Coyotes’ Conor Garland and His Long Road to the NHL

I’m a small guy who was drafted in the fifth round. You don’t know how many chances you’re going to get. I was fortunate enough to get one.

Conor Garland

Conor Garland has seen it all and is making his mark.

If you take a look back, it’s been a long and difficult journey.

He was turned down by multiple high schools when he tried to play prep hockey in New England. He moved on to the Boston Jr. Bruins and from there went to the QMJHL to play for Moncton, where he tore up the league.

In the next phase of his career, he earned minimal minutes in the AHL for the Tucson Roadrunners, where he struggled.

Fast forward to the present. Garland is playing on the top line for the Arizona Coyotes. He has passed every trial through hard work. Listening to Garland describe his journey is exhausting. The effort it took to make it to the top level and stay there wasn’t a small task, and he knew it from the get-go.

“You don’t want to give them a chance to send you down,” he said in an interview with The Hockey Writers on Saturday. “That was my thought process. I just wanted to play as well as I can for as long as I can. I played each game like it was a Game 7. I was burnt out at the end, and I was so tired. I remember those last ten games were tough for me. That’s what I felt like I needed to do to stay in the NHL.”

Arizona Coyotes Conor Garland
Arizona Coyotes right wing Conor Garland (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

That effort paid off and he scored 13 goals and 5 assists in his rookie season in Phoenix. He followed it up with a solid sophomore campaign scoring 39 points (22 goals, 17 assists) in 68 games, playing most of the year on one of the Coyotes’ top two lines.

However, success wasn’t guaranteed for Garland. He was turned down often trying to make a high school squad. “I tried to go to Boston College High. The coach said no and that I wouldn’t have made the team. Same at Thayer Academy. I disagree, of course. I thought I would have been okay. That’s fine now, I’m over it.”

Despite the adversity, he found the best place for him to succeed. “I went to the Boston Jr. Bruins. That was the best thing for me. Chris Masters, the head coach there is one of the best people in hockey. He cares about where his players end up, and how they do there as people as well as players. We would have meetings monthly about a school calling for a visit or a QMJHL team calling for a visit. He cared about where I ended up. That was perfect for me.”

Garland’s Journey to the Q

The QMJHL turned out to be the best place for Garland, over Penn State where he originally committed. “I went to the place that was best for me, Moncton. I remember them telling me ‘we view you as a franchise player for our team. The spot is yours if you want it.’ It was a perfect route for me.”

In his second season, Garland tallied 54 points in 51 games, a season shortened by an injury. He followed that up with great seasons in 2014-15 and 2015-16, scoring 257 points (74 goals and 183 assists).

He said his second year in the league was when he felt he had fully figured things out, and did so alongside some top players, Ivan Barbashev and Dmitrij Jaskin.

“I thought that I was figuring the league out in my second season, and I ended up breaking my wrist. I didn’t feel like I was able to hit my ceiling that year, but I was pretty confident going into that summer. I would be lying if I said I thought I was going to put up 129 points, but fortunately, I was able to do that. That year, when I grew into my body — I was 5-foot-5 my first couple years — I then got to my max height of 5-foot-8, and I was able to grow, mature and finished up with junior hockey. I did all I could there.”

Time in Tucson

After his three and a half years in Moncton, Garland was signed by the Coyotes, who drafted him in the fifth round (123rd overall) in 2015. He reported to Tucson for the next two seasons. The change from playing a big role in the CHL to playing significantly fewer minutes proved difficult, but a chance halfway through his time with Roadrunners helped him make a smoother transition.

Conor Garland
Conor Garland (Credit: Daniel St. Louis Photography)

“It was tough…I had a lot of confidence and thought I was a point producer and someone who could score. I got to Tucson and was put on the fourth line. That’s just how it goes for guys. If you’re playing three to five minutes a night, you can’t really produce. Maybe I should have been put in a different role, but that wasn’t the case. That first year was a waste.

“Fortunately for me, there was a coaching change and they brought in some guys like Mike Van Ryn who’s so focused on developing. He is a guy who really wanted you to make it. I did video every day with the coaching staff. There’s a lot of guys from that team who moved on and it’s pretty evident why. I was fortunate enough to have a coaching staff like that, starting in my second year [in Tucson].”

In his third season in the AHL, Garland played 21 games in Tucson, continuing his development, until he got called to the NHL.

Achieving His Goal

Transitioning to the NHL is tough for anyone, but Garland was jolted into the league in his second game: He was heading home to Boston to play the Bruins, about 45 minutes northwest of where he grew up.

“It was a blur if I’m being honest,” Garland said with a laugh. “I was trying to just stay up in Arizona. I had a terrible first game. My focus was just having a good game. I didn’t even see my family.”

Clayton Keller, Conor Garland, Nick Cousins
Arizona Coyotes’ Conor Garland, Clayton Keller and Nick Cousins (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh)

This season, Garland had his second chance to play in Boston. This time around, he did his best to enjoy the whole experience.

“This year, it was different. I enjoyed it. I took my family to dinner and got them a suite to sit in. It was awesome, and there were about 130 people I knew at the game. I was matched up against [Zdeno] Chara the whole night, and that’s something that you always dream about as a kid growing up in Boston. He got the better of me. I maybe got by him once. We lost the game and that one stung, but it’s something that when I’m done playing — hopefully I can play for another 10 to 15 years — that every time I go back, I’ll be able to remember each experience.”

Memories of Home

A native of Scituate, Massachusetts, Garland has a lot of memories playing hockey growing up, with some of his friends making it to the NHL.

“I grew up down the street from Ryan Donato who plays on Minnesota and is one of my best friends. I also played with [Jack] Eichel a lot growing up. Having those guys around me for a majority of my life was huge. I wanted them to do well, but I also wanted to get drafted, with them being drafted. They got a college scholarship, I wanted to get a college scholarship. It was an advantage for all of us, and fortunately for all three of us, we made the NHL.”

Arizona doesn’t have quite the same hockey atmosphere as a city like Boston, and Garland acknowledges that he doesn’t get recognized much in Phoenix. That changes when he heads home:

“I can go out to eat here and no one will say a word. No one will recognize me. I went to dinner with my family at a restaurant in Braintree, Mass. and I had six or seven people come up to the table, and I’m on the opposing team. It’s incredible. It’s crazy. I love that about Boston. It’s my favorite place to play. I used to go to those games. It’s a hockey culture. Everyone goes to the games on the T (Tram). Everyone loves their team. It’s a bit different here, but I think I’d rather be here in December when it’s 77 degrees.”

Arizona Coyotes Conor Garland Minnesota Wild Joel Eriksson Ek
Arizona Coyotes right winger Conor Garland battles with Minnesota Wild center Joel Eriksson Ek. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

However, Garland noted how much the fans in Arizona have started to grow into the sport, and love everything that hockey brings:

“We had a video one year where we went around Tucson and asked people what the blue line was and what offsides is. Not many people could tell us. I’m very proud that they almost sell out every single game now and that their season ticket holder numbers are through the roof. There was a Conor Garland bobblehead night this year, and it made me really proud that I was there from day one and helped to grow it. Our first game, people didn’t know what they were coming to see. Having a guy like Auston Matthews being from here and seeing what he’s done in the NHL helps a ton.”

Playing at the Top Level

Now permanently in the NHL, Garland has had a chance to play with some high-level players on the Coyotes’ top lines. He said that the talent around him has really altered the way that he sees and plays the game.

“One player that sticks out is [Nick Schmaltz]. He makes incredibly high level plays. Not many people can make the plays that he makes. [Christian Dvorak], he’s such an easy guy to play with. If you could pick someone to play with, you would pick someone who plays like him. He plays the right way. [Taylor Hall] is a world-class talent. My game had to change. In Tucson and in juniors, I had the puck the majority of the time. My thought now is that I have to get them the puck. My game has evolved playing with those guys.”

With this season paused due to the coronavirus pandemic, Garland says it was a disappointing end.

“The end wasn’t great for us,” Garland admitted. “We were in first place for so long, and we felt like we were turning a page. Every game was so tight. We had the two teams above us in the wild card on our remaining schedule. Four points out, 12 games left, we felt like we controlled our destiny. Hopefully, we will find out what happens. But it’s a disappointing end because we don’t know what would have happened.”

Conor Garland Arizona Coyotes
Conor Garland, Arizona Coyotes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Pacific Division is in a tight race, so Garland’s frustration with the way that things ended was understandable. The NHL playoffs are an unpredictable journey that ended last season with the eighth seed in the East, the Carolina Hurricanes, making it to the Eastern Conference Final. All bets are off, especially when there are so many evenly matched teams in the West.

Garland said that no matter what happens, he will be prepared to play this year or next season because that is what his life’s work is: “I want to be one of the top players in the league. I had to start from the bottom. You have to get better each day, especially in the summer.”

Adversity Drives All

If you think about it, Garland’s career path to the NHL was a steady line of adversity until he achieved his ultimate goal of playing at the top level of professional hockey. He said that everyone around him understands what it took for him to achieve that goal, and that nothing will slow him at this point. His love of working hard and playing the sport are too strong to stop any time soon.

Arizona Coyotes Conor Garland Minnesota Wild Joel Eriksson Ek
Arizona Coyotes right wing Conor Garland battles with Minnesota Wild center Joel Eriksson Ek (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

“It’s all I ever wanted to do. I never wanted to do anything else. I dedicated my whole younger life to this. It’s my life now. I have a girlfriend who I love dearly, but even she knows that, right now until I’m done playing, that’s my focus every day when I wake up. Right now, it’s hockey. I can’t describe it, it’s what I do with my life. That’s it.”

Some may say the hardest part is over and that he made it, but try telling Garland that. For him, his journey is just beginning.