One thousand, seven hundred and thirty-six professional hockey games, spanning three countries and eight teams. That was the hockey journey of former Nanaimo Clippers star defenseman Jason Garrison.
From the Royal Bank Cup to the Stanley Cup Final, the 36-year-old has seen his fair share of highs during his distinguished career.
It all started for Garrison back in 2002-03 with the Richmond Sockeyes of the Pacific Junior Hockey League, playing alongside his childhood friend and eventual Clippers teammate Raymond Sawada.
“I came to camp in Richmond as a forward and ended up switching to defense about halfway through. We had a very successful year, we had a bunch of young guys. We won our championships locally and then during one of our playoff games, I think it was Bill Bestwick, his wife saw me and pulled him to recruit me and that is how it started.”
After being recruited by the Clippers, Garrison made the jump to the BCHL as a 19-year-old rookie in an elite program. Similar to his time in Richmond, the White Rock, BC product spent a lot of time up front before separating his shoulder.
“Near the end of the year, I saw lots of time on the blue line and that is when we won the BCHL, won the Doyle Cup, and went to the RBC. During the last half of the year, I was primarily a defenseman, and then going into that summer I felt like I needed to train hard and focus on my defense.”
“When I came back I felt I was really prepared for my last year. The year didn’t end as successfully as we wanted to but we were a very good team and then I jumped into a scholarship at Minnesota Duluth.”
During the 2003-04 season in Nanaimo, Garrison tallied 27 points in 52 games and chipped in another 13 points in 24 games in the championship playoff run.
“There was a mixture of old and young guys and the seasoned veterans (who) made you comfortable and when we had social gatherings they would make sure the whole team was there. Bill (Bestwick) was a great leader for us too, very passionate, and taught us a lot. There are a lot of things that go into a successful team.”
“The city supported us very well, so we tried to go out as much as we could. We often would have dinner at Swiss Chalet, they would host us and put us in a section and our billets and families would come up and that is how everyone got to know each other. It really became one big family and that is really important when you are trying to win,” added Garrison.
In 2014-15, Garrison took a quantum leap in his offensive production, notching 22 goals and 40 assists in 57 games. He added 12 points in 15 playoff games, falling just shy of back-to-back league titles with a loss to Penticton.
“I came into camp, I was in shape and when Bill noticed, I was given opportunities to succeed. He gave me a big opportunity and we had a very good team. I was on the power play and when you are in a situation like that, you play lots of minutes and get into the flow of each game. You see the ice better because you are in the offensive zone.“
“The players believed in me a lot too and would give me chances to take my shot at the net and that’s what happened.”
Running with the Bulldogs
Once his two year stint with Nanaimo concluded, Garrison was off to the NCAA with the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs where he spent the next three years.
In his freshman year, he posted 12 points in 40 games, while playing on a team that went 6-19-3 in the WCHA under current and longtime bench boss Scott Sandelin.
In the playoffs, Garrison and the Bulldogs won their first-round series over the Denver Pioneers before bowing out against St. Cloud State. Garrison mentions he still had lots to learn when perfecting his craft as a defenseman after making the move to the position fairly late.
“When you start that late and then make a jump up in the next two to three years, it’s kind of hard to catch up. When I made that jump to the NCAA, it’s a higher level of hockey with much older guys. Half of our team was drafted and I was trying to learn, but it had to be on the fly. Playing on the back end (that way) is hard to do because when you make mistakes, it’s harder to get that playing opportunity.”
“My first year there was difficult, we had a lot of competition, and each year, I don’t think it got any better because the players were getting better, (plus) other recruits were coming in so you are always trying to prove yourself. Then, fortunately, a couple of guys left early but I always kept that training regiment in the summer, and tried to come to camp one step ahead of everyone.”
During his first season in the State of Hockey, Garrison played alongside Mason Raymond and Matt Niskanen, who both had pretty respectable careers in the NHL. Garrison added the weekend-heavy schedule against a lot of bigger rivals was a pretty huge thrill.
“It was a lot of fun. We were the only Division I team that played on campus, so we enjoyed it a lot and loved playing in front of big and full buildings. Going to school as well helped build character and time management skills and get a degree while playing hockey.”
After an injury-riddled sophomore year, Garrison’s last year at Minnesota Duluth was another leap forward, notching 14 points in 26 games with the Bulldogs who went 9-14-5 in conference play during the 2007-08 campaign. However, the spike in production didn’t come without a price.
“I ended up breaking my leg towards the end of the season and just before that, my coach came up to me and said, ‘There are some scouts asking about you and want to know if you have an agent.’ Then after that, a handful of agents started reaching out to me so I had to deal with that process and communicate with family (as well) from a distance. Once I found (an agent), he came to see me in Wisconsin and that is where I broke my leg. (But) we made the playoffs in Denver and lost.”
“I flew to Florida and Pittsburgh who wanted to evaluate my leg. I had a few NHL teams interested and (was) figuring out which was the best fit, and then on a whim, I picked Florida.”
Down in Rochester
Garrison spent the 2008-09 season with the American Hockey League’s Rochester Americans where he flourished on the ice, tallying 35 points in 75 games along with 68 penalty minutes.
“Turning pro is a tough thing to do. You have a lot of guys doing the same thing so there is a lot of competition within your team, especially in the minors (and) you want to get called up. (It) is a lot more business-oriented, you can call it political, where you have first and second round draft picks and it’s different from what you are used to.”
Garrison saw one NHL game during his rookie season, but in 2009-10, his stock steadily rose, splitting the season between the Americans and the Panthers.
In 38 games with Rochester, Garrison tallied 19 points before spending roughly half the season in Florida due to various injuries with the big club.
“You learn a lot playing in the minors, long schedule, long road trips and then the next year it was all about making that next jump and that is what I did my second year.”
“Often you get your chance at the right time and I remember playing in that year and got called up for what was supposed to be a week, and then someone else got injured for a month. Once you are there, you have to try your best to stay there and that is kind of what happened.”
Garrison’s first full NHL season came in 2010-11 where suited up in 73 games for the Panthers, tallying 18 points. In part two of my chat with Garrison, we will discuss his time with the Vancouver Canucks, Tampa Bay Lightning, and the rest of his pro career.