Brash and bold, new mascot Gritty was a magnet for attention in Philadelphia this season. Meanwhile, a low-key rookie was changing the trajectory of the franchise.
At just 20, Carter Hart brought stability to the Flyers’ crease after years of turmoil. “I was trying to make the team at the beginning of the year,” Hart said. “When I got sent down after training camp, right before the season, I was really disappointed. But I kept it in the back of my mind that I wanted to be there and made sure that every day when I came to the rink, that there was extra motivation to get to the NHL. I had to make the most of everything I was doing down in Allentown so I could make that jump and be ready when I do get that call.”
The call came soon enough: Dec. 17, the same day coach Dave Hakstol was fired by the 12-15-4 Flyers, who had also parted ways with GM Ron Hextall three weeks earlier. “My first game, I was really nervous,” Hart said. “The guys did a good job of making things easy for me and kind of settled me down.”
After that 20-save, first-star performance in a 3-2 home victory over the Detroit Red Wings, Hart quickly claimed the crease as his own. Appearing in 31 of the Flyers’ 51 games after his call-up, he went 16-13-1 with a .917 save percentage and earned the trust of a notoriously emotional fan base. “I know when things weren’t going well for us, they were letting us have it,” he said, “but when we were starting to turn things around, they really got behind us and supported us. As players, we really appreciate that.
“Philly’s a sports city. They care about all their sports. They just want all their teams to succeed.”
A second-round pick (48th overall) in 2016, Hart won plenty during his impressive junior career. As a member of the Everett Silvertips, he earned three Del Wilson Awards as the WHL’s top goaltender and was twice named CHL goaltender of the year. With Team Canada, he won silver and gold at the World Junior Championship and, this spring, he added another silver as a member of the men’s team at the World Championship.
Serving as Matt Murray’s backup in Slovakia, Hart gave up just two goals in 171 minutes of action against Great Britain, France and Denmark. “It felt good,” Hart said. “I didn’t get a lot of shots but tried to stay engaged in those games and be sharp and ready.”
But was there any awkwardness when working with Murray, a member of the rival Penguins? “He’s a really good guy,” Hart said. “He’s a good goalie. I’d just known him from playing against him a couple of times with Pittsburgh, and we see them a lot, so that’s our biggest rivalry.”
In Slovakia, Hart also got a sneak peek of his new bench boss for the Flyers next season, Team Canada coach Alain Vigneault. “He seems like a good guy,” Hart said. “The guys really like him and respect him. He’s a good coach. He’s got a good track record in the NHL, and he seems like a reasonable guy to talk to and easy to approach. That’s what I’ve told all the guys in Philly that have asked. I’ve said it’s been nothing but good things, so I look forward to working with him down the road next year in Philly.”
Hart’s biggest takeaway from his rookie season is the relentless nature of the NHL regular-season schedule: “You’re playing just about every second day, and it’s a little bit different than in the minors or juniors when you play a lot on weekends or have four or five days sometimes between games,” he said. “You never get that in the NHL.
“It’s important that you take care of your body and get rest so that you’re fully prepared and physically and mentally rested to go every night. That’s important if you want to stay consistent.”
After spending a month in Europe, he’ll be sticking close to home the rest of the off-season. “I’m going to spend my summer back home in Sherwood Park (Alta.),” he said. “Go to Philly maybe once in July for a couple of days to see the guys there, and then that’s probably it.”
It’s best he rests now, because, next season, expectations will be heavy. But every indication so far is Hart will be able to shoulder the load.