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The Riskiest (Best) Move of My Career
Playing with the Springfield Blues was a great learning year for me in many ways.
I learned how to handle the pressure of being ‘the guy’, by making a ton of mistakes.
I learned to be a starter. I learned how to play a lot of games in a lot of cities in a lot of different situations.
I learned that my aspirations were higher than most of my teammates and even my coaches.
I learned that having one or two great friends outweighed a team full of ‘donkeys.’ (This is not saying all guys were donkeys. Some of my best friends to this day are from this team, but some guys are in Juniors for the beers and girls more than the hockey.)
I learned the value of a long season – I had so many ups and downs.
I learned the importance of playing well down the stretch and how a goalie can steal a game and an entire playoff series.
All of that said, I didn’t fully appreciate many (or really any) of those in the moment. I didn’t really like Springy. It wasn’t ENOUGH for me. I wanted more committed teammates, I wanted a higher level, and I wanted bigger challenges to overcome.
So at the end of the season, I began knocking on doors again. Remember, the whirlwind just a year before that put me in two different countries and a few different states? I also learned a lot from that and wanted to be in a more certain situation.
I contacted all the USHL teams I had previously spoken with and all the ones I hadn’t. I sent them videos. I emailed their head coaches and assistants.
Fortunately, a few colleges had taken interest in me. No offers or opportunities yet, but they had interest, which strengthened my position.
The more Junior or college teams interested in you, the more validation scouts feel.
My numbers in Springy were good, not great. But my playoffs were great. The opposing head coach, Jon Cooper – who’s my favorite NHL head coach today – wrote a nice comment in the papers about me that raised some eyebrows.
Only two USHL teams were seriously interested in me. I had people helping me bang on those doors.
The same goalie coach, Terry Kleisinger, who got me into the Surrey deal the year before, had a new opportunity for me in the BCHL in Nanaimo, BC. This was actually his hometown team before he went on to be a star at the University of Wisconsin and play for the Rangers in the NHL.
I didn’t know anything about Nanaimo, but I checked around and it seemed legit. A lot of NCAA commits, a history of winning, and a very reputable head coach.
And they were offering me a spot, a real spot, no questions asked.
I drove up to Terry’s house and we had a conference call with the head coach, Bill Bestwick. This guy was cool and collected. He was funny, he was smart, and he was sophisticated.
He didn’t sell me, he didn’t pressure me. He very transparently laid out the opportunity and said, “I’ll give you a couple weeks to decide.”
I was sitting there in Terry’s home office going, “Two weeks to decide? Do you know what I went through last year? I’ll sign now.”
So I signed, then and there. Nanaimo, BC. Grab the map… Where is that?
Here’s something brilliant that Terry did, with my dad’s encouragement, which I would suggest as an idea to any of you. Make the team put some skin in the game. Terry made them order my gear right away.
Obviously, not every team will do this, and it’s not a guarantee, but right then, at the beginning of summer, they invested a couple thousand dollars in me. I was set.
Here was the situation. They had a goalie returning who was just drafted into the NHL and committed to Denver University. He could have had his pick of any NCAA school.
Marc Cheverie, Chevy, was great in many ways. But Billy, the coach, told me, “Look, you’ll get an opportunity – I promise you that. It’s up to you to overtake him.”
Here was my rationale. I would be playing alongside an NHL draft pick and a college commit. If my statistics were comparable, it seems reasonable that I would be NCAA worthy. What’s more, if I was better than him, what does that do for my stock?
What was the downside? I learn and develop under a great goalie. If I didn’t perform as well as him (he was a very high end guy), I was still a good goalie. No harm.
Seemed like a great opportunity to me.
Some people thought me going to Nanaimo was a super risky move, and maybe it was, but I felt it was the safest bet I had.
A former coach who was helping me in the USHL told me, “This will kill your career. Billy will cut you after a month, and you’ll end up with nowhere to play again. This is the biggest mistake you’ve ever made.” Ouch!
Just know, people will always tell you this is the greatest opportunity or the biggest mistake you’ve ever made, but really, you make it what it is.
This ended up being the best move I made in my career, and possibly the best two years of hockey I ever had.
My dad and I arrived in Nanaimo and went to lunch with Billy, again a super impressive guy. He was very smart and asked me what my goals were and talked about the upcoming year.
Training camp started. Billy didn’t recruit like most Junior teams, doing a bunch of tryout camps, which are largely moneymakers for the teams. Instead, he recruited like a college team and guys showed up to play.
A few cuts and adjustments were needed, but, by and large, the players on day one were my teammates. And I had black and orange pads, so I was part of the team.
I loved it. Nanaimo was USHL-esque. It was very professional, well-run, and all the guys were committed, like me.
One surprise was that the Canadians seemed like they were 30 to me. (I guess it could be the 18-year-old drinking age.) They were all mature and had tattoos and were missing a lot of teeth.
Billy ran intense practices. He would quiz guys on who was a righty and who was a lefty in the middle of practice. If you missed the net, ten pushups.
I’m not promoting these methods, but he instilled discipline. He ran a tight ship, and I liked that.
Chevy looked great to me, but guys said I was doing well. I was nervous. I was working so hard and I cared too much. Sometimes caring that much actually hurt my performance.
In the beginning of the season, Chevy started a couple games and I started a couple games, some good and some bad. Our team was good, so we were both largely protected.
I think we won our first 10 or so.
Right around this 10-game mark, I was in the team offices and Billy asked, “What’s up, Garms? How you doing?” As friendly as he was, he was also a very intimidating guy. He had a giant scar on his face and some of the legends about him in the league were impressively terrifying.
“Good, Coach. I love it here.” I was nervous.
I’m a very reserved person. And I was more of a perfectionist then, before I realized that it was hurting me rather than helping me, so I didn’t want to think, say, or do anything wrong.
“You’re doing great.”
Here’s my thinking: No I’m not… I’m doing okay, but not great. Maybe I’m underperforming his expectations. I had a bad practice the other day… What if he trades me?
“No, Garms, seriously, you’re doing great.” He was looking me right in the eyes, although it felt like he was looking right into my soul.
I felt that.
That was the first moment in my career that I FELT a coach’s confidence in me. He truly believed in me.
My performance massively improved after that conversation. I don’t even know why I was in the office that day! But it totally boosted my confidence and from there, things got much better for me.
I loved living in Nanaimo. Canada is similar to the US except, of course, in all the ways that it’s different! I learned so much about life by being in a different country with different cultures, using different money, everything.
I never realized how important this was until much later in my career, but the fact that our team was great was HUGE for my personal success.
If you look at any league, often the BEST goalies are on the BEST teams. I know that a great goalie helps a team win, but a great team massively helps a goalie’s statistics.
Play for the very best teams you can.
So Chevy and I were trading games until November or so when I felt like I began to takeover. There was one weekend where I felt things really turn in my favor.
We were going through a bit of a tough stretch as a team, and I had a great two games, back to back, for two huge wins. You know those all-out team victories, on the road with the fans hating you? That was this weekend.
I was only focused on playing my best and helping our team win. I was dialed in to get two wins and we did.
Going forward from those two battles, I had the team’s confidence and trust that I would be a warrior, that I would get us wins.
Here’s an important note: I have no clue what the scores were, I just know that we won and I battled hard for our team. Battling is what endures. It wasn’t that I was perfect, just that I battled for the guys.
For the rest of the year, I was ‘the guy’, although Chevy still played quite a bit. I had earned the team’s trust and respect. I had been getting a lot of interest from colleges, my confidence was growing, things were going great.
What’s interesting is, at the time, I didn’t feel like everything was great. I still had plenty of concerns, doubts and troubles, but I was happy with my play overall. This is why I preach to focus on the good, because it’s easy to get distracted by the noise.
I worked hard everyday to be the hardest worker and to be a great teammate.
I was getting into final talks with colleges. Once one took interest, then their competitor did and then another. The opportunities just snowballed.
I had narrowed down my opportunities to a final two universities, Harvard and Cornell. I chose Cornell because it gave me the best opportunity to start all four years. (You’ll see why that’s funny in my next story.)
Christmas came, and I’d already made up my mind to sign with Cornell. I was one of the leaders in the league in stats, and I was playing for a great team.
We kept rolling. I had a concussion scare down the stretch and missed some games, but then playoffs arrived.
I probably learned more in that playoff run than I would in most seasons.
We played 29 games in 40 nights, and I was the starter.
The way the playoffs worked was we played two games at home, had one day off, and then played two games on the road. Four games in five nights, then a day off, then a game at home, a game on the road, and finally Game 7 at home.
A seven game series lasted nine days with travel. And there were only one or two days before the next series. Again, we played 29 playoff games in 40 nights.
Our first round, we won in five games against Surrey. (Remember that debacle?)
Round two was against Burnaby. We went seven games in one of the most back-and-forth series I’ve ever seen. We lost Game 1, then won Game 2 at home. Split on the road. Won Game 5. Lost Game 6 in OT. And won Game 7 in an absolutely crazy hockey game.
There was no quit in their team and they had Kyle Turris. This kid was lights out. I’m pretty sure he was top in scoring for all the playoffs, and they got eliminated by us in Round 2.
Two series down.
At this point, my body was tested. Thankfully, I always worked incredibly hard to be in great shape and, had I not been in good shape, I have no idea how I would have played play-off hockey for 12 games in 15 nights.
Round three was against Cowichan, our biggest rival. This series was a bloodbath with two mean grueling teams duking it out. These games felt more like wars than hockey.
I had one of my best games on the road to close out the series, and we won in six games. At this point, I thought, Holy $&@%! We could win this thing!
Here was the beauty of the playoffs for me. It didn’t give me time to think. My problem was calming down for games and detaching from the results. I wanted so badly to do so well that it often made me nervous or too emotional, and it actually negatively affected performance.
The playoffs didn’t give me any time to think. We played, then we played again. The goal was to win. I didn’t have time to worry or overthink. If a goal went in, it was over and done with. We had to win. All my focus was on the next shot.
The very best I ever played was when I was totally clear-minded and focused on the next shot. It was truly one shot at a time and one game at a time.
When I say it wasn’t until going to the final series that I first thought we could win this thing, it’s totally true. I was so focused on each game and each shot that I never thought ahead. I wasn’t aware that we kept inching closer to the goal.
We would have a team “beat” and then they’d come back. Heartbreak. We’d have a terrible start and then we’d come back. Ecstasy.
I learned how to truly play one shot at a time and manage my emotions. Some games made me want to cry and some games made we want to celebrate like we had won the cup, but I had to learn to temper those emotions, because we had an even more important game the next day.
To say the first three series tested us would be an understatement. We were almost a month straight into playoff hockey after a 60 game schedule. Guys were battered and bruised.
Our captain literally couldn’t raise his shoulder and he still led our team in hits. It was the most grueling hockey I’d ever seen. I saw first hand how hard it was to win. Each win in the series was harder to earn. And each series was harder to win.
When I look back on this journey, I’m so proud of all the guys, and myself, not for the results, but for enduring the challenges every day. For banding together toward that common goal.
Final series: we were four wins from a BCHL championship and four losses from heartbreak.
We won the first two at home. You could almost taste the champagne.
We went to Vernon for the next two and lost both.
Back at home for Game 5. This was such a huge game. There is so much emotion and grit that goes into each game, and this was a swing game in the Finals (meaning the winner of this game was one win from the Championship). I played one of my best games yet, purely by focusing on one shot at a time.
I learned this season that the more hyped I got, or the more pressure I put on myself, the worse I played. So, I just focused on each save and then the next. I didn’t focus on the fact it was Game 5 and it would likely decide the champion…
In double overtime, our captain, one of the best leaders that I’ve ever played with, scored an amazing goal at home and the arena erupted.
One win from the championship.
Back to Vernon, the next day, for Game 6. We gave up two early goals and battled back. The game was 2-2, and we scored a third with less than a minute left in the game.
When that goal went in, I was in shock. I think we all were. The crowd was. My heart was racing. Thirty seconds and we’re champions. Stay calm, stay focused, but I could feel the pressure squeezing me.
Timeouts were being called, guys were panicked and intense. It was truly the most stressful thirty seconds of my life. Fortunately, we held off their final attacks, and sticks and gloves flew in the air.
We were champions.
This was one of the best moments of my career, all because of the journey. We battled so hard as a team all year and enjoyed so many successes, and then to go through the playoff run, we became this interconnected machine.
A year and a half ago, I was crying on the floor of a shower in Surrey, BC, and now I was spraying champagne in a shower in a locker-room celebrating that league’s championship.
The turnaround can happen that quickly.
When I say trust the process and be focused on your development, this is why. You never know what opportunities will pop up, but you have to be ready.
And opportunities always pop up.
It wasn’t until much later that I really understood all these psychological principals and everything that happened. As Steve Jobs once said, “Only looking back can you connect the dots.”
But I’ve experienced all of these ups and downs firsthand, and I only wonder how much better I could have been had I understood them earlier.
We played another five games against the Alberta champion and unfortunately lost out of the RBC. It was sad, but we had won our BCHL championship.
I was returning to Nanaimo the next season with my best friend, Matt Irwin, and we’d be leading Nanaimo to defend our championship.
My second year provided so many great lessons. One of the biggest was never get complacent. I had such a great first year because I was hungry and I was relentless.
I was more confident my second year, which was a great advantage, but I lost a little of my edge, my hunger. Never let that happen.
I learned to be a role model and a leader.
I learned that it can be harder to be the favorite than the underdog.
I actually do better when I’m hungry and striving for something. I felt a lot of pressure as ‘the guy’ every game. I felt like if I got scored on, I wouldn’t be as ‘great’ as people were saying.
I became too attached to the results and my reputation.
This presented a lot of different challenges for me and great learning opportunities.
Going to Nanaimo did not kill my career. Instead it was two of the best hockey years I ever had. Not just because of the championship and college opportunities but because it allowed me to develop both as a goalie and player. Make sure you make the most of your opportunities.
If you have any questions about Juniors, you can write me directly at Coach@GoaliebyGarman.com
Want to be a champion? Check out a few ideas that will help you Play Your Best in The Playoffs!
Comments or questions? Just reply below and I’ll help you anyway I can!
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