind of knew a month into the season,” Askew says. “The first month, he was playing unreal — point-per-game, doing his thing. But our captain got injured … [Conor] got bumped up to play with [Ivan] Barbashev. And them two, they went off.” Something seemed to just click between Garland and the eventual St. Louis Blues centreman, their instant chemistry the step that lifted Garland’s game to a whole new level. “It was just something special every night. It was a hat trick, six points. I mean, just putting our team on his back, really,” Askew remembers. “He got that spot on the top line and never let it go.”

The next year, he did it again, putting up 128 points to become the only player other than Crosby to ever lead the CHL in scoring more than once. For those who were there to see it happen, the catalyst for Garland’s dominance is no mystery. “He’s by far the most competitive player that I’ve ever coached,” says Darren Rumble, who was behind the bench for both of those breakout seasons. “He just had ‘compete’ ingrained in his DNA.” Askew and fellow Massachusetts native Zach Malatesta formed a tight bond with Garland during their time in Moncton, the trio connecting over a shared love of their home state by meeting up to watch “Boston movies” — The Town and Good Will Hunting among their favourites. But they knew if a win was in Garland’s sights — whether it was a casual game of ping-pong, a pre-game sewer-ball session or a battle on the ice — that friendship went out the window. “He’d never want to lose. Whether it’s practice, summer skates or a playoff game, it didn’t matter,” says Malatesta. “He just never gives up. His work ethic and skill, that combination — I just knew he had something special.”

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When Garland finally moved on to the next level, though, he was viewed as anything but special. After being passed over in his first year of draft eligibility, the winger was finally tabbed with the 123rd-overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft by Arizona. Earning his first shot as a pro in 2016 with their AHL affiliate, the Tucson Roadrunners, he arrived in the desert only to find himself buried on the fourth line. Not the step up he’d imagined after putting together one of the most dominant two-year runs in junior hockey history. “It was surprising,” Garland says. “I remember the first game in the American League, I had like two shifts in the first period. I remember sitting on the bench like, ‘This stinks.’ Like, ‘This is not what I’m used to, I don’t know what’s going on.’ I remember I just didn’t play a lot, and it went on forever, obviously — I probably played three to five minutes a night.”

By this point, he’d been hearing the comments from naysayers for a decade. And sitting on that bench, so close to his dream but still so very far from it, he began to wonder if the doubters were right. “You know, after 30 games, you have four points, you’re starting to think, ‘Do I stink? What’s going on? Why can’t I score?’” he says. “You used to hear, ‘Oh, he’s not a pro player, just a junior.’ So then I’m like, ‘Maybe everybody else was right.’”

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A coaching change after his rookie year helped him stave off those doubts. In came Mike Van Ryn to lead the bench, the former NHLer shifting the Roadrunners’ approach to utilize what they had throughout their lineup. When it came to Garland, the new coach made clear Year 2 was going to be different. He and his staff were going to develop Garland, he told the winger, give him his confidence back. They were going to turn him into a pro. “And they did,” Garland says. “That second year is kind of where my career changed.”

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Slowly, the numbers started improving, bumping up in that second year and swelling the next, Garland scoring at more than a point-per-game pace by his third year in the AHL. That growth was the result of more than just a change in tactics or a spot on a new line.  “I just think having someone believe in you is everything, you know?” says Garland. “You’re lucky at that point to get people like that to help you. And I just remember once I got my confidence back and started playing the way they taught me, then I was all set.”

His progress during that third year in the minors led to another milestone moment in early December 2018, when Garland got the call to make his NHL debut, brought up to face (who else?) the Sharks.

It went terribly, by Garland’s own assessment, the weight of the moment limiting his impact. “I waited my whole life for it,” he says of that first game. “You think you overthink something happening in a week — I overthought that thing for 25 years.” Unimpressive as it might’ve been, though, the debut performance was enough to earn a second game. And when the club headed back to Boston for that next tilt, back to friends and family who could calm his nerves, Garland managed to show what he could do, earning a chance to stick with the big club. “We all knew he’d be fine — all he needed was his chance in the NHL and he wasn’t going back down,” says Askew, who was watching proudly from afar. “That was his shot. He wasn’t going to let it go.”

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“I mean, he scored a goal in Edmonton where there was a slapshot that went off his face into the net — and he scored another goal that game. He had cuts all over his face, and he’s interviewing with Hockey Night in Canada. I think that kind of took off, like, ‘Hey man, this guy’s not afraid.’”

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It took time for Garland to settle in with the Coyotes. In the beginning, he kept to himself, focusing on trying to navigate life in the NHL. But as the months wore on, the same magnetism that seemed to draw people in wherever he’d played began pulling the club’s veterans closer. “You just saw guys gravitate to him, you know?” says Rick Tocchet, the Coyotes’ head coach at the time. “[Clayton] Keller, [Jakob] Chychrun, Phil Kessel, they were together constantly. And he was kind of the ringleader there.” The veterans dined out on their new rookie’s obsession with Boston, conversations quickly turning into debates about Tom Brady, or the Red Sox, or the Celtics. But it was what Garland did on the ice that truly endeared him to his new team.

“I mean, he scored a goal in Edmonton where there was a slapshot that went off his face into the net — and he scored another goal that game,” says Tocchet. “You know, he had cuts all over his face, and he’s interviewing with Hockey Night in Canada. I think that kind of took off, like, ‘Hey man, this guy’s not afraid.’”

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After putting up 22 goals and 39 points in his first full NHL campaign, Garland followed up with another 39-point performance for the club last season, this time reaching the total in 19 fewer games. And much like everything else that’s come his way on the ice, it wasn’t just natural growth that brought that progress — it was Garland’s stubborn belief in his own potential, coupled with a willingness to invest the hours and sweat needed to reach it.

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Tocchet remembers one particular conversation with the winger when he saw those gears turning. “We were at centre ice at the start of the year, and I said to him, ‘You’re not an 18-minute player in my eyes,’” the coach recalls of the moment, back when Garland was averaging around 14 minutes a night. “He looked me in the eyes, and he challenged me — he goes, ‘Well, make me an 18-minute player. Coach me into an 18-minute player.’” So Tocchet hit him with some hard truths. “I said, ‘You’re going to hear some stuff that you might not like. You’ve got to be more structured, you’ve got to play better defensive hockey. I love the fact that you’re an instinctual player, but you’ve also got to be a system guy, too, when you need to be.’ That was one thing that he took to heart. He worked on his game, watched video, worked on that hard in practice.

“The one thing he does is the next day, he shows up and he’s raring to go again. Even if he had a bad night or he didn’t agree with a coach or he didn’t like his game, the next day, he punches the clock again.”

By the end of his final year in Arizona, Garland’s average ice time sat at 17:55.

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W
hether it was back in Boston as a kid, in the Q as a teenager, or as a pro in the desert, one thing’s always been true of Garland: when the lights get brighter, he gets better. “He’s the kind of person that lives for that spotlight,” says Malatesta. He and Askew got a front-row seat to that side of Garland’s game back in their Wildcats days, when The Garland Show tended to cause a ruckus with opposing crowds. “I mean, we played in some rinks that absolutely hated him. He just ate it up,” says Askew. “[He’d be] getting booed every time he touched the puck. You don’t boo a player who’s not a great player, who’s not special.”

Another wide smile breaks through Garland’s beard when he thinks back on those nights and the boos that rained down. “You know, you’re 18 and you think you know everything. I had 100 points a couple months into the season, so I was pretty confident in myself and my ability,” he says. “I used to get booed every time we’d play on the road — for me at that age, it was a lot of fun. I enjoyed that, and our team enjoyed it, and we played off it — we played really, really well on the road that year.

“Honestly, I was more excited for road games than the home games, because I knew I was getting booed, and it was almost an event for me.”

Coming off the thrill of those wild nights out east, Garland lost a bit of that joy when he moved on to the next level. Becoming an everyday NHLer was a dream come true, but on and off the ice, it was different. “Arizona was great, but it’s not a huge hockey market. They have great fans, but I remember a former player who said he never got recognized — and he was there, like, six years,” Garland says. “I didn’t get recognized really at all there. … I got recognized in Moncton way more than I did in Arizona.”

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On a Friday in late July, he was thrown back into the spotlight when news broke that he and longtime teammate Oliver Ekman-Larsson were traded from the Coyotes to the Canucks, the winger signing a five-year, $24.75-million deal with his new club soon after. It was a bittersweet turning of the page, leaving the only NHL organization he’d ever known, but the move brought back a taste of what he’d had the last time he played for a team north of the border, when he was lighting up the opposition every night: the chaos of a Canadian market, the chance to play for a city where his sport is the main attraction, to witness the passion of a buzzing Rogers Arena if enough wins were strung together.

In the early going this season, the chaos has far outweighed any buzz in the arena. While Garland emerged as one of the few Canucks who played well early on — ranking among the team’s top scorers and doing what he could each night to drag them into the fight — the losses continued to pile up until a coaching change eventually slowed the fall. But those who know him best know this is precisely the fight Garland’s built for.

“[It’s] obviously a pressure cooker there, but I think he embraces that. He wants that,” says Tocchet. “He wants to be on the ice, 2–2 game with six minutes left and the pressure on him to make something happen. … I think he wants to meet it head on. ‘Get me out there. Let me have the puck in these situations — if I don’t produce, it’s on me.’ I think that’s his attitude, and I think that’s the attitude that you have to have when you go into those markets.”

Bigger picture, beyond helping to pull the Canucks out of this current hole, Garland’s hope is that Vancouver sees him make good on the potential he’s long seen in himself. Because in his eyes, he hasn’t yet come close. “I wouldn’t say I’m a star or I’ve had too much success,” he says. “I’m only 25. You know, I follow a lot of hockey history and [have tracked] the trajectory of some smaller guys that are like me, when they hit their peaks and when they do their best. And it seems like at my age, you just start coming into your own. Hopefully that’s the same with me.”

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“It’s obviously a pressure cooker there, but I think he embraces that. He wants to be on the ice, 2–2 game with six minutes left and the pressure on him to make something happen.”

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His former coaches mention one name in particular when discussions of Garland turn to what the latter stages of his career could look like: Martin St. Louis.

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Rumble, Garland’s coach in Moncton, spent some time alongside St. Louis in Tampa Bay back in his own playing days, watching the winger emerge as a dominant force in his late 20s and early 30s. He sees, at the very least, a similar fire in both players. “Those guys have been told, ‘You can’t do it’ so many times in their life, they just have that ‘I’ll show you’ attitude,” he says.

Tocchet coached St. Louis for two of the Hall of Famer’s world-beating seasons with the Lightning. He saw firsthand what that attitude reaped. “I’m not going to put him in Marty St. Louis’ category right now, but Marty St. Louis, a small player with a huge heart that was just a dynamic player — a guy like that is someone that Conor can look towards,” Tocchet says. Though Garland’s a long way from St. Louis’ prolific scoring touch, it’s that fire, again, that connects them, says the coach: “Both were not afraid.”

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As for touching the rest of St. Louis’ legacy, it’s a lofty goal. But ask those who know Garland best, and they’d caution against heaping too much doubt on his name. Donato’s been there since Garland’s earliest days on the ice. He’s skated with him over countless summers, discussed the winding path to the NHL with him, faced off against him in the big leagues. He knows better than most the promise of Garland’s potential, and the mistake of questioning how far he can push himself. “Conor’s earned everything he’s got,” Donato says. “At every level, he produced. And even though he was producing, he would never get the respect. … Now in pro, he’s still producing and doing those things, and there’s still people that doubt him. But I think that’s what drives Conor.”

Whether you doubt him or believe, know that Conor Garland will come back, time and time again. He’ll keep pushing and clawing and battling, as he always has — it’s just the way he’s wired, says Tocchet. It’s that, above all else, that stands out to the coach when he thinks back on their time together in Arizona. That fire. “A lot of times I remember, the last couple years, he was in the middle of things, in a scrum. They’re punching him in the head, he’s sticking in there, he’s yelling at them — and then he’s right back the next shift, right in that same area again,” Tocchet says. “It’s tough to go back in that area again, with those big defencemen — who wants to get hit in the face again, right? But I think it shows the other team, man, this guy’s not going away, you know?

“He’s not going to go away.”

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Photo Credits

Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images; Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images; Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images; Christian Petersen/Getty Images.

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Why Canadians, and the Canadiens, have high hopes for Kaiden Guhle – Sportsnet.ca

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SPEED AND SIMPLICITY

SPEED AND SIMPLICITY
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A key piece of Canada’s world junior roster, quick yet steady defenceman Kaiden Guhle is blazing a path to the Habs lineup

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E
ven at a standstill, Kaiden Guhle is the kind of athlete you take notice of. His tall, sturdy frame certainly has a hand in that. He’s also got the kind of defined jawline fictional Premier League manager Ted Lasso would compare to the White Cliffs of Dover. There’s an unmistakable leader-of-men vibe about him, even if he’s still a young man himself. If his profile can make you snap to attention, the picture of him in full flight is lose-your-breath kind of stuff. Big guys aren’t supposed to be the fastest guys, too, but Guhle — especially when he can just pin his ears back and go — is a whiz of well-refined arm chugs and leg thrusts. Whether side to side or up and down, he gets where he needs to go in a hurry. Case in point: there was a clip of Guhle circulating on Twitter in early November, before he was dealt by the struggling Prince Albert Raiders to the powerhouse Edmonton Oil Kings. Typically, if someone calls attention to a defenceman’s work on social media, it tends to be for bombing home a slapper or a coast-to-coast dash. Guhle, however, managed to turn the unglamorous chore of backchecking into such a thing of beauty, people just had to share.

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The play started when one of Guhle’s Raiders teammates missed him with a drop pass just inside the Saskatoon Blades blue line. In a flash, the action was headed back toward the Prince Albert goal and when Blades left winger Egor Sidorov received the breakaway pass, his skates were crossing the Raiders blue line while Guhle was just passing over the centre-ice red. As Sidorov raced to chase down the puck that had caromed off his blade and into the Raiders end, Guhle just devoured the half-zone head start, like a predator chasing a less-fortunate link in the food chain. With the second period dwindling and the two players screaming toward the Prince Albert net, Guhle fully extended his stick and thwarted Sidorov’s attempt on Raiders stopper Carter Serhyenko. The puck wound up in the corner to the right of Serhyenko, while Sidorov and Guhle slammed into the end boards. Right at that moment, the horn blasted to signal the end of the frame, adding a sort of dramatic punctuation to the play. “You don’t find guys who are six-two, six-three and 200 pounds who can move like the wind,” says Raiders centre Ozzy Wiesblatt. “He’s extremely shifty, too. I think it’s super rare to find a guy like that, who can play all over the ice, jump up in the play with ease and get back even easier.”

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Precisely how rare a find Guhle winds up being for the Montreal Canadiens is something that will only become clear over years. The belief, though, is that this 19-year-old selected 16th overall at the 2020 NHL Draft by former general manager Marc Bergevin has a chance to be a long-term stabilizing element for an organization that has experienced endless upheaval since losing the Stanley Cup Final last July. That team’s defence corps was anchored by Shea Weber, whose ailing body may prevent him from ever taking another NHL shift. His absence has left the Canadiens rudderless at times this season, fumbling through the dark without their trusted guide. The kind of lynchpin Weber was for the Habs is certainly what Team Canada will expect from Guhle when he dons the red-and-white at the upcoming World Junior Championship for the second straight year. Camp wraps today and it would surprise nobody if Guhle is named team captain before the tournament starts on Boxing Day.

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The comparison game always comes with its perils, but Habs fans who want to run wild drawing lines between Weber and Guhle have their share of fodder. Beyond a similar on-ice approach and no-nonsense demeanor, they’re both western boys whose formative major junior time was spent being coached by a staff featuring head man Marc Habscheid and assistant Jeff . And hearing Habscheid talk about the heart-and-soul player he had in the Prince Albert fold for more than four years, one has to believe there are echoes of the way the coach may have described the Kelowna Rockets’ “Mountain Man” nearly 20 years ago. “He’s multi-dimensional,” Habscheid says of Guhle. “Very good man and good heart and incredible person. And once the puck drops, he’s playing to win. He gets his eyebrows down and he can be nasty.”

That figures to be wonderful news both for fans of Canadian hockey this holiday season and Canadiens backers dreaming of better days.

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W
hen two hockey-playing brothers like Kaiden and Brendan Guhle skate the way they can, it’s easy to assume the genesis of their stride lies with a similarly gifted parent. However, Kaiden notes his mom, Carrianne, only briefly flirted with recreational figure skating, and his dad, Mark, “can’t skate a lick.” Brendan, a 24-year-old defenceman with the American Hockey League’s San Diego Gulls, says the boys were kind of breaking ground simply by playing the game. “None of my family has ever really played hockey,” he says. “One of my older cousins was a goalie in the Western League for a few years, but that was about it.”

With a five-year difference between the siblings, a predictable dynamic played out as Kaiden  chased his brother around, nosing his way into games that were a couple weight divisions above his class. “We were obviously really competitive growing up, like most siblings are,” Kaiden says. “It was a lot of road hockey and I’d always be the one going in net, he’d always be scoring on me and I’d be getting mad at him.”

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Brendan was 16 years old when he left home to blaze a WHL trail with the same Prince Albert club Kaiden would eventually suit up for. At Christmas each year, he’d come home to the Edmonton suburb of Sherwood Park and catch a couple of his little brother’s games. As a 12- and 13-year-old, Kaiden was dominant; and the arrow kept pointing up. “From then on he just took off,” Brendan says.

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“That kind of just put a hunger inside of me that made me want to be that guy the team can rely on. Once you win once, you want to win over and over again.”
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The elder Guhle — a second-round pick of the Buffalo Sabres in 2015 who has 59 NHL games on his resume — was in the final year of his WHL career in the spring of 2017 when the Raiders — who were rebuilding and had traded Brendan to the Prince George Cougars — won the WHL Bantam Draft Lottery. “I remember getting off the ice and seeing that,” Brendan recalls. “I was pretty excited because I was about 99.9-per cent sure he was going to P.A.”

During that season, Kaiden — already a big kid — had worn the ‘C’ for his U-15 Okanagan Hockey Academy team and led the squad in scoring. As if that wasn’t enticing enough, the Raiders also had the added advantage of knowing Kaiden and his family from the times they came to see Brendan play. That made the choice a slam dunk. “His brother was just a prince of a man and really good player,” Habscheid says. “[The familiarity] helped both Kaiden and the Raiders.”

Despite that family connection, Guhle had to pay his dues. As a Western League rookie in 2018–19, he was a 16-year-old on a squad that was back on the upswing and featured a veteran-laden blue line. That meant there were games when Guhle didn’t see a ton of ice time and the odd one he was scratched from the lineup. That’s a sobering reality for any teenager who’s dominated every level he’s played at, but Habscheid said he never found Guhle in a huff. “Not once did he complain,” Habscheid says. “He just believed in the process and kept working hard.”

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The process paid off for both Prince Albert and the player. Guhle dressed for all 23 contests of the Raiders’ post-season run, which culminated with a Game 7, OT victory over the Vancouver Giants to win the league title. Playing a supporting role on the Raiders that year fueled Guhle’s desire to be the man when his time arrived. “That kind of just put a hunger inside of me that made me want to be that guy the team can rely on,” he says. “Once you win once, you want to win over and over again.

The following year — a 2019–20 campaign cut short by the start of the pandemic — Guhle established himself as a two-way threat with 40 points in 64 games. With the WHL playoffs and subsequent regular season hijacked by COVID, Guhle wasn’t back in a competitive hockey setting again for 10 months, when Canada began the process of picking its team for the 2021 WJC in Edmonton. By that point, Guhle had been selected by the Habs in the virtual draft held in October. Still, he was by no means a lock for the squad. “I knew I was going to be one of those guys who, if I had a good camp, maybe I had a chance,” he says. “So I was just banking on that: to have a good camp and make the decision [to cut me] tough on them.”

Guhle cracked the team, lining up as its second-youngest defenceman. As was the case when he was a Raiders rookie, he wasn’t a top-pair guy, but earned the trust of coach André Tourigny and the staff. Canada more or less steamrolled its way to the final, where things suddenly turned sour. A team that had been basically flawless against the other good squads at the event couldn’t find a way to stuff the puck past Spencer Knight, as Team USA blanked Canada 2–0. “There were a lot of emotions once we lost that game, seeing those guys raise the trophy and get their gold medals around their neck,” Guhle says. “It was tough to watch.”

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T
here was a little exchange from the pre-season that stuck with Rob Ramage. The Canadiens director of player development was watching Guhle at his first NHL training camp in a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. One of the Leafs forwards gave the youngster the business in the corner. Play drifted back toward the middle of the ice, but when it bottled up again along the boards, Guhle made sure to get his return lick in. “It was just good to see the push back,” Ramage says. “He didn’t shy away from that. Sometimes that has to be stressed and taught; that’s not going to be the case with Kaiden.”

As one would expect, some aspects of Guhle’s game will need to be teased out. Specifically, it will be interesting to see where his offence can get to in the NHL. A player of his calibre is always going to put up points in leagues beneath the big show, but Guhle himself is the first to tell you — remarkable backchecks aside — he’s nobody’s definition of a human highlight reel. “I’m not the flashy, dancing-around-the-blue-line type of player,” he says. “I’m more [about] getting pucks on net. Even in the defensive end, just keeping it simple and doing my job.”

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Given the overlap in their styles, origin stories and the fact they belong to the same pro organization, the comparison to Weber is a natural one. It’s far from the only potential parallel, though. One scout running comps mentioned the names of Nashville’s Mattias Ekholm and Dallas’s Esa Lindell, two big-bodied blue-liners who’ve earned sparkling reputations for the work they do in their own zones. Ramage actually drew a line to another player connected to Montreal; one who was drafted 12th overall by the team in 2007, but never suited up for the Habs thanks to a misguided move that saw him traded as a prospect to the New York Rangers.

“I think about a guy like [current Tampa Bay Lighting defenceman] Ryan McDonagh,” Ramage says. “I know him well, my son played with him [at the University of Wisconsin]. I’ve always watched Ryan and he was a defender first. That’s how he went into the NHL with the Rangers. And he just became so good defending that [coach John Tortorella] gave him more. He [thought], ‘I can trust this guy, I know what I’m going to get from him.’ I don’t think Ryan plays first-unit power play, but he plays power play. He’s developed into a guy who has put up points and can play that part of the game. Is Kaiden Ryan McDonagh? I don’t know. But I like that he’s going to solidify his defence first.”

Those in his orbit today certainly have no concerns about Guhle’s offensive abilities. Wiesblatt — a fellow 2020 NHL first-rounder — says he’s got one of the best shots from the point in the Dub. And Dave Cameron, Canada’s coach at the WJC, says he plans to send Guhle over the boards constantly. “He’s a first-round pick with first-round skills,” says Cameron. “He’s going to play for us in all situations.”

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“He’s a first-round pick with first-round skills. He’s going to play for us in all situations.”

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Guhle actually got a chance to play pro hockey last year, suiting up for — and looking just fine in — three games with the AHL’s Laval Rocket when the WHL season was still on hiatus. But when his junior season finally did start last February, it lasted just a couple games for Guhle thanks to a busted finger. He was basically on a point-per-game pace with a bottom-tier Prince Albert squad this season, registered two assists in his Oil Kings debut on Dec. 3 and now turns his gaze toward a shot at redemption at a WJC tournament that, once again, will be held in his own backyard of Edmonton and Red Deer.

Brendan says he and his brother talk every two or three days and are always exchanging notes about their games. After last year’s gold-medal loss, though, he gave Kaiden a little space. “I kind of left it alone,” he says. “I obviously know his No. 1 goal at that tournament this year is to help the team win it. Anything less than that is a disappointment in his eyes. That’s where his standards are at.”

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As a fellow Albertan of the same age, Wiesblatt has known of Guhle dating back to their days as highly touted prospects for the WHL draft. The pair became close during their time in Saskatchewan and while Wiesblatt agrees the expectations Guhle has for himself are a defining characteristic, he says you can’t just label his friend “Mr. Serious” and move on. “I think he gets the rep of being an extreme professional, and he definitely is,” Wiesblatt says. “But just like the rest of us, he’s a kid at the same time. He hangs out with the guys all the time.”

Brendan always gets a kick out of those times when his brother can properly unwind. It doesn’t really happen on the golf course, because Kaiden is pretty maniacal about his game there, too. But when the boys get out on the boat, usually a couple hours north of Edmonton on Skeleton Lake, all the duties that go with being a hard-driving, aspiring pro can be shelved. “It’s so fun hanging out with him on those days because it’s a side of himself he doesn’t get to show that often,” Brendan says.

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The ability to take a step back is likely a good thing for any top prospect being breathlessly observed by a Habs fanbase that now finds itself supporting a sad sack team where suddenly it’s all about the future. Brendan isn’t too concerned about how his kid brother will handle the glare. He chuckles a little relaying the thought that it wouldn’t surprise him in the least if Kaiden’s Instagram just disappeared one day. “He would have no problem doing that,” Brendan says. “He’s pretty good at just shutting [things] down if he’s getting a little rattled. He can turn his phone off and just go for however long without it and it doesn’t bother him.”

The conversations around him, of course, will continue as Guhle makes his way up the ranks and inches closer to full-time duty with the Canadiens. As for any talk of one day playing the Weber role on a new iteration of the squad, it’s just another thing that keeps him grinding. “It’s cool to be put in the same sentence as him,” he says. “But I have enough respect for him [to know] I’m not anywhere close to being there yet.”

True. But this kid has been known to get places fast.

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line-height: 32px;
}

Photo Credits

David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images; Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images; Christopher Mast/Getty Images.

.acf-block-preview .btn-social-group-wrapper {
display: none;
}
.acf-block-preview .br-additional_credits {
text-align: center;
}




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