Lockout puts Garbutt's dream on hold
For his entire life, this place or one like it somewhere, anywhere around the NHL universe, has been a destination for Ryan Garbutt, a kind of beacon.
Even in the wake of a stunning new proposal from the National Hockey League aimed at ending the month-old lockout of its players, the Dr. Pepper Center is a different kind of place, a place that seems much more like limbo.
Garbutt, a Winnipeg native whose path to the NHL has been filled with tortuous curves and dead ends, represents the largely anonymous lower middle class of NHL players locked out by the owners now for more than a month.
He does not have a long-term deal worth many millions of dollars.
He does not have teams clamoring for his services in Europe while the lockout plays out.
He does not know if a lengthy lockout might in fact close entirely what, for him and many players, is an all-too-brief window on an NHL career.
Sitting on a bench on a brilliant Texas Sunday, Garbutt waits and wonders what will become of a dream pursued with gritty determination and against significant odds.
The speedy fourth-line center grew up in Edmonton. His father, Gord, a goalie, played minor pro hockey and later did radio broadcasts of Oilers games.
When Garbutt was 13, his father's job took the family to Winnipeg, and he continues to call the prairie town home. His girlfriend is from Winnipeg. He returns there in the summer to work out.
Although he had some options to play major junior hockey in Canada, Garbutt and his family were attracted to the U.S. college programs. After flying to Providence, R.I., home of Brown University, Garbutt decided to go the Ivy League route, even if it meant forgoing the option of an athletic scholarship.
"I met a lot of good people there. I really enjoyed all four years," said Garbutt. "I thought I got to develop a lot as a player."
Among his teammates were NHLers Harry Zolnierczyk of the Philadelphia Flyers, Aaron Volpatti of the Vancouver Canucks and Jack MacLellan, a Nashville prospect. He still maintains a close bond with all of them.
His head coach at Brown, Roger Grillo, recalled a player who showed flashes of having NHL talent, but like many collegiate players, struggled to find consistency with that top-end game. "Ryan was always a kid that possessed a great deal of speed, a real powerful kid," Grillo told ESPN.com.
Still, like the entire team, Garbutt didn't enjoy what could be termed a breakout during his collegiate career, topping out at 12 goals in his junior year.
"He had a solid but not an overwhelmingly successful college career. He was always close, always right on the verge of exploding on the scene," said Grillo, who now works for USA Hockey promoting new grassroots hockey initiatives.
After his final year at Brown, Garbutt and his father drove back to Winnipeg. It's a 30-hour drive and the two talked candidly about what was going to be next. The upshot was that Garbutt would train hard that summer and give a professional career one last try.
If it sounded like a good plan, it didn't exactly work out the way Garbutt and his father had mapped out.
He attended camp with the Manitoba Moose, at the time the top farm team of the Vancouver Canucks. He didn't even get in a preseason game because the roster was pretty much set. But the silver lining was that the team's GM, Craig Heisinger, knew longtime Central Hockey League coach Brent Hughes and connected Garbutt with Hughes and the Corpus Christi Texas IceRays. Garbutt ended up playing the entire 2009-10 season there and thrived with 50 points in 64 games.
It might not have been exactly according to plan, but Garbutt was officially a professional hockey player.
"It was fun just getting paid to play hockey," he said. "I'd never had that experience before."
He received some attention from a number of ECHL coaches that offseason and ended up with the Atlanta Thrashers' ECHL affiliate in Gwinnett, Ga. He also got a chance to attend the Thrashers' prospect camp that summer.
"Which was great for me," Garbutt said.
After playing 10 games with the Gwinnett Gladiators, Garbutt got a shot with the Thrashers' AHL affiliate in Chicago, joining the team on a six-game road trip. The team didn't play well and Garbutt assumed he would soon get a ticket back to the ECHL, but as it turned out he'd made an impression and ended up playing 65 games for the Chicago Wolves and scoring 19 goals.
Working his way up the depth chart, Garbutt drew attention from a number of hockey people, including the Dallas Stars' brass.
GM Joe Nieuwendyk recalls a conversation he had with new head coach Glen Gulutzan and his AHL GM Scott White in the summer of 2011. Nieuwendyk asked them to list the top lower-tier players in the AHL who had speed and a passion for the game that they had noticed during the season.
"They liked Garbutt. That's kind of how it happened," Nieuwendyk told ESPN.com this week.
The team signed Garbutt to a two-way deal and he started the 2011-12 season with the Austin-based Texans in the American Hockey League.
Then one night at about 10, late in the season, he got a call at his apartment in Austin from White.
Garbutt was going to the show.
"He was pretty excited about it, too," Garbutt said.
He'd just picked his girlfriend up at the airport and the next morning he was up at 5:30 for a short flight to join the team in Dallas in time for an optional morning skate before boarding the team flight for a trip to Phoenix and a date with the Coyotes.
That morning in Phoenix, he was told he would be in the lineup.
If it's possible to have something go by in a blur and yet at the same time remember every single detail as though it's happening in slow motion, that would cover Garbutt's first NHL game.
"It's kind of both," he said with a grin.
Needless to say, his customary pregame nap wasn't happening.
"I didn't sleep at all," he said. "I remember jumping out for the first time, for my first shift. I don't think it was a very long shift but it was good to get a couple of hits in."
A couple of games later his father caught up with the Stars in Montreal. The two chatted before the game and that night Garbutt scored his first NHL goal.
And not just any goal but the game-winning goal.
"I can't even describe it," he said. "The fact it was the game-winning goal just made me feel like I was a part of the team.
"It was surreal, basically," he said.
Funny how things work out.
Garbutt never went back to Austin, playing out the rest of the season with the Stars. Even though they were in a battle for a playoff spot, Garbutt wasn't placed on the AHL roster list late in the season, which meant that when the Stars' season ended, he couldn't be sent back down to the minors.
"I got some good feedback from Joe at the end of the year," Garbutt said.
In July, he signed his first one-way NHL contract, a two-year deal that will pay him an average of $575,000. His AHL salary a year ago was $75,000.
The day he signed the deal, he was taking part in new Dallas Stars owner Tom Gaglardi's charity golf tournament in Kelowna, British Columbia. He ended up taking out golfing partners Jamie Benn and Jordie Benn to mark the occasion.
"That was a really good day," he said. "The opportunity here to grow with this group of players is pretty exciting."
There are no guarantees, of course, that the one-way contract means Garbutt is a lock to stay with the big club if and when the season returns. But in a young player's career, this is a significant moment.
Nieuwendyk, for one, likes Garbutt's speed and tenacity.
"He fits in with what we're trying to do," the GM said.
But the lockout has the potential to change all of that.
If the labor stoppage has left many players in a state of limbo, then Garbutt is in a kind of -- to steal a well-worn line from "Animal House" -- double-secret limbo.
He is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, so he is not yet technically locked out. He and teammate Vernon Fiddler, who had a similar procedure in the offseason, have been skating on their own at the practice facility.
The rules of engagement mean they cannot have contact with the coaching staff, so the two spend time on the otherwise empty ice working out and they leave before the coaching staff works out.
"We just kind of do our own thing," he said.
They have thus far been forbidden from working out with the other Stars who are locked out, many of whom have been skating in nearby Allen, Texas, with the Central Hockey League Allen Americans.
Last week, Garbutt and Fiddler went to Austin for contact drills and Garbutt expects to be cleared medically to play within the next week or two, which will mean the paychecks will stop coming and the lockout will begin in earnest for him.
He will then have to consider if there's a place for him to play while the lockout sorts itself out.
"I haven't decided right now. It would be nice to get some games in before the season started," he said.
He will also wonder, in the back of his mind, whether the lockout will turn out to be a significant deterrent to continuing to live out his dream as an NHLer. He knows the hard work and determination it took to get this far and he knows there are hundreds of players hunting down the same dream.
"I guess it depends on how it all turns out," he said. "If it's a whole season, it'll be hard not to be discouraged."