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Is the Flyers’ Carter Hart ready for the NHL’s most challenging goaltending job?

September 11th, 2019 by Scott Burnside - The Athletic

SHERWOOD PARK, Alberta – There is something purposeful about the solitary figure on this sheet of ice in this suburban rink outside Edmonton on this day in early August.

The heir to the oft-cursed Philadelphia Flyers goaltending throne makes looping circles up and down the ice, gliding first on one leg and then the other.

Carter Hart is worried about the great gouges he’s left in the ice at the Millennium Place. Though the rising NHL star need not worry. The staffers who come out to chat at the end of Hart’s hour-long session seem more pleased by his presence than annoyed about any damage he’s done to their ice surface.

Hart booked the ice himself. He packed a special drill bit and brought along some NHL style goal pegs to anchor the net.

Once he secures the posts, he slides quickly back and forth, sealing first one side of the net and then the other with his skates.

If the pegs aren’t set, the posts will move and that’ll disrupt Hart’s session.
“I missed on one of them,” the now 21-year-old said during a water break, sweat pouring down his face. “But it’s gotten a lot better than what it used to be.”

A man perfecting his craft.

At age 10, Hart sat down at the family table in Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, and wrote on a blank piece of paper: “I will play in the Western Hockey League.”

He would look at that paper every morning before he left his room.

When he was in Grade 6, he informed his teacher that he would be playing in the NHL one day. The teacher told him the odds would suggest that wasn’t likely.

“But it can be done,” he said.

Growing up, Hart would often beg off outings or parties if he had early hockey the next day. As he got older, relationships were put on hold so he could focus on his game. Even now, he prefers to eat at home the night before home games in order to make time for his pregame rituals, which include 45 minutes of stretching before bed.

But to suggest that Hart’s single-minded pursuit of excellence has come somehow at the cost of his humanity, that his commitment to craft has come at the expense of a personality, a sense of humor, a curiosity about life, in short to suggest that Hart has somehow become a goaltending cyborg if you will, is refreshingly untrue.

As his solo session nears completion, an 8-year-old boy attending a summer hockey camp appears near the ice in full gear.

Hart stops by the bench to say hello and invites the boy onto the ice to take a handful of shots at him. The lanky 6-foot-2 Hart and the pint-sized skater create an interesting tableaux. A boy perhaps too young to understand the nature of dreams and a young man just now fully understanding the power of such dreams.

The youngster tells Hart, respectfully, that he’s a Chicago Blackhawks fan.
“Well, I guess we can’t be friends,” Hart jokes, “unless you become a Flyer fan.”

The boy said he doesn’t mind the Flyers, though he has grave reservations about Flyers fans.
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The fact that an 8-year-old boy thousands of miles from the center of Philadelphia hockey angst has at least a passing notion of that hockey market helps to explain the crossroads at which Hart and the Flyers find themselves heading into training camp.

The Flyers haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1975. There are myriad reasons why the team’s Cup drought has extended beyond four decades, but chief among them has been the absence of a bona fide Stanley Cup caliber goaltender.

Hart is the next best chance to put an end to that misery. The anticipation about what the young goaltender represents is palpable.

Hart was in Philadelphia for some offseason workouts and he stopped in an Apple Store to buy an iPad. A couple introduced themselves and then introduced their newborn; Carter. He’s named after Hart.

Soon other patrons and staff in the store were crowding around asking for pictures and wishing Hart well on the upcoming season.

Hart recalled the odd feeling the night of his NHL debut Dec. 18 as the crowd at Wells Fargo Arena roared its approval for his first-ever NHL stop. It was a routine shot from well out, but the fans had been waiting for that moment virtually since the Flyers made him the first goaltender selected in the 2016 draft. Their enthusiasm made Hart smile behind his mask.

On the bench, interim head coach Scott Gordon recalled a stop Hart made just before Detroit scored its first goal that night, somehow getting his body in front of a shot that seemed destined to go in.

“It was unbelievable,” Gordon said.

The Red Wings scored on the rebound, but Gordon looked down the bench and saw an energized team. The players looked at each other as if they had just seen a sign of things to come.

“Every goalie makes big saves, but it was kind of a moment, wow, this kid’s pretty good,” Gordon said after the 3-2 Flyers victory.

Hart is expected to occupy a place quite apart from the franchise’s pockmarked history with goaltenders. The Flyers haven’t had a Vezina Trophy winner since Ron Hextall in 1987 and haven’t had a finalist for the award since Roman Cechmanek in 2001. Over the past 20 seasons (1998-99 through 2018-19), the Flyers have made 15 appearances in the playoffs, taken part in 27 playoff series and employed 12 different starters in goal. Four other goaltenders appeared in Flyers playoffs games during that period but did not start games.

When the subject of the team’s quixotic search for a franchise netminder comes up, Hart is always reminded of the sage advice from his former junior coach, Kevin Constantine: “Only care about what you’re doing the next day.”

In short, erasing four-plus decades of goaltending angst isn’t his agenda.

“I don’t really care (about the Flyers’ history) because that’s the past,” Hart said. “The only thing that matters is right now.

“I don’t need to be anybody’s savior.”
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Hart and his family lived in Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, about a half-hour drive northeast of Edmonton, until Hart was 13. That’s when they moved to the bedroom community of Sherwood Park.

At the side of the Hart residence there’s a hockey net. Its presence reminds Hart of the times he would bundle younger sister Sarah, now 16, in padded clothes and street hockey gear and set her in the goal for some target practice.

“Most of the time it would end up with her running into the house crying,” Hart acknowledged.

In the basement, Hart’s domain, there is a room to the left that bears the distinctive, perhaps even comforting, odor familiar to any family that has stored hockey gear for any length of time.

A couple of favored jerseys hang on the wall in his bedroom, including a signed Braden Holtby Capitals jersey, which is also signed by former Washington netminders Olie Kolzig and Michal Neuvirth.

In December, Neuvirth spent time as Hart’s netminding partner in Philadelphia after Hart was called up from the AHL.

In contrast to all the hockey paraphernalia in the small carpeted living room, an acoustic guitar rests in a stand and not far away is an electric guitar, Hart’s pastime away from the rink.

He bought his first guitar for $150 his final year as a major junior star in Everett. He’d graduated from high school and wanted a hobby to challenge himself. He began taking lessons from a local musician who seemed more interested in talking politics, so after learning a handful of chords, Hart fired him.

He is now more or less teaching himself.

He agrees, somewhat reluctantly, to play a sample of some of the songs he’s been working on.

There are snippets from Johnny Cash’s “Hurt,” Green Day’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “Time of Dying” one of his favorites by Three Days Grace and “Zombie,” made famous by the Cranberries.

Some of the tunes are instantly recognizable while others are, well, less so. Guitar is a work-in-progress. And while there are easier hobbies, the intricacy appeals to him.

When you’re working on the guitar, “that’s all you think about,” Hart said.
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The counter next to the family’s kitchen constantly plays host to plates of homemade cookies, smoothies, fresh fruits or local cured meats.

Hart’s mother, Shauna, a former mortgage administrator with a national bank, makes sure the fridge is well-stocked for her son’s summer sojourn home and she consults with Hart on his preferred menu in preparing dinners so he doesn’t get overloaded on one particular food group.

Thus far this summer, Hart has more than five pounds to his 6-foot-2 frame, part of his goal of getting a bit bigger and stronger.

During the season, Hart talks to his father, John, a self-employed mechanical coordinator in the petroleum industry, pretty much every day and certainly after every game.

The two attend car shows around the Edmonton area during the offseason and Hart imagines a day when the two will own a classic car, maybe a late model Camaro or Mustang, and show it themselves.

They also play as much golf as they can.

John, who played senior hockey in British Columbia for the legendary Trail Smoke Eaters, happens to be an excellent golfer who has never lost to his son.

When they play together, if Dad hits a poor shot, he’ll invariably wonder aloud to his son: “Is this the day?”

But it’s never been that day.

Last summer, they put a friendly $250 wager on whether Hart could best his father just once before he headed off to training camp. Hart paid out, in Canadian dollars, which lessens the sting of loss slightly, he said.

“He can outdrive me, no problem there,” John said. “But Carter gets a little stubborn sometimes. He doesn’t like to take advice.”
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Hart began playing youth hockey as a skater but after subbing in occasionally for the team’s regular goaltender he informed his parents when he was about 9 years old that he wanted to be a goaltender full-time.

“Dad, you can’t deny me my dream,” he reportedly told his father.

John and his son headed to the basement to figure out if goaltending was for his son.

Hart grabbed his baseball glove and a stick and his father started snapping shots at him with a hard sponge ball.

“His decision to play goal was not my decision,” John said. “I was trying to deter him from it. I tried to fix it.”

One of the first shots hit Carter, sans mask, in the lip. There was some blood but no tears.

“He just shook his head and said, ‘OK, Dad, bring it,’” John said.

The next shot went by his ear and the boy never flinched.

“I thought, ‘oh no, here we go,’” Hart’s father said.

John told his son early on that if he was serious about goaltending he would find a goaltending coach. He made an appointment for Hart to see local goaltending guru John Stevenson.

Hart’s mother drove him to Stevenson’s rural workout facility but was told she would have to wait outside in the truck, that it would be just Stevenson and the young netminder on the ice.

When it was over, Stevenson told Shauna he’d never seen a young netminder with the focus her son revealed in that early session. And, yes, he’d love to work with him.

Stevenson still remembers the joyful exuberance the young Hart showed, sliding from side to side on the ice in his best 11-year-old imitation of rising Montreal star netminder Carey Price.

“He was way ahead of everybody else,” Stevenson said.

Stevenson taught Hart early on about the power of visualization. Hart recalls lying on the bench in the dressing room, closing his eyes and imagining making saves, being in position, being a goaltender.

The mentor and the student remain connected to this day, as Stevenson’s importance a decade after their first meeting ranks up there with Hart’s parents.

In his early teens, Hart came to Stevenson before a big tournament. Scouts were going to be watching and Hart wanted to perform well.

But with all the pressure and his desire to show well, Hart struggled and was pulled in several games.

A few days later, Hart and Stevenson sat down to go over the disappointing outcome. What do you love about goaltending, Stevenson wanted to know. The joy of being part of a team, the satisfaction of being in the right position, the feeling of the puck hitting the glove, Hart said.
Stevenson urged him to focus on those things the next time the end result of a game threatened to intrude on his thoughts.

A few years later, the night before the gold medal game at the World Junior Championships in 2018, Hart called up Stevenson for a chat.
He was sitting by himself in the lobby of the team’s hotel in Buffalo. Hart wanted very badly to rewrite the script from the previous year, when the Canadians lost in the gold medal game in a shootout with Hart in goal.
Stevenson asked him to think back to their early work together and imagine just playing goal. Not the outcome but the simple feeling of making a stop, the correct positioning on any given play, going back to the core elements of playing the position.

“Even the sounds of the game,” Hart said.

When you’re in that moment of memory, he said, “you can almost hear the puck hitting the webbing of the glove.”

The next day, Canada won the gold medal and Hart was Player of the Game.
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When Stevenson decided to go full-time into the psychological end of the business, working not just with hockey players but other athletes and corporate clients, the Harts needed to figure out who Carter could work with as he got into his teenage years.

Enter Dustin Schwartz.

Schwartz was a highly regarded local goaltending coach and part of the staff at Vimy Ridge Academy, a school Hart attended before being drafted by Everett of the WHL.

“He was 100 percent a student of the game,” said Schwartz, now the goaltending coach for the Edmonton Oilers. “Bursting for something new all the time.”

The two would often take lunch breaks at school together to go over video.
“He gave up his lunchtime because hockey was a priority,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz was working with him when Hart was cut by the local AAA U-15 team.

Disappointed but undaunted, Hart told Schwartz that even if he was playing for a lower-tier team, he was going to be the best goalie in that league. And he was.

A year later, he was with Everett and by the end of that first full season with the Silvertips, he was the undisputed No. 1 goalie.

Schwartz said Hart has “transitioned with purpose,” as he’s faced greater and greater hurdles in the game. He understands what the next level looks like and understands the work that needs to be done to get there.
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Firstline Training is housed in a vast warehouse/workout facility in Sherwood Park and early this August morning it’s dominated, as it is most days, by hockey players.

There are a couple of NHLers including Hart’s longtime pal Sam Steel, one of Anaheim’s most promising forward prospects, a couple of WHL players and a handful of minor pro hopefuls.

There is a steady hum of activity as the players move from station to station, some doing weights, others working on cardio and so on.

Riding herd on the entire operation and seemingly in tune with where each of the dozen or so customers are at in each of their workouts is owner Phil Daly.

Hart was about 14 the first time he sauntered into this gym with his hoodie on, knapsack on his back and earphones in his ear.

“He was the goofiest little kid I’ve ever come across,” Daly said.

Training a goalie is, on some levels, different than training a skater because of the mechanics of the position. All players have the same engine system and the demands on the body are the same, Daly said, but a goalie differs dramatically in how the body moves. Goalies need to be strong off their knees, which requires a strong core and hips that allow for sudden, dramatic pushes laterally.

When he came in, Hart was a goalie, Daly said.

“Now I’ve turned him into an athlete.”

When Hart arrived for his first full season in Everett at the age of 16 the expectation was that he would play in a handful of games while learning from more experienced players.

“By January he was out-performing our 19-year-old and won the job and was our goalie in the playoffs,” Constantine said. “He was just intensely in love with goaltending and worked his butt off. He wasn’t distracted by normal things.”

Hart lives “in goalie world,” he said.

Constantine, who has been coaching almost continuously since 1985 with NHL stops in San Jose, Calgary, Pittsburgh and New Jersey, believes that most people who come in contact with Hart come away happy they have done so.

“And the reason I say that is he’s charming in a really weird way,” Constantine said. “And I’m an ex-goalie and I wear the weirdness label with pride.”

Constantine had a routine in Everett where he invited small groups of players to his house for dinner with his family. The standing rule for those dinners was that hockey talk was banned so the conversations went to family, schooling, hometowns, current events and the like.

Usually the players would be looking at their watches or phones, wondering when they could escape to text or play video games or hang out with their pals, Constantine admitted.

Not Hart.

Hart, who was particularly impressed by some cream puffs made by Constantine’s wife, spent much of the evening in the kitchen chatting with her about their shared love of cooking shows.

“They talked forever about ‘Cake Boss,’” said Constantine, now coaching in South Korea, with a laugh. “I don’t even know what it is other than it’s on the Food Network.”

Constantine had a profound impact on Hart’s evolution in part because he was uncompromising. Hart arrived at training camp for his second full year in Everett and was not particularly sharp and was not particularly concerned about it. After a number of desultory preseason performances, Constantine took Hart aside and told him in no uncertain terms that what he was bringing to the table was not enough.

“He shredded me,” Hart said.

In his next start, the team’s first regular-season game, he earned a shutout and went on to win 35 games with a 2.14 GAA.
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When you’re a 16-year-old boy away from home for the first time not all answers are found in save percentages and minutes played.

In his first full season in Everett, Hart bounced around to a number of different billet homes. It wasn’t ideal in general and it especially wasn’t ideal for a shy boy from Sherwood Park.

In his second year, Hart and Riley Sutter, son of Ron Sutter and part of the sprawling Sutter hockey family, were paired with longtime Everett billet Parker Fowlds.

The soon-to-be 79-year-old has been hosting major junior hockey boys for 15 years now and recalls having to read Hart the riot act early.

Hart was content to come home from school or practice and retreat to his room and listen to music.

That wasn’t Fowlds’ way.

“He was very shy and he wasn’t presenting himself with the other boys that came very well,” Fowlds said. “It took him a little while to get used to it. He grew up pretty fast.”

And just as quickly, routines developed. Every morning for three seasons, Fowlds fixed Hart roughly the same breakfast; eggs scrambled, chocolate milk and a couple of pieces of toast. Fowlds was in the same seat for each home game, five rows up to the right of the home goal. And before every game, Hart would skate past Fowlds and look up ever so briefly, raising his left arm.

“That was it,” Fowlds said. “From then on the game was focused.”

Whether it was traveling to the local bay to skip stones as a way of diffusing pregame anxiety, getting ice cream or engaging in late-night chats before bed, Fowlds became an important part of Hart’s life. So when Hart was called up from the American Hockey League for his first stint as an NHLer, he bought Fowlds’ airline ticket so he could share in the event.
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With veteran netminders in place with the big club in Philadelphia, Hart began his first season as a professional netminder in Lehigh Valley in the AHL.

Gordon, Hart’s coach in Lehigh Valley, puts it this way: If you took the top five players from every team in the WHL, they would have trouble finding roster spots in the AHL. That’s how big a jump between juniors and pro hockey is.

“I’m not saying he took it lightly,” Gordon said of Hart’s transition at the beginning of last season. But there was a period of adjustment and it reflected in his play.

Gordon pulled Hart from a game in Providence early that season. “I said, ‘I didn’t think you were ready to play tonight,’” Gordon recalled.

The following night, Gordon said Hart played one of his best games of the season.

Over the next month, it was more of the same.

In late November, the Flyers needed a goalie to fill one of the endless injury voids they suffered.

Would it be Anthony Stolarz or Hart?

Gordon was honest in his assessment and said that he needed to see more from Hart.

“To me that was a turning point,” Gordon said.

It was as though Hart knew what it would take to be the one to get the call the next time and he played superlatively in five straight games leading to his own call-up in mid-December.

“I almost felt he was sensing how close he was,” Gordon said. “He played at a different level.”

If the on-ice learning curve was steep, it was no less steep away from the rink where Hart was now fending for himself in Allentown.

Hart was proactive and took advantage of the offer of help from the Flyers’ nutritionist, Nyree Dardarian, who journeyed to Allentown to help him shop properly. The routine continued after Hart moved into his own place in Philadelphia and they would talk on the phone intermittently to make sure Hart was maintaining a healthy diet.

Hart and teammate Connor Bunnaman rented an apartment in Allentown, and Hart was in charge of paying the heat and electricity bill. Or he was supposed to be. One night, they returned to find the apartment cold and dark. It was the weekend so they were forced to spend a miserable couple of days huddled around candles purchased in bulk from a local department store.

“So that’s how I learned,” Hart said.

Not long after Stolarz was called up to the sputtering Flyers he, too, was injured, setting the stage for Hart’s NHL debut.

By the time Hart was penciled in to start against Detroit on Dec. 18, the team was in the midst of seismic changes.

Longtime Flyers great Hextall, who drafted Hart, had been replaced as general manager a few weeks earlier by Chuck Fletcher. Then, in the hours before Hart’s first start, head coach Dave Hakstol was fired and Gordon took over as interim coach.

Hart let none of the external issues deter him.

“It was the plan and he was ready,” Gordon said. “I knew one thing. After the game, I wasn’t getting the game puck.”
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Veteran netminder Mike McKenna, 36, got a chance to observe Hart up close last season as he finished his career with the Flyers organization
“First of all, he’s mature beyond his years,” McKenna said.

The way he prepares for games, his mentality is something you’d expect from a more experienced pro netminder, McKenna said.

“I really think he’s built for success.”

McKenna chuckles at the rituals and the idiosyncrasies that are also part of Hart’s daily routine.

Like his staring at droplets of water shot from a water bottle, a regimen the public first saw with Holtby in Washington.

Every little goalie in Philadelphia is going to be staring at water droplets now, McKenna predicted.

Or traveling to and from the rink.

Even though Hart and McKenna were staying in the same hotel, Hart wouldn’t give McKenna a ride to the rink before one game. Hart prefers to use that time for pregame preparation.

“He just liked to drive on his own,” McKenna said. “It didn’t faze me a bit.”

After compiling a modest 9-8-1 record and .902 save percentage with the Phantoms, Hart went 16-13-1 with a solid .917 save percentage after his December call-up to the Flyers.

Will there be a step back this season as Hart looks to earn the fulltime starter’s role ahead of veteran Brian Elliott? Perhaps.

“I’d be surprised if he played 60 games this year and absolutely lit it on fire,” McKenna said. “I would expect at some point some regression. And I think we’re really going to see what he’s made of when he gets into that lull.”

Still, many observers believe Hart might possess the perfect disposition and high-end goaltending skills to fill that long empty void in Philadelphia.

“If anybody is built to walk into that role and be successful it’s him,” McKenna said. “He doesn’t seem to be fazed by anything. One thing for sure, you can’t be an emotional goalie in the Philly market.”

And make no mistake, even with the addition of new head coach Alain Vigneault and veteran pro coaches Michel Therrien and Mike Yeo and veteran defenders Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun, Hart is the story in Philadelphia.

No question he’s an NHL goalie, McKenna said, “The question is whether he’s a very good goaltender or an elite goaltender.”
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Hart’s parents hoped for the longest time that he’d use hockey as a catalyst to an education.

Then scouts and coaches and general managers started saying things about their son’s skill and drive to be an NHL player.

So, maybe it’s not surprising that when you ask John Hart what his favorite moment is since Carter has stepped into the NHL world, it’s not a win or a save or a star turn.

Late in the regular season, with the playoffs an afterthought, the Flyers had invited students from a school for the blind to take in a practice at the team’s facility in Voorhees, N.J., Carter hit it off with a young man named Justin and invited him to the team’s final home game.

Justin came to the locker room after the game and Carter gave him a stick and they talked about how the game sounded, what it smelled like for Justin. Hart then gave the boy a puck, which he held in his hands.
“He said, ‘Oh, so that’s what a puck feels like,’” John Hart recalled the boy saying. “It almost brought a tear to my eye.”
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Back at the Millennium Place, Hart is finishing up his offseason on-ice session with his newfound friend.

The youngster’s mates have all emerged from the dressing room and are waiting for the ice to be resurfaced. That their friend is on the ice with Hart creates a buzz.

Who is that, someone asks?

Carter Hart, answers another.

Who?

The kid calmly lists off Hart’s impressive resume, played for Canada twice at the world juniors, drafted by Philadelphia, expected to be their starter this season.

“Basically, he’s going to be the next Carey Price,” the kid says matter of factly.

Maybe. And that’s a nice thought.

But what if he’s simply the one and only Carter Hart?

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