The following is an interview conducted over the phone with Vancouver Canucks colour commentator and former goaltender John Garrett.
DQ: I know you’re a big Jays fan, how much have you been watching and what do you think of these young guys like Bichette, Guerrero, and Biggio?
JG: I really am a big Jays fan, at the end of the season I went back to Ontario to visit my in-laws and stopped by for a couple of games. I really like Gurriel, Guerrero, Biggio, and Bo Bichette in particular, what a great start he’s had. I think they did it the right way; they had their time in the minors and now they’re ready to go. Their pitching kind of sucks right now, and it’s unfortunate that they had to get rid of a guy like Eric Sogard, but Freddy Galvis is a good veteran guy who seems to help them along. It’ll be sad to see Justin Smoak go, he’s probably out the door at the end of the season, he’s a free agent. Their catching has been good but they’re not getting much offence out of that position, but maybe the new guy, McGuire, can help there.
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DQ: Residing in Vancouver, how much of the Vancouver Canadians do you watch during the Summer?
JG: I haven’t been as much; when they were a triple-A team, I used to go once in a while; my daughter, as a matter of fact, worked for them one summer and I had season tickets when they were in triple-A. It’s still fun to go, I go maybe once or twice a year, it’s great to go to Nat Bailey, it’s a nice little ballpark, I enjoy the food for sure, it’s a good night out.
DQ: Have you tried the yard dog yet? The three-foot-long hot dog.
JG: No, I’ve seen it, but I haven’t tried it. I’d have to get the pepsin going a day ahead of time for that.
DQ: I need to ask you. When you and Shorty went back on the broadcasts last October, you kind of broke the internet when you decided to swap facial hair, when was the decision made to do that and did you guys know that you would have that much of a reaction from people?
JG: No, we knew we’d have some reaction, but I’ve got the moustache back for this season. Shorty is happy, he didn’t like it, he thought it wasn’t in my character. I decided before the season started last year during the summer that you know, it was kind of a bother and that it’s much easier just to shave instead of trimming the moustache and all that kind of stuff. I thought, the Canucks are changing, lots of new vibes, why don’t I just try something different? Then I thought, I’m gonna come back with the moustache this year.
DQ: Well it’s good to hear you’re coming back with the moustache because that is like a staple in Vancouver.
JG: Yes thanks!
DQ: Changing pace to your playing career, were you always a goaltender and what made you want to play the position to start with?
JG: Well I was a goaltender to start with, my older brother got me playing the game, I didn’t play organized hockey until I was about 9 or 10, the last year of squirts. My older brother, who now is a retired lawyer, he’s gotta be 5 or 6 years older than I am, he was a forward and he needed somebody to shoot at, so he would get me out in the backyard. We grew up in Ontario, and he would take shots on me. Then when I started playing, they said ‘okay what position do you want to play?’ And I said, ‘okay, well I’ve tried some goal, so let’s play goal.’ I was okay at it, I played baseball, and a lot of other sports, I played football, all that kind of stuff.
Goaltending seemed to be the one position where you were involved all the time, that’s what I liked about it. In the small town that I grew up in, they rotated around a little bit, but not like they do now. It was a house league situation, you’d play goal and then they’d scout you in the first two or three weeks, and then if they thought you were good enough you’d make the all-star team, but you could still play in the house league team too, so that was a double bonus, you got to play twice as much.
If you’re a forward, you’re only out there a third of the time, and as a goalie, you’re involved all the time, I liked being involved. When you did get to play house league, and by the time I was bantam, if you made the all-star team, you couldn’t go back to the house league, unless you were a goalie. I played defence for a while in Bantam in the house league, but I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much because then again, you’d go out for a shift and you go and sit for five minutes, so goaltending seemed to be more hands-on.
DQ: As you know, I’m working on an article right now about the nicest goaltending masks in Canucks history. I was looking at yours, and I noticed that your neck was completely exposed. My question is, with that lack of equipment that goaltenders in your era wore, what’s the worst injury you sustained from a puck, a stick, or a skate blade?
JG: I got hit in the eye one night when I was with the Birmingham Bulls at the time in the WHA and we were playing the New England Whalers. I got hit in the eye with a shot, from close in, a rising slap shot, and those masks, well they fit right to your face, and so it was just like getting punched. I got cut for 28 stitches, it bruised my eyeball, scratched the cornea, still, my left eye is more sensitive to light. Back then, they took me off the ice and stitched me up and said ‘are you alright?’ and I said ‘yeah’, and back then, concussions never even came into play.
But I said ‘is there a hair or something in my eye?’ and the doctor looked at it, fortunately, he was knowledgable in the optometry part of it, and he said ‘no there’s no hair or anything, you must have bleeding in your eyeball’. So they rushed me to a hospital, I had a week off, and I was only out for maybe ten days, then right back at it! It was funny, because they told me ‘yeah you can play, you won’t do any more damage unless you get hit in the eye again, but you might have problems with depth perception.’ So I asked ‘well how long is that going to last?’ and they said ‘not long maybe only a week or two’. I remember I was playing in the WHA All-Star game just after I came back and a guy took a shot from the red line, I had no idea where it was, and it blew by me from the red line.
Back then, the masks, no one even thought about concussion protocol, but the masks were very good for any sticks around the net, you wouldn’t get cut, but anytime you got hit with the puck it was just like getting punched in the face, and punched really hard. They’d come out and say ‘do you know where you are?’ and you’d say ‘yeah I’m in a rink’ ‘okay, you’re good to go!’ But they never asked which rink.
DQ: My next question is about food, and I’m sure you knew this one was coming. Murph always talks about what you, him, and Shorty go eat while you’re out on the road, and he’s compared your diet to his children’s diets. I gotta ask you, what is the one food you refuse to put ketchup on?
JG: Oh, oh man, there’s not many, I’ll tell you. I put ketchup on just about everything… let me think… I put ketchup on just about everything…
JG: Oh steak for sure, steak for sure. I guess the few times I eat fish, I won’t put ketchup on fish. Same with salads, you don’t put ketchup on salads.
DQ: You briefly touched on your time in the WHA, you spent seven years there before making the jump to the NHL. How do you think that route compares to today’s young goaltenders where a lot of them come straight to the NHL after just a few years in the AHL?
JG: Well, fortunately, there was that alternative for us, I did play in the minors before the WHA, I played one year in the Central league and then in the Central League and the American League before I went to the WHA. But you have to remember, by the time the WHA finished, the four teams that merged, it was what, three or four years before Edmonton was winning all those Stanley Cups; we made the playoffs in the first year in Hartford, with a team who, back then, wasn’t like Vegas where you got to pick and choose your players.
The NHL wanted to make sure the WHA didn’t compete right away, and yet, the WHA teams did. I think it’s a testament to how good the WHA was. You think of the 18-year-olds who weren’t allowed to play in the NHL who played in the WHA, if you look at that list, it’s players like Gretzky, Gartner, Rob Ramage, they could have played in the NHL at the time. If you look at the American League now, it’s a bigger jump to the NHL than the WHA was. By the time we finished, we could’ve beat half the teams in the NHL on a regular basis.
DQ: Speaking of Gretzky, when did you find out that he robbed you of that MVP award at the ’83 All-Star game?
JG: Well I kind of knew that the writing was on the wall in the last ten minutes but to go to the all star game was such a freakish sort of thing, Richard Brodeur got hurt on the Saturday night and the All-Star game was on Tuesday. There weren’t any goaltenders in the Western Conference who were really lighting it up at the time, so the Canucks needed a representative and I was it. Roger Neilson was the coach because the Canucks went to the finals the year before. It was really something just to be there, and I got to play, and I was playing pretty well, it was 3-2 at the time, and halfway through the third period, the reporters who were voting on the MVP were handing in their ballots and I was going to win the car.
Then there was ten minutes left in the third period and Lanny McDonald, who I played in the World Championship with sometime in 81, we became friends and he kept coming back after each save I made and said ‘Cheech, Cheech, you’re getting rolling here, you’ve already got one of the tires’. Then he finally came back at the eight-minute mark of the third period and said ‘Cheech you’re getting the steering wheel you’ve got this thing locked up’. Then Gretzky comes out and scores, then he scores again and Lanny comes back out and says ‘It’s going away’. Then Gretzky went out and got another, and another one, he got four in the last ten minutes, and then my car was gone. I was driving a Nissan Micra at the time, and I think it was Wayne’s 10th car that he had won.
DQ: Do you remember what kind of car it was?
JG: A Firebird with the eagle on the hood.
DQ: After the WHA years, you went to the NHL and you played for two franchises whose cities no longer have NHL teams. In your opinion, what city is the best market for an NHL team that currently doesn’t have one?
JG: Well Hartford was very good, they went to Carolina and they won a cup, and Quebec went to Colorado and won a cup. But Quebec is unbelievable. The fans are so passionate and it’s a hockey market and now they have a rink. They say ‘well it’s not a corporate center and they wouldn’t be able to sell the suites — but they would be, I think it’s criminal that they don’t have an NHL franchise. That fanbase is so enthusiastic and so eager; it was a great place to play hockey wise, and it’s just too bad that they don’t have an NHL team. Hopefully, they will, but I know the politics of it all — it’s something that only Gary Bettman seems to understand.
DQ: What’s your favourite Canucks’ moment that you’ve witnessed live as a broadcaster?
JG: Well Elias Pettersson is just dynamic and he’s fun to watch, he’s had some nights that I look back already and think ‘what a player he’s going to be’. To me, it’s the last home game that Henrik and Daniel played. They meant so much to this franchise and they should’ve won a Stanley Cup, they were the best team in the league for two years in a row, won back to back President’s Trophies; so for them to go out the way they did, in those last two games, especially the last home game, and get the tribute they got from the fans, to me that was the best game that I’ve been able to broadcast, I just enjoyed that so much. The show they put on, you couldn’t have written it any better.
DQ: Ian Clark is a free agent next season, how important do you think both he and goalie coaches, in general, are for a goaltender’s success?
JG: I never had a goalie coach, but you watch how they can relate to the goaltenders now and how they can see the technical things a goaltender does, whether he’s out too far, not coming out far enough, starting to lose the posts. To me, the goaltender is the most important position on any team. You look at the St. Louis Blues and Jordan Binnington comes in when they’re in last place and all of a sudden they win the Stanley Cup. What was the difference? Well okay they changed coaches that’s part of it but they changed goaltenders and he caught fire and away they went.
You look at all the Stanley Cup winners of the last few years and goaltending has been the most important part of it. They’ve finally realized that they should have a full-time goalie coach on every team, most teams have two or three goalie coaches, one for their NHL team, one for their minor league, and one for their scouting staff. I think it’s invaluable, especially to have guys who have played the position before and really understand the mental part of it. The only person who really understands the pressure of playing goal is another goalie. It’s hard for a coach who was a forward to look back and know what the goalie is going through and try to relate to it. The goalie coach can go down and calm the guy down, make sure that the next game isn’t affected by the game that he just had, or if he gets on a roll, make sure he stays on a roll.
DQ: My final question, who do you think is set to have a breakout season next year?
JG: We naturally expect big seasons out of Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser, but Quinn Hughes, he’s an interesting guy who I’d say we haven’t seen the best of yet, and I’m looking forward to him because I think the defence is much improved with the additions of Tyler Myers and Jordie Benn, and now Quinn Hughes will be able to show his offensive flare. You mention a guy like Jake Virtanen, it’s going to be a lot more competitive next season and Jake will probably start on the third line. I think with the additions, Jake will have to prove that he’s a top-six forward and hopefully he can rise to that occasion.