Mike Garnett is in the second year of his rookie contract with the Atlanta Thrashers. He is again assigned to the Thrashers ECHL affiliate, which last year was the Greenville Grrrowl, but now is the Gwinnett Gladiators. The former third round pick in 2001 previously wore a plain white mask, but has just debuted a new custom mask. The images on it speak a thousand words.
The Thrashers AHL affiliate, the Chicago Wolves, told Garnett during the preseason to get a mask painted. It didn’t take him long to come up with a design. Garnett designed most of it himself in one day, with some help sketching it out by the artist who painted it. The design is based on a Wolves theme, and builds from there.
On the chin is a standard Chicago Wolves logo. The forehead depicts a wolf howling at the moon and on the sides of the face are silhouettes of wolves with piercing green eyes. The background shows trees in an ice storm, which Garnett calls a ‘regional theme’. “When I was in Greenville last year there was a big ice storm, with ice hanging off all the trees. I thought it looked kind of cool.”
At the top of the mask are two Thrasher heads. These NHL logos don’t quite fit in with the theme artistically, but that’s unimportant as they fit in perfectly with Garnett’s career aspirations. The top of the mask is the top of the career ladder.
The artist who painted the mask is Don McClelland of Chicago, who can be found at www.macmasks.com. The new mask made its debut on November 19th in Charlotte, and its home debut on the November 20th against South Carolina.
Thus far the mask has a 1-1 record, but as a whole, Garnett and the Gladiators have gotten off to a terrific start this season, they’re 11-2-2 and are the top team in the 31-team league. As far Garnett personally, he is very pleased with his own play thus far, saying the season is going “Really well. I’m really happy. I mean, 7-1-1 now, that’s pretty good. I couldn’t have expected that.”
His 2.18 GAA and .914 save percentage in nine games played put him in an elite group goaltending prospects in the league. These are a significant improvement over his numbers last year, registered behind a weak Greenville defense. His actual play doesn’t appear to have changed much though; he plays solid fundamentally as always. He compared how playing behind the two teams differs.
“I think this team is just a lot better team. We play as a team more than our team did last year in Greenville. We have a lot more confidence. We got off to a slow start there [in Greenville] and guys were getting at each other. [Here] we’re really confident that we’re going to do the right thing.”
Garnett played his junior hockey in the Western Hockey League, spending time in both Red Deer and Saskatoon. Looking back over his years playing, the soon to be 21-year-old commented on his development as a player.
“I know this sounds cliché, but I think I’ve grown up a lot. I pay attention a lot more to what’s going on around me on the ice. I’ve learned more from watching everything going on around me. Instead of just playing the games and forgetting about them, I’m actually paying attention to what’s going on.
“During the games I’m more alert. If someone asks me what did you think of that play, I’ll actually remember it, whereas two or three years ago I was like ‘what?’ I was so focused on trying to stop the puck that I didn’t notice anything. I also think I’m more relaxed and I’ve learned how to play in different situations better.”
Garnett attended his second NHL training camp this fall. The Thrashers brought in a special goaltending consultant, Guillaume Lefebvre, to help out the team’s five netminders under contract at the time. “Lefebvre worked with us a lot, he helped me out learning how to do the butterfly properly. Little drills that I do now.”
No specific instructions were given to Garnett regarding what to work on during the 2003-04 season. The main gist was that the more games he plays the better he would get. “Bob Hartley told me to go play a lot of games and try to be consistent. Come back next year with the same attitude and the same work ethic.”
Garnett’s playing partner in Gwinnett this season has been Adam Munro, an unsigned draft pick of the Chicago Blackhawks. Despite the lack of formal ties, Munro was called up to the Blackhawks AHL affiliate Norfolk when the team got into an injury situation.
With Munro getting called up, Garnett will be playing every game until he is either reassigned or the team acquires another goalie. That is assuming of course that Garnett himself doesn’t get called up in the near term. An injury to any of the four goaltenders under Thrashers contract (Pasi Nurminen, Byron Dafoe, Kari Lehtonen or Frederic Cassivi) would put Garnett immediately on a plane to Chicago. The other goalie under contract, Jani Hurme, is already out with a bad back. Kari Lehtonen has struggled with a groin injury already this season, an injury which delayed Garnett’s arrival with the Gladiators as he was kept on as insurance.
Playing in suburban Atlanta, all of the prospects playing for the Gladiators know that the Thrashers brass is just around the corner. They will surely will look in on Garnett and his fellow prospects during the season, but Garnett won’t be concerning himself about whether or if they are in the building. “I’m sure they know everything that goes on around here. I try not to worry about it. The more I worry about things I can’t control, the worse I’m going to be.”
As far as his own sense of what he needs to work on, Garnett that said “coming into this year I’d have to say consistency. I think last year I tended to have a lot of peaks and valleys, trouble playing at an even keel. Other than that, it’s just the things I’m always working on. Coach Pyle has me working on trying to play the puck. Try to pass the puck out to guys so they can avoid getting hit. If I can get out to a puck, the guy’s not going to get run into the boards. They can’t hit me. If I can dish it off to our guys, I might save a separated shoulder or a concussion, you never know. He told me coming into the year that he wants me to play the puck as much as I can and that bad bounces, we all make mistakes, and it’s not that big of a deal.”
One of those bad bounces happened in the game against the Stingrays. Garnett explained that he just fanned on the puck as he tried to backhand it. But he wasn’t fazed by the goal that resulted. “It happens,” he said, shrugging it off.
While the Gladiators are at the top of the ECHL, and don’t appear to be going away, there is more to be accomplished both with this team and in the organization as a whole. Garnett’s goals coming into the season were simple.
“Coming into this year, I wanted to make the Chicago Wolves, that was my main goal. And I think that still is my main goal, I want to move up a level in hockey. I’m trying to do whatever I can to do that, and if playing consistent is what I have to do, then that’s what I’m going to do, going with what they told me. I’m happy being here, but in the back of my mind, I’d like to be somewhere else and that’s motivation.”
In the back of his mind, and on his head for all to see.
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