They say that adversity causes some men to break; others to break records.
Despite being labeled a “late bloomer”, Jason Garrison has done just that.
In a junior hockey culture where a 20-year-old athlete is considered to be “overage”, Garrison’s transition from the minor to junior leagues at the age of 19 posed a unique set of challenges. Though the sport played a major role in his childhood, his focus wasn’t turned entirely towards hockey until the age of 15 or 16; while many successful NHL players had already begun playing in juniors by that point, Garrison’s focus was simply on getting there.
With the help of excellent mentorship and the support of his family, Garrison made the transition from forward to defenseman and found his way to the Nanaimo Clippers of the British Columbia Hockey League in 2003. Appearing in 52 regular season games during his first season, the rookie recorded seven goals and 27 assists; he would follow that up with 22 goals and 62 points the next season, which drew eyes from scouts in the United States.
Garrison was soon offered an athletic scholarship to the University of Minnesota-Duluth. While in school he majored in kinesiology and exercise science, noting that although he received the scholarship based on his athletic abilities, the scholastic aspect was also important to him and he took it seriously.
However, his NCAA career would come to an end after three seasons, as Garrison was offered a two-year entry level contract with the Florida Panthers in 2008. Although he originally intended to be in school for four years and was on pace to finish his degree, the defenseman says that he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to pursue his dream.
“If you have an opportunity to continue with your dream and pursue the path that you want to take, then sometimes you’ve got to take those opportunities as they come. I did and I always knew that I could go back to school, and my first year professional I did some online classes, as many as I could take. Now I could still go back if I want to, but I think for me it’s about getting better every year and being able to stay in this league.”
Garrison spent his first full season in professional hockey with the Rochester Americans, the AHL affiliate of the Panthers at the time. Garrison ranked fourth among rookie defenseman in scoring, putting up eight goals and 35 points in 75 games. His AHL success earned him some NHL ice time, splitting the 2009-10 season between the Panthers and the Americans.
His third season with the Panthers organization would prove to be the defenseman’s turning point, as he appeared in 73 games and had a minus-two rating despite playing for a team at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. Garrison was ranked as the NHL’s second-best “defensive defenseman” by The Globe and Mail, which praised his ability to keep the puck out of his own net against quality players.
The label of “defensive defenseman” would be shaken during the 2011-12 season, as Garrison broke records and helped the Panthers reach the playoffs for the first time in over 10 years. He set a franchise record for the most goals scored by a defenseman in a single season with 16, and tied the record for the most power play goals scored by a defenseman with nine on the season.
Although scoring is generally not a main focus for a player in his position, Garrison says that he always knew he possessed offensive prowess and a big shot. Though his ultimate goal is to prevent opponents from putting pucks in the net, he notes that the ability to play both ends has certainly helped him differentiate himself in this league.
“I knew that I had that ability. I always knew that I had that ability to shoot the puck, and it was fortunate that I got those opportunities a lot in Florida. It worked out, and I found the back of the net. I think that as a defenseman your number one priority is defense, and that’s what we’re here to do; when you can contribute offensively that’s good, and to be as dynamic as possible can help your longevity.”
Coming off the best season of his career, Garrison left the Panthers as an unrestricted free agent and signed a six-year contract with the Vancouver Canucks. At the time, the Lightning had expressed interest in signing the defenseman; though they were close to acquiring him, Garrison ultimately chose to return to his hometown team.
His Vancouver debut would be delayed by the 2012-13 NHL lockout, though his eventual start with the Canucks would be touted by critics as underwhelming. Garrison notes that one of the biggest adjustments he had to make was ignoring the scrutiny by the local media and simply focusing on working hard and playing his game.
Despite Garrison settling in and finding himself on pace for another career year, the Canucks requested that he wave his no-trade clause after just one season. He initially refused, but would eventually agree to be traded to an organization he says he’d heard good things about throughout the league: the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“Everybody in the league knows that this team is very, very good; they’re really young, and that’s hard to find. You have a lot of guys on this team that you can tell work hard and want to win. When you have a group of guys like that, you’re going to win more often than you lose, and everybody wants to be on a winning team.”
Perhaps most excited for Garrison to come to Tampa was head coach Jon Cooper. Noting that the team had been lacking a veteran presence who could block shots and eliminate big, heavy forwards, Cooper says that acquiring the defenseman was one of the best moves made during the off-season.
“I was elated. I’d been a Jason Garrison fan from afar. I didn’t know him but I knew the way he played and I knew what our team needed, and we needed Jason Garrison. But the one thing that has kind of pushed him way over the top for me is what a great guy he is. I didn’t realize he’s that good of a teammate. People talk about all these free agent signings, but I think the one that goes way under the radar is the trade Steve [Yzerman] made to get him.”
Though the defenseman has adjusted well to his new surroundings, he’s also faced a different set of challenges than before. With a depleted defensive core that has lost Matt Carle and Radko Gudas for an extended period of time as well as seen injuries to Victor Hedman earlier in the season, Garrison’s role has been elevated. With the team losing an element of physicality along with the injuries, his skill set has best been put to use in the defensive zone.
While Garrison notes that he does enjoy scoring, he also says that his focus is now on breaking the puck out clean and getting up-ice to create opportunities for forwards. Playing on one of the highest-scoring teams in the league means that there is plenty of offensive talent, and Cooper says that Garrison’s unique talents on the defensive end are now even more critical to the team’s success.
“The defending side. That’s what we need him for. I think he’s been looked at as an offensive guy because he’s got a really heavy shot, but that’s not where he shines. We’ve never looked at him as, ‘Oh, well, he’s going to run the first power play unit and do all these things’. It’s something he’s done at times, but I just don’t think that is taking complete advantage of his skill set. He’s a really good defender for us; I think his biggest strength is in the defensive zone.”
As he acclimates to what is perhaps the biggest role of his career, Garrison also remains grounded. He makes sure to connect with his friends and family as much as possible; seeing what’s going on in their lives helps him to take his mind off of what’s happening on the ice.
While away from the rink, the self-proclaimed music nut can be found listening to hip-hop and relaxing outdoors. For a sport that is often portrayed as being all-consuming, the defenseman is able to balance his life as a professional athlete with his life as a regular guy. That balance has allowed Garrison to keep a healthy perspective on his success, and keeps him striving to become better every season.
“I knew when I decided to take hockey seriously that there was a slim chance, but there was a chance and why not go for it? You only get once chance to live your dream; you only get one shot at it sometimes. For me it was just knowing that I couldn’t look too far ahead, just keep it at one year at-a-time and try to improve that year. I got some fortunate opportunities along the way, caught some good breaks, and am fortunate enough to be in the position that I’m in right now.”