A new, but somewhat familiar face appeared on the ice at Amsoil Arena this week.
Former Minnesota Duluth defenseman and NHLer Jason Garrison has returned to the university to complete his kinesiology degree and serve as a student assistant coach for the Bulldogs men’s hockey program.
“I’m extremely excited to work with the team,” Garrison said Thursday. “It’s nice to share my experiences with these guys and hopefully it helps them to get to the next level because that’s what most guys strive for.”
Garrison, 36, played three seasons for the Bulldogs from 2005-08 before embarking on an 11-year NHL career that came to a close in 2018-19. He played 603 NHL regular season and postseason games with five different teams — the Florida Panthers, Vancouver Canucks, Tampa Bay Lightning, Vegas Golden Knights and Edmonton Oilers — recording 53 goals and 124 assists.
He set the Panthers’ franchise record for goals by a defenseman in 2011-12 with 16 during the regular season and helped take the Lightning to an Eastern Conference championship and Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2014-15.
“I’m excited to give back,” Garrison said. “When I was young, it was always nice for older guys to help me out. You get a feeling for how things work or what-not. You’re always able to ask them questions. It’s my turn to be on the flip side of that.”
Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said he’s excited to have Garrison back with the program to not only complete his degree, but also help work with the team’s defensemen. The coach hopes he can learn a few things from a former NHL blue liner as well.
“I was really excited when we found out he was going to come back,” Sandelin said. “I wish we could have gotten him back in the first semester when we were going through all those practices. Better late than never.
“Certainly for me it’s another guy that I can learn things from, pick up things from the experiences he’s had, the coaches he’s had. Whether it’s different drills, whether it’s tactics, whatever it is, you’re always trying to learn. He brings that perspective. It’s going to be great for our players and our staff. That’s why it’s exciting to get him back.”
Garrison signed with the Panthers in 2008 as an undrafted free agent following his junior season at UMD. He totaled nine goals and 20 assists over 87 games as a Bulldog after missing 18 games as a sophomore in 2006-07 due to hernia surgery and 10 games as a junior in 2007-08 because of a broken leg.
Sandelin, who in 2007-08 was in his eighth season at UMD, said Garrison was the first player that he felt was physically and mentally ready to go to the pros, despite the injuries.
“He was a beast, man,” Sandelin said. “He was always in the best shape of anybody. Big, strong, heavy shot.
“He was a pretty good player, one strong human … with a pretty good one-timer, I can tell you that.”
A native of White Rock, British Columbia, Garrison said he came to UMD in 2005 planning to play four seasons for the Bulldogs and to get his degree. He took an online class his first year in professional hockey, but after that it became too difficult to keep with school, he said.
Garrison, who played last season in Sweden, said the COVID-19 pandemic and uncertainty surrounding hockey teams and leagues across the globe made now a great time to finally complete that college degree.
“I had it in my head this summer that I was going to train like I was going to play hockey if something came up I wanted to do,” Garrison said. “But I really had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to go back to school and I felt like this was a good time to go it.”
Garrison said, in his mind, he felt like he could play another 2-3 seasons of professional hockey. He’s not sure long term what his next chapter will be in the sport, but returning to work with the Bulldogs is a good first step in figuring that out.
“It’s a pretty great opportunity that I’m pretty fortunate to have,” Garrison said. “It’s a great opportunity to see what it is like on the other side of the dressing room.”