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The Long and Winding Road

by Mark Stepneski / Dallas Stars

At 24-years-old, Ryan Garbutt had a decision to make on what road he was going to take in life. He could use his degree from Brown University and go one way, or he could go another route and pursue his dream of playing pro hockey. It was decision he made on the road, making the 27-hour trek with his dad from college in Rhode Island back to his home in Winnipeg.

“We talked about what I wanted to do,” said Garbutt. “I didn’t have the best hockey experience at Brown and I felt like there was unfinished business there, and I decided I wanted to give it one last crack.”

Hockey it was. And he embarked on a journey that started with Corpus Christi of the Central Hockey League, which eventually took him to Dallas of the National Hockey League in less than two-and-a-half years.

“It was a long ride, but I felt like I got here pretty quick,” said Garbutt. “It was a lot of hard work.”

There was perseverance, too, and making the most of the opportunities that came his way. All of it has added up to Garbutt earning a full-time roster spot on the Dallas Stars this season.

“He’s one of those guys that has worked his way up from the Central League. That’s incredible, to have the perseverance to do that,” said Stars forward Eric Nystrom. “He’s made a strong statement with this team.”

Garbutt, now 27, has made an impact this season, bringing some energy and physicality to the lineup, potting three goals, and dropping the gloves when he has to.

“He’s fighting, he’s hitting, he’s scoring, he’s getting in there on the forecheck,” said Stars coach Glen Gulutzan. “He’s doing everything we want him to do.”

Garbutt’s fight with Vancouver’s Aaron Volpatti – a teammate at Brown – was seen as a momentum changer as the Stars rallied from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Vancouver Canucks recently. His linemates – Nystrom and Vernon Fiddler – followed up with fights on the ensuing two faceoffs.

“When you get on the ice, there are no friends,” Garbutt said of fighting his former college teammate. “It was just something I wanted to do to get the team going. It was nice to get in the dressing room and see my linemates also stick up for themselves, and stick up for our team. It was a pretty cool thing to be a part of.”

There were no hard feelings between Garbutt and Volpatti after the game. That’s hockey.

“I saw him after the game and another guy from our team was actually at the game watching. He was pretty pumped about the whole thing, too,” Garbutt said. “We didn’t talk about the fight too much, we talked more about the game, how the rest of the season is going to go and how everything else in his life is going. You’ve got to move on.”

Garbutt’s move along the developmental path and to the NHL has been an intriguing one, and one that took him to one of the world’s top universities.

“I wanted to go to college since I was in high school, and I didn’t have a lot of opportunities to play junior until I was 19,” said Garbutt. “I had a real good coach with the Winnipeg South Blues (Manitoba Junior Hockey League), Ken Pearson, and he had a lot of scouts come to our games. There were five or six teams that were after me at the start of the year, and a few after. Once I did the fly-downs to a couple of schools, I knew I wanted to play college for sure.”

And he chose Brown, an Ivy League school In Providence, Rhode Island.

“Had a great time at Brown,” Garbutt said. “Once I met the guys on the team, I knew I wanted to go there.”

Of course, to get into Brown more was needed than just the ability to play hockey. He needed academic ability as well, but that was no problem.

“One thing my parents always stressed when I was in high school was to work on my marks, because if I was going to go to college, options open,” he said. “And I worked on the SATs.”

Garbutt spent four years at Brown, studying economics and sociology. On the ice, he played in 116 games and registered 58 points (29 goals, 29 assists). Then there was that drive home, and the decision to tackle that unfinished business.

He attended the training camp of the Manitoba Moose, which at the time was the AHL affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks, but there was no spot for him. He didn’t even get to play in a preseason game. But Manitoba’s GM at the time, Craig Heisinger, pointed Garbutt towards Brent Hughes, the head coach of the Corpus Christi Ice Rays of the Central Hockey League.

“I played the whole season there and he played me a lot,” said Garbutt.

He played well, registering 50 points (22 goals, 28 assists) and 204 penalty minutes in 64 games. And although the CHL wasn’t where he envisioned starting his pro hockey career, he was happy to be there.

“I was enjoying myself the whole time,” he said. “I didn’t get down on myself, just worked hard. I’ve always been a hard worker. I didn’t have to change that.”

He was getting paid, too.

“I was making $350 or $400 a week,” he said. “I remember my first paycheck, I was ecstatic to be getting paid to play hockey. I couldn’t believe it.”

Garbutt ended up on the radar of Jeff Pyle, then the head coach of the Gwinnett Gladiators, the ECHL affiliate of the Atlanta Thrashers. Pyle helped Garbutt land a spot at Atlanta’s development camp.

“That was great for me,” said Garbutt, who got a firsthand look at an NHL operation.

He started the next season with Gwinnett, but after ten games he was called up to the Chicago Wolves, Atlanta’s AHL affiliate. He played 65 games, registering 37 points (19 goals, 18 assists) and a plus-27 rating. Now, he was on the radar of the Dallas Stars, who identified Garbutt as a potential target during end-of-year meetings that included scouts, minor league coaches and Texas Stars GM Scott White.

“I remember it specifically,” said Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk. “We were reviewing players in the American League that show good energy and persistence in their play, and his name emerged out of that meeting. That’s kind of how we went about signing him, and it’s been a terrific signing for us.”

It was the first NHL contract for Garbutt, who signed a one-year, two-way deal for the 2011-12 season.

“I went to my first NHL training camp,” he said. “It was pretty cool just to see what the guys were like at this level, and how ready you have to be every day. Once I saw it I wanted to be a part of it.”

Garbutt started last season in the AHL and played well, registering 33 points (16 goals, 17 assists) in 50 games for the Texas Stars. He got his first NHL call up in the middle of February when Dallas needed help due to injuries, and he has stuck ever since.

“I felt like it was something I worked really hard to get and I didn’t want to give it up too easy,” he said.

He played his first game in Phoenix on Feb. 18, 2012. He logged 5:41 of ice time in the game and registered three hits. In his third game – in Montreal – he registered his first NHL goal, beating Habs goalie Carey Price with a snap shot. It turned out to be the game-winning goal.

“It was special, especially being the game-winner,” said Garbutt. “I was playing with Toby Petersen and Jake Dowell, who are two hardworking guys, and it just felt good for us to get a goal like that. The team was playing well and it set us on a bit of a run.”

Garbutt ended up playing 20 games for the Stars last season, picking up two goals and one assist. There was a signal that Dallas liked what he was doing when he didn’t end up on the Texas Stars’ late season and playoff roster list, meaning Dallas had no intention of sending him back to the AHL. Dallas then rewarded him with a two-year, one-way contract over the summer.

“It’s always nice to get that positive reinforcement,” said Garbutt. “It’s nice to know that people like the way you are playing, and what you bring to the table.”

There’s nothing fancy about Garbutt’s game. He plays hard, he plays with an edge, he plays fast and he plays physical.

“I think what has impressed me about this kid is he knows that if he doesn’t play that way, he’s not going to play,” said Nieuwendyk. “I like that. It’s a good lesson for a lot of players. He’s responded well this year. He missed a few games - he took some penalties that maybe we didn’t want him taking – and when he came back in the lineup, he is showing us he doesn’t want to come out of the lineup anymore. You’ve got to respect that.”

Garbutt doesn’t spend a lot of time reflecting on his climb from the Central Hockey League to the National League. That will come down the road. So will putting that Brown University education to use. His focus right now is that he is in the NHL, and he wants to do everything he can to make sure he sticks.

“I haven’t really thought about it. I just try to make sure I stay ready here,” Garbutt said. “I felt like it is something I worked hard to get, and I don’t want to give it up.”

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