It’s late on a Tuesday evening as the Scotiabank Saddledome empties, the local fans scurrying into the unseasonably warm night air. The fact that the Calgary Flames have skated to an exhibition victory over Colorado is offset somewhat by the herky-jerky nature of preseason hockey. Regardless, spirits are high.
Down below the stands, in the Flames locker room, Garnet Hathaway collects his thoughts after his fourth game of this preseason. A year prior, he was sent down to the American Hockey League when minor league camps began, owing to his status as a player on an AHL contract. A year and a day after he was cut from last year’s training camp, he’s the lone player without NHL experience dressed by the Flames against Colorado.
Hathaway recalls the cut-down day, as he realized that he was going to be sticking around a bit longer than he did a year ago.
“Obviously, there was a lot of guys around me that started to get emails to come have meetings,” Hathaway said. “It goes through your head. I had that little loss of breath, when I kinda got nervous, then I realized that I wasn’t getting an email and I was staying here. But it passed quickly, and you’ve got to be ready to go [prepare for the next game].”
Hathaway was originally brought to the Abbotsford Heat on a minor-league deal following the completion of his senior year at Brown University, on the recommendation of long-time NCAA scout Frank Anzalone. Now into his second season with the organization, his 19 goals and 36 points with the Adirondack Flames earned him a promotion to an NHL deal. Considering that two seasons ago he was toiling in Hockey East and dreaming of an NHL opportunity, his current situation is a bit of an adjustment.
“I don’t know if it’s surreal, but it’s getting more competitive,” said Hathaway of the atmosphere as training camp rosters shrink. “Every team is cutting down and getting their Oct. 7 roster ready, and they’re getting ready for the regular season and it’s definitely exciting to go against a full NHL team. But I’m just playing my game and just thinking about my own game rather than everybody else.”
For players trying to force their way onto an NHL roster, preseason hockey can be a bit of an uphill battle. Veteran players typically use the games to get their timing and in-game rhythms down while trying to avoid injury, and while it’s probably unfair to say they’re not trying – they are professionals, after all – they’re definitely not going 110 percent every shift. In Calgary’s game against Colorado, Hathaway’s hustle and physical play stands out – a good sign, but also expected given his status as a rookie trying to get noticed by management. Regardless of the situation around him, Hathaway seems to have a handle on what he needs to deliver to be successful and to stick around.
“I’m not a skill player, I’m not a fancy-type player, but you know, limit turnovers, make smart decisions in the neutral zone, get on the forecheck, stuff like that,” said Hathaway. “Be smart defensively. I have to focus on those things to be a full-time NHLer and make this roster.”
Later in the evening, Flames head coach Bob Hartley praises Hathaway’s performance in his postgame media address, noting “He played well. He’s an up-and-down winger, we know what he’s going to bring to the table every game.”
Because of their similar backgrounds – they’re both college players from schools in the northeastern United States – and their playing styles and right-handedness, Hathaway has drawn comparisons to Josh Jooris. Jooris came into last season’s Flames camp after a year in the AHL and forced his way onto the team with his play. Hathaway acknowledges the comparison but downplays it somewhat.
“The day I got cut last year, Josh didn’t even know cuts were going on,” jokes Hathaway, noting Jooris’ focus. “He deserved to be here and he deserved to be the first call-up and you just watch how he works and how prepared he is for every game. I kinda wanna focus my game after that, and just play my game.”
Looming over Hathaway’s performance is the business side of the game. The Flames have 16 established forwards in camp, most of whom are on one-way deals or require waivers to head down to the AHL, which makes the numbers game perhaps the biggest obstacle to Hathaway being a Flame on Oct. 7.
“If it’s a numbers game, then it is, but if I play my best hockey, then I can’t complain.”
Hathaway seems to be focused on what he can control, rather than lingering on what he can’t. The game’s already in his rear-view mirror, and he’s already looking ahead to the next set of preseason games against Winnipeg – the only thing separating the Flames from the regular season.
Regardless of how this chapter ends – in an opening-day spot or a trip to Stockton, Calif. to begin the year in the AHL – Hathaway has already come a long way from Brown University.
“When I signed that contract, it was surreal. It was the best day of my life so far,” Hathaway said. “And then you got to move on, though, and then you got to work hard to get that first NHL game, and keep moving from there.”
Ryan Pike has covered the Calgary Flames and the NHL Draft extensively since 2010 as a Senior Writer for The Hockey Writers and Senior Contributing Editor of FlamesNation.ca. A member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, he lives in Calgary.