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Garner continues hockey journey in Jacksonville

by Kent Russell
February 27, 2007 - Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL) - Jacksonville Barracudas

A deke and then a forehand, thought Tyrone Garner. He'll try me high glove. That was his approach in the AHL. No reason to think he won't do it again.

And so Tyrone leans into his crouch and slides to the top of his crease as Patrick Yetman knocks the puck off the center-ice faceoff dot and glides toward him. Deke, forehand, high glove.

The din of the standing room-only crowd ringing the ice at Jordal Amfi arena, a steep, concrete sinkhole in eastern Oslo, rises until each bellow has met and coagulated over the play. Yetman, the league's leading scorer on the league's best team, is inside the blueline now. Deke, forehand, high glove, thinks Tyrone as he synchronizes his slow retreat into the net with Yetman's rush, minimizing the visible net behind him with each stride.

It's the second period of game two in the Norwegian Eliteserien league semifinals; the score's knotted at 1-1. Yetman had just been brought down and awarded a penalty shot. It should've never even been a penalty shot, thought Tyrone. He lost the puck and then he dove.

But that's the game. No use in complaining. Just get your big body in position, Tyrone, and wait for Yetman to make his move. Let your play rectify things. You control this now. Deke, forehand, high glove.

Yetman's inside the hash marks, and here we go. Deke and then...deke again. Yetman's come with something new; now he's going for the backhand. The second feint has Tyrone sliding across to his right. The move was unexpected, but he's met the unforeseen well. Tyrone slides into position to make the save, the crowd knows it, and-back to the forehand. The unanticipated wrinkle in Yetman's approach has Tyrone's momentum carrying him the other way. This isn't how it was supposed to be. Yetman's stickhandling riptide is washing Ty away. Like a drowning swimmer, he flails his body, a desperate last-ditch to stay above water. He splits and stretches his left leg as far as it can go and further, reacting to the unexpected and undeserved events being thrown at him-this penalty shot, playing in Norway-and he's doing it!-his left leg pad's a blast door descending on the post, and there's no way Yetman'll have time to put it-


Tyrone's groin muscle, the one that had been bothering him since the regular season, shears off the bone. He's pushed it too far. Doctor's will tell him it's ripped twice, in a "T" shape. His body clasps shut. The leg that was ready to make the stop snaps back underneath him. He almost made it back.

Yetman puts the puck in the net.

Thirty minutes to game time at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena. Outside, a smattering of fans are lining up under a mild Jacksonville sunset for "Sam's Club Night" at the arena-show your Sam's Club card and receive a $13 ticket for $7. Inside, the Jacksonville Barracudas' players are circling their end of the ice. The buckets of practice pucks are dumped out, and players move from both sides of the rink towards the net, creating a swirling Venn diagram of practice shots.

This is the Southern Professional Hockey League, the newest bottom rung of professional hockey in the United States. There is no commissioner. Teams have $5,600 a week to pay their 20 players. There were eight teams when the season started, but the Florida Seals couldn't afford to play out the season and joined the Asheville Aces, Macon Trax and Winston-Salem Polar Twins in this infant league's boneyard. This is a league where Coach may have to man the Zamboni before practice. Where a call from your teammates might mean the week's paycheck bounced.

This is a team whose pre-game warm ups are noticeably louder than others, with more rubber thudding against the end boards than denting the twine. They stretch and joke and shoot on the back-up. The last frayed letters on the backs of their jerseys are sliding limply towards right shoulders like the caboose of a train that's slid off a cliff. For some, this is the end of the line. For others, this is a winter job in between cleaning pools in Michigan. For nearly all playing, the NHL is a pipe dream.

Circling behind the net, finishing his turn in the three-on-none drill, is a physical presence. He's broad-shouldered and bronze-faced, and he's about a head taller than the other forwards. He has an awkward, loping stride that eats up ice like he's skipping over cracks in the sidewalk. But he leans all 215 pounds into his shot, and he picks corners like a goal scorer.

"Look Mom!" shouts an excited towhead some four rows up. "It's Tyrone! He's so big!"

On the ice, Tyrone Garner takes a pass and rips one by the goaltender before skating off and touching every hand overhanging the runway on the way to the locker room. It's now fifteen minutes until game time and a long way to go back to the NHL.

Tyrone Garner was that kid in Stoney Creek, Ontario. The natural. The guy who picked up a sport and, after a few games, was the first one picked. Baseball, football, lacrosse, track and field. "All sports I did," Tyrone recalls, "I seemed to excel at them at a young age."

And whereas these wunderkinds often have their passions and skills warped by overbearing parents, Tyrone was left to explore his gifts on his own.

"He didn't force it on me," Tyrone says of his father. "I think that's the problem with a lot of parents. Their kids want to try something, then they don't like it anymore, and the parents say, ‘Well, I spent all this money and bought you all this equipment...'"

Well, actually, Tyrone's father Paul Garner did say that. Right after Tyrone, then eight years old, decided that he was ready to try ice hockey, his father went out and bought him all the gear necessary to play forward. But on the first day of practice, when the coach asked if anyone wanted to try goalie, Tyrone's was the first hand up.

Tyrone stuck with both positions, excelling as a goaltender in the winter leagues and playing forward in the summer leagues. As he entered his mid-teens, Tyrone's attention turned towards playing junior hockey, the first major step towards the NHL.

"I thought he was a pretty good player, y'know, but what's good?" remembers his father. "There are so many good players out there."

But Tyrone was good, and offers from junior teams came rolling in. He tried out as a goaltender for Junior B teams in Stoney Creek and Guelph, Ontario and impressed. Yet when Guelph called his father about signing Tyrone, Paul looked outside at his son and saw a little boy playing with his friends. He told them that, No, Tyrone wasn't ready.

It was June 22, 1996 , and Tyrone was ready. Seventeen years old and wearing the suit from his days in major-junior hockey, Tyrone sat four rows above the blue line at what was then the Kiel Arena in St. Louis. He was surrounded by his father, his agent, and his live-in family from junior when Mike Milbury, then general manager of the New York Islanders, approached the podium in the fourth round and said, "The New York Islanders are proud to select, from the Oshawa Generals, goaltender Tyrone Garner."

"It became a little clearer," Tyrone says of that moment. "Now I'm actually property of an NHL hockey team. One step closer to fulfilling your dreams. The rest is up to you." So with his destiny in his hands, Tyrone returned to his major-junior team in Oshawa and played for a spot on an NHL roster.

It wasn't two weeks after the draft, the day that should've signaled the ascension of this highly touted goalie, that destiny was wrested away from Tyrone forever.

While walking down the stairs in his home, Tyrone stumbled. "Steps that he used to slide down on his bum as a little boy," his father says. Already in physiotherapy for one of his knees, Tyrone couldn't regain his balance and jumped down the four steps. He landed awkwardly on his other knee.

The Islanders flew him to New York for an MRI. He had blown out his ACL.

"Well, if this happened two weeks ago, I'm pretty sure you'd be in someone else's office," Milbury, the general manager, said at the time.

Five months later, Tyrone was back in goal for Oshawa. He played well for the remainder of that season and the next. But "he was never 100 percent," his father says.

Only the Islanders were prepared when, on the eve of the NHL trading deadline in 1997 and desperate for a playoff berth, they traded Marty McInnis, a sixth-round draft pick and that injured goalie Tyrone Garner to the Calgary Flames for Robert Reichel.

"I was sitting at the dinner table with my [host family in junior]," Tyrone says. "They always watch the Peterborough news. So we're sitting there, and I was hurt with my knee injury, so I was pretty much twice a week talking with the people from the Islanders. They had a meal plan for me and everything. They were really good. Then I hear, ‘Trade involving Oshawa goaltender Tyrone Garner.'"

Just like that-no warning, no discussion. Tyrone, like countless other prospects on teams hoping to make a championship run, was sacrificed. Milbury sent him to Calgary, a franchise struggling through their nadir. But they Tyrone wanted there. General manager Al Coates wouldn't sign off on the trade until Tyrone was included. It seemed as though he had a bright future with the Flames; that maybe he could settle down after being yanked around by the Islanders.

It wouldn't work out like that. In what would become a pattern for his career, Tyrone was forced into situations he wasn't ready for and, when he would eventually be ready for them, never get a second chance.

But when it happened at the time, it seemed like a miracle. The stuff they pay people in Hollywood to put on paper and cast Sean Astin in. Ty had already been called up for the last four games of Calgary's season following his third year in Oshawa. But it was an emergency move on Calgary's part; they just needed a warm body on the bench in case something happened. The next season, though, that something did happen.

First, their starter Ken Wregget went down with an injury. Then backup Tyler Moss hurt himself. The Flames called up future Stanley Cup Playoffs MVP J.S. Giguere from the minor leagues; he got hurt. Calgary, desperate for a starter and a backup goaltender, recalled Andrei Trefilov and, in a move not unlike sending a high school pitcher into the majors, called Tyrone Garner up from the junior leagues.

It looked like Tyrone would simply ride the pine again as an emergency player before going back down for more seasoning. He kept his place on the bench for 21 days before coach Brian Sutter told him he'd be going in for the third period in a game against the Buffalo Sabres. The Sabres, who would go on to play in the Stanley Cup Finals that year, were whitewashing the Flames and Trefilov 5-0.

"Just go have some fun," Sutter said. "Enjoy it."

In went Tyrone. It couldn't have been scripted any better. The twenty-year-old kid, never forced into anything, never pushed before he was ready, is thrust into a man's game where goalies aren't considered mature until their early 30s. A series of unforeseen events has put him here. Sink or swim. Cue the theme.

"There was no TV for the game. I figured Ty would just be on the bench again, but I decided to try the radio," his father recalls. "I tuned in just at the start of the third period and I hear, ‘In comes Tyrone Garner.' I could've cried."

And he played adequately, if not spectacularly. He allowed two goals in the third and the Flames lost 7-1. He went on to play the majority of the next game against Boston, and got his first NHL start against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The woeful Flames lost all three games.

"[The Flames] didn't put any pressure on me. Didn't make it seem like this was my one and only chance. In their eyes too I was still young. They were expecting me to be in the organization a little longer than I was."

Tyrone got his taste of the NHL and was sent back down. He had a future with the Flames, they told him. He just had to work had, and it'd only be a matter of time before he'd be there to stay. So he toiled in net for the Saint John Flames, the Dayton Bombers and the Johnstown Chiefs in hockey's minor league purgatory, all while under contract with the Flames.

Until the front office that brought Tyrone to Calgary was shown the door. In their place came a management team with their own ideas of how the Flames should be run. Don Hay became the new head coach. His coaching career had followed a path not unlike Tyrone's playing career up to that point. Before coming to Calgary, Hay had been a rising star in the minor leagues. He got a shot at head coaching in the NHL for one season, during which he did an adequate, if not spectacular job. He then went back to coaching in the minors until the Flames gave him a second chance. Hay wouldn't do the same for Tyrone.

Despite playing admirably and being named to the Ontario Hockey League's All-Star second team, Tyrone's contract was left to expire by Hay and his front office. Calgary scouting groups called him a "non-prospect" who "had his fifteen minutes of fame."

"This was a case of the organization, before they changed management, loved me. They were expecting me to be there a while," Tyrone says. "Obviously, these guys coming in have players they like. A lot of guys say, you know, that they got screwed out of their opportunity, but the thing is, they've got someone in the organization that likes them, willing to give them a chance. The people that liked me left the organization. There's not much you can do after that."

Really, all that was left for Tyrone to do was prove them wrong. After a glut of goaltenders already under contract kept Tyrone from walking on to the Atlanta Thrashers of the NHL, he returned to the minor leagues a brick wall. He would be named the East Coast Hockey League's Goaltender of the Week before leading the Greenville Grrrowl to the championship. He was the postseason's most valuable player.

"You look at Ty's numbers then, and they're unreal," says Ryan Person, Tyrone's current teammate and the starting goaltender in Jacksonville. "You wonder how he wound up here, why no one gave him another shot."

Rick Dudley, then with the Florida Panthers of the NHL, took notice of Tyrone. He signed him to a two-year deal with an option on the second year, and then the minor-league merry-go-round began anew.

"Rick Dudley kept telling him that they had more plans for Ty," Paul Garner says. "[Tyrone] just played the cards he was dealt. They said, ‘Go to Jackson [of the ECHL].' He went to Jackson."

At the end of that season, though, Tyrone's representatives from the International Management Group left him for opportunities with the Phoenix Coyotes in the NHL. Tyrone, confused and agentless, playing for another shot at the bigs, called the Florida Panthers constantly about renewing his contract for the second year.

"I eventually got a letter in the mail saying they weren't going to take the option on the second year. So here I was talking to them on the phone all the time, and they couldn't even tell me to my face. That pissed me off a little bit, but you know, that's the business part of hockey. They'll tell you one thing and do another."

Think they're going one way, and then they go another. It wasn't supposed to be like this.

"You hurt for your child. You know how hard he worked," his father says. "There were so many goalies that seemed to get opportunities. I tell ya, if [former NHL rookie of the year Andrew] Raycroft had been in Oshawa, he'd be the backup."

With nowhere left for him to play in North America, Ty left. He played in Germany and Norway. He labored in net and won championships while the NHL was locked out for a season. Still no contract came.

Then, in a Norwegian league playoff game, with a body exhausted from chasing a dream that had come and past before he was ready for it, Tyrone sliced his groin apart. No goaltending for a year, they said. His team bought him out of his contract.

No goal to tend on two continents for a 28-year-old who should be entering the prime of his career at the highest level. The dream seemed dead, until Paul Garner had an idea.

"My dad actually brought it up." The Southern Professional Hockey League. "'Why don't you go and try out?'" Paul had said to Tyrone. You always wondered if you could do it as a forward, he told his son. You'll stay in game shape and rehabilitate your groin, you won't have to get a real job, and you'll be doing what you love.

Ty called Jacksonville head coach Rick Allain, who had coached against him in juniors and knew what he was capable of. "I asked him, ‘You need a power forward?'" Come to the tryout, Allain said. Show me you can play.

A plane to Massachusetts and a $200 fee later, Tyrone was on a rink with a throatful of pride and a handful of taxi drivers and pizza delivery boys trying to realize the dream, just like him.

Back in Jacksonville, the cellar-dwelling Barracudas are tied with the league-leading Columbus Cottonmouths 1-1 in the third period. So far, Allain hasn't given Tyrone much playing time. But when he's given the opportunity on the ice, Tyrone has left the glass shaking with monstrous hits. He backchecks hard and has a nose for the net.

"Tyrone plays hard every shift," says Stephen Croskrey, the silver-haired Barracudas' owner with his own name on the back of the club's blue away jersey he's wearing. From the club level with beer in hand, Croskrey watches Tyrone hustle to kill a penalty. "He's a super guy, the guy you want on your team."

And for once, someone does want him on their team. The Norwegian national ice hockey team wants Tyrone to come back to Norway, earn citizenship, and backstop them in the 2010 Winter Olympics. There's a possibility that the minnow nation could earn a berth in Pool A, where there'll be NHLers representing the likes of the Czech Republic, Russia and Canada. Oh, yeah, and scouts will be there, too.

"In the Olympics, if you put together a few good games, people are going to notice. The whole world's watching," Tyrone says.

But he doesn't want to get ahead of himself. That's happened once before. For now, he's focusing on rehabilitating his groin and eventually getting back in goalie pads.

"I've learned in my career to just take things day by day and not to get too ahead of yourself. If you get too far ahead of yourself, you get your hopes up and you get disappointed. The game changes so much. You can't really dwell on it. You just have to deal with it.

"I'd like to get the chance now because I've matured so much. I think mentally I'm a lot stronger than I was. Realistically, goalies don't mature until later. I've matured as a goaltender. I'm hitting the prime of my goaltending career."

And what if he got that one last shot? One game in the spotlight to prove that he can play; to prove that even after being pushed in one direction and pulled in another, in the face of those who never gave him a shot or gave him one in which he couldn't possibly succeed, he deserves a final chance?

"Let's just say I would make sure that I wouldn't go unnoticed."

On the ice, Allain has taken Tyrone off the bottom line and stuck him on the wing of a scoring line for one shift in the offensive zone. Tyrone's teammate wins the faceoff back to a defenseman at the blue line. Tyrone plows through defenders; through sheer force of will he's worked himself to the front of the net. The shot comes. Tyrone thrusts his stick out to deflect it; he succeeds. The puck changes direction, knuckling into the air above the goalie. Sound and oxygen in the arena are swallowed as the puck comes down behind the goaltender, skittering towards the back of the net.

The puck stops on the line.

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Southern Professional Hockey League Stories from February 27, 2007

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