From the Sunshine State to the hockey-crazed city of Vancouver, Jason Garrison pretty much saw it all during his NHL career.
The White Rock, BC native also holds the distinction of having the most goals and power play goals among defensemen in Florida Panthers history after a stellar 2011-12 campaign where he posted 16 goals and 17 assists.
“Every year you just want to progress a little as a player and I had felt that is one thing that I had done. The first year where I was splitting my time, you were kind of getting thrown in and playing with different players. My first full year, I was playing lots of minutes against some top players and that taught me a lot.”
The Panthers also made the 2012 NHL postseason after clinching the Southeast Division with a record of 38-26-18 but fell in a hard-fought seven-game series against the New Jersey Devils. Garrison sees that year as a bit of a turning point.
“I got switched to an offensive role my last year playing with Brian Campbell, who was a tremendous player, and I was playing the defensive role for him and playing with our top line. They used my shot a lot that year and it was a lot of fun for me.”
Garrison had the privilege of being coached by Pete DeBoer and Kevin Dineen while with the Panthers. “They were great. The best part of both of them is that they taught me something. They actually coached, whereas some guys kind of hang back and don’t say too much until it’s really negative. I was very fortunate to have that.”
“Kevin put me in an offensive role during my last year and I became successful because of that. Pete told me, ‘When you are going back for pucks, be the first one to get it because you are not the type of player to let the forechecker get the puck and snag it from him after.’”
Big money with Canucks
Following his last season in Florida, Garrison signed a lucrative six-year contract with the Vancouver Canucks, the hometown team he grew up watching.
“I was very fortunate in free agency where I had a handful of teams offer me contracts. It’s a hard process because I didn’t know what to expect and not many guys get to go through it. You have to make decisions quickly that can be life-changing. My number one reason (I signed with the Canucks) is because they had such a good team and were right there to win it all.”
The Canucks were coming off a heartbreaking seven-game defeat in the Stanley Cup Finals to the Boston Bruins in 2011. They were built to get back there again thanks to its star-studded core that included Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Alex Burrows, Roberto Luongo, Kevin Bieksa, and Ryan Kesler just to name a few.
After the 2012-13 lockout concluded, the Canucks went 26-15-7 and clinched the Northwest Division. However, Vancouver collapsed in the playoffs, dropping four straight to the San Jose Sharks, which lead to the dismissal of head coach Alain Vigneault.
“I didn’t think anything was going to happen. I was super shocked when they fired the coaches. It’s very hard to win. I think two of those games went to overtime. It’s hard to stay on top every year.”
“Going into that next year was a little bit different but I had been through that before and you just had to look past it and that was the business side of things. My second year, we had John Tortorella (as coach) and that was an interesting year. Then they fired the coach again. Vancouver was different than I expected when I signed there, for sure.”
Speaking of Tortorella, his one-and-done season saw the Canucks finish fifth in the Pacific Division with a 36-35-11 record and they missed qualifying for the playoffs.
His tenure, however, was made infamous due to a line brawl against the Calgary Flames where the bad blood spilled into the Flames dressing room.
“Bob Hartley submitted his heavy line first and Torts didn’t put out the top line, he put guys that could handle their lineup. There was some weird energy before the game started and Torts wasn’t happy the Flames started the fourth line.”
“Torts has a different style of play and it took some time for players to adjust. His style might have worn on guys and he was suspended for 10 games after the Calgary brawl. That was a critical time as we were fighting for a playoff spot. We had a goalie situation (with Luongo and Cory Schneider) and we had a lot of headlines where it might have been hard to focus for the team.”
After a hectic season with the Canucks, Garrison dawned the maple leaf for Team Canada at the World Hockey Championship, which was held in Minsk, Belarus. In seven games, Garrison tallied four helpers, but Canada finished out of the medals as Russia took gold, supplanting Finland in the final game.
“It was a different experience for me, I had such a great time. I got to play with players that I kind of knew or played with, same as the coaches. You are playing for your country and you meet guys you otherwise wouldn’t.”
Tampa Bay time
Garrison returned to Florida, this time with the Tampa Bay Lightning via trade in June 2014. With the Bolts, he finally got the postseason success he was searching for.
In 2014-15, Tampa went 50-24-8, good enough for second in the Atlantic Division. It consisted of a young and hungry core of players in Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, and Alex Killorn.
The Lightning dispatched Detroit, Montreal, and the New York Rangers before falling in six games to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Final. For his part, Garrison tallied 30 points in 70 games, while chipping in two goals and five assists in 23 playoff contests.
“That was a lot of fun. We had extremely great players on the team and it was a nice kind of change of scenery following the trade. It was nice to go to play like Tampa where you feel welcomed again, you are winning, and it makes the earlier disappointments easier to deal with.”
“It was a great mixture of young and old. We had Stevie (Yzerman) as our general manager, Coop (head coach Jon Cooper) had a lot of energy and was very forgiving. Then I played under Rick Bowness again who I had while in Vancouver. We had a great year and there were a lot of pieces leading into that which were confidence building.”
2015-16 was another strong year for the Bolts but it ended in heartbreak with a loss in the Conference final to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“It was different because we didn’t have Stamkos for a lot of the year. Going into the playoffs, we had another tough series against Detroit. Guys knew the feeling from last year, playing Pittsburgh was pretty much back and forth. Missing Stamkos, who is a superstar, and they had (Sidney) Crosby and (Evgeni) Malkin made it harder to overcome,” said Garrison.
After his final season in Tampa, Garrison was left unprotected and claimed in the 2017 expansion draft by the Vegas Golden Knights. Despite being an alternate captain, Garrison only appeared in eight games with Vegas, spending the majority of the year in the minors with the AHL’s Chicago Wolves.
His final season in the NHL was in 2018-19 when he appeared in 17 games with the Edmonton Oilers before wrapping up his playing days with Djurgardens IF in the Swedish Elite League.
“I had a great time in Europe. (It was a) very fun place to play and I was grateful for the team and support. You go through the business side in North America and then play with more freedom overseas. There are no trades, or minors so you can kind of take a breath and play hockey.”
The past January, he returned to his alma mater at the University of Minnesota Duluth to complete his degree and serve as student assistant coach for the Bulldogs. Garrison recorded 160 points in 555 career NHL games. For a guy that started out with the junior B Richmond Sockeyes, it’s not a bad day’s work.