Goaltending hasn’t always been Canada’s biggest strength at the World Junior Championship, but Carter Hart returns as a star stopper motivated to make up for last year’s disappointment.
As Ron Hextall looked across his desk, the future of his team’s goaltending was looking a little sickly. “You would too if you were drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers,” the joke around the NHL might go. Heh-heh. Since hitting big on Hextall in the draft 35 years ago, the Flyers have picked a total of 41 goaltenders, and not one of them would be confused with Bernie Parent. In fact, the Flyers have not drafted and developed a goalie who has won a playoff game for them since Roman (Frickin’) Cechmanek in 2000.
But when Hextall sent Carter Hart on his way back to junior hockey after just a so-so training camp, he did so with a very specific challenge. The GM challenged Hart to not only be the best goaltender in the WHL this season, he laid down the gauntlet and dared Hart to be the best player. The way Hextall saw it, Hart has been the top goaltender in the WHL the past two years and was the best goaltender in all of junior hockey in 2015-16, so expecting him to be the best player in his league this season wasn’t a stretch. “When a player has been as successful as Carter has at a certain level, that player needs to challenge himself,” Hextall said. “I think it was a fair and reasonable expectation. It doesn’t mean he will be, it doesn’t mean he won’t be, but that’s what he should be striving for.”
There’s still a long way to go before that gets decided, but if the ability to deliver under less-than-ideal circumstances is any indication, Hart took the challenge seriously. Take the night of Sept. 29 at Prospera Place in Kelowna, for instance. Hart stopped 35 of 38 shots, then stoned all three shooters in the shootout to deliver his Everett Silvertips a 4-3 win. Nothing terribly unique about that, as the Silvertips have grown to expect that kind of performance from him. But remember how Hextall thought Hart looked sickly? What they both thought was the flu was actually so bad that Hart had to pass on what would’ve been the first pre-season NHL game of his career. Hart almost passed out a couple of times during the Kelowna game and was so tired he had to take a knee when the play was in the other end of the ice. “I had literally zero energy that night,” he said.
Hart told the Silvertips trainers something was seriously wrong and that he needed to see a doctor. A couple of blood tests later, he was diagnosed with mononucleosis. It took Hart a couple of weeks to regain his health. He lost almost 20 pounds off his 6-foot-2, 185-pound frame, which didn’t leave much to spare. But like he did with Hextall, Hart took his doctor’s orders to heart. “He told me to eat a lot of high-carb, high-fat foods,” Hart said. “He didn’t want me going to McDonald’s and slamming back a couple of Big Macs.”
By mid-November, Hart was fed, watered and healthy, and it was showing. In one five-game stretch, he gave up just four goals, recorded three shutouts and was named the first star four times (and was the third star in the other game). Hockey Canada must’ve been pleased given that, barring an unforeseen circumstance of biblical proportions, Hart will be counted on to backstop Canada to a gold medal in the World Junior Championship. But like the Flyers, who drafted Hart 48th overall in 2016 and expect him to take their crease one day, Team Canada has had something of a checkered history when it comes to goaltending.
So to recap, all Hart is being asked to do is deliver gold medal-caliber goaltending in a hyper-intense environment for a hockey-mad country that will be watching his each and every move for two weeks, then put the brakes on a freight train of mediocrity that has lasted decades and sabotaged one of the NHL’s most storied franchises time and again. No pressure there. “If you think it’s pressure, then yeah, it is,” Hart said. “But at the same time, if you approach it with a different mindset, it’s nothing, really. I don’t really pay attention to what they say at all. Obviously, I’ve heard it before, but at the same time I just have to worry about what I’m doing right now. I’m only 19 years old and I’m playing junior hockey in Everett, so that’s where I am right now.”
Dealing with that level of expectation, at least on the WJC side of things, should be a little easier for Hart this year. After all, he was smack-dab in the middle of that cauldron in 2017 when Canada hosted the tournament. Both he and Connor Ingram took turns seizing, then losing, the starting job, with Hart coming into the net in relief after Ingram gave up two goals on five shots in the semifinal game against Sweden. Hart stopped all 26 shots in that game, then stopped 31 of 35 shots in the final, with the killing blow coming when Team USA’s Troy Terry went five-hole on him in the shootout. It wasn’t a bad showing for Hart, but it stung that Canada was leading 4-2 in the third period and watched a pair of two-goal leads evaporate. “I’m not really focused on going out there to steal a game for my team,” Hart said. “I’m focused on taking one puck at a time. That has to be your approach and you can’t get too far ahead of yourself. The world juniors is a short-term event, and there’s not a lot of room for error. You just have to take things one day at a time and focus on exactly what you’re doing at that moment.”
Must be a goalie thing. Like most others who play the position, Hart is remarkably proficient at staying in the moment. He’s much like his idol, Braden Holtby, in that sense. Hart wears No. 70 with the Silvertips, same as Holtby with the Capitals, and they share the same mental coach, Dr. John Stevenson. (Shortly after the WJC gold medal game, Holtby texted Hart to tell him to keep his head up, that he had done a great job and should be proud of his effort. “But remember, you’re a Philadelphia Flyer,” the text said, “and when you get to the NHL I’m going to kick your f—ing ass.”)
Stevenson can offer Hart a unique perspective into the mental side of the game, given that he’s not only been working with Hart since he was nine, but Stevenson’s also been a goaltending coach for three WHL teams, as well as a goaltending consultant for the Ottawa Senators and Edmonton Oilers. Hart also works with Stevenson’s wife, Jaci, a cognitive and visual trainer who helps him with his cognitive work and puck tracking. Hart goes every day to a place he and Stevenson euphemistically refer to as his “mental gym” where he works on each part of his game through visualization.
Sometimes that mental training requires him to put bad moments behind him. To his credit, Hart didn’t dwell on the loss to the American team in last year’s gold medal game, and he shook off a subpar performance in which he gave up four goals on 14 shots in the final of the World Junior Summer Showcase in Plymouth, Mich., in early August. “He loves playing for Canada, he just loves it, and it’s what he’s wanted to do all his life,” Stevenson said. “But he knows how to put it into perspective.”
Hextall, of course, has been watching closely. He was impressed with how strongly Hart came back from the bout of mononucleosis, noting that you can’t exactly ease goaltenders back into your lineup the way you might be able to do with a skater. The Flyers like his focus, his devotion to fundamentals and his character. “We have high hopes for him,” Hextall said. “But in saying that we know he’s a young kid who is going to take time. The worst thing you can do is rush a kid. We’ve seen it over and over and over again, and we would not rush him into a position he’s not ready for.”
That will likely mean an apprenticeship in the minors before we see Hart in the Flyers’ net on a regular basis. His apprenticeship at the world juniors took place in last year’s tournament, and Hockey Canada will be expecting big things this time around. The lineage of great Canadian goaltending performances, starting with Jimmy Waite 30 years ago and continuing through Stephane Fiset, Manny Legace and Carey Price has set the bar very high. But the reality is that Hart probably doesn’t need to be that dominant for Canada to contend for a gold medal. More likely, his mandate will be to be good enough to keep Canada in the big games and come up with his best play at the most crucial times. Hart will be the 12th goalie to play for Canada twice in the world juniors and hopes to become the eighth to come away from that experience with at least one gold medal. To return the favor and do it in the U.S.’s backyard would make the experience that much sweeter. “Losing to the Americans resonated with the whole Hockey Canada crew, and that resonated with all the players coming back this year,” Hart said. “We’re not stopping until we get that gold medal. That’s our goal. It would be incredible.”