To say the least, Conor Garland’s journey to joining the Vancouver Canucks has been an eventful one. It included one experience that’s difficult to describe, other than to say his best friend and hockey roommate almost died.
Trail, BC native Craig Cunningham captained the Tucson Roadrunners and had 13 points through the first eleven games of the 2016-’17 season when he collapsed and went into convulsions on home ice just before the start of game twelve on November 19th. The Manitoba Moose and his Roadrunner teammates stood around in shock and horror as paramedics tried to revive him with chest compressions.
“‘Cunny’ was my roommate, yeah,” Garland said, “He’s one of my best friends in the world, so a tough year.”
There is no waxing poetic now about perspective on life and there wasn’t then. It was a very practical day-to-day matter.
“It was more fighting for his life and obviously fighting to keep his legs,” Garland said. “At that point I was just trying to battle alongside of him and be there for him as much as I could, and be in the hospital every day with him, so I never really did the whole ‘looking back on it’ thing. It was more in the moment. He made it out the other side and now I’m just appreciative that he survived.
“He was in a coma basically for nine days so it was more just seeing if he could live,” Garland added.
The connection between the two men is remarkable and once again connects Vancouver to Boston, Garland’s hometown. He grew up in Scituate (“Sitch-you-it” said quickly) on what’s called the South Shore. As Garland developed his hockey talents as a teenager he looked up to Cunningham, who was drafted by the Bruins and played with AHL Providence (Rhode Island) and in the NHL.
“He played in Boston, he was one of the first small guys, him, Seth Griffith, they came up. I was a big fan of his,” Garland said.
Garland and Cunningham, six years the elder, are of similar weight and stature, a generous 5’10”. In March of 2015 the Bruins waived Cunningham and the Coyotes claimed him. Three months later Arizona drafted Garland in the fifth round.
“We went to camp together in Arizona, ended up having lunch as a group one day and we hit it off and we got sent down the same day,” Garland recalls. “We were both looking for apartments and said ‘hey, do you want to split this.’ We were living together for about two months there and became pretty close and obviously that happened.”
Cunningham eventually lost his left leg below the shin due to a circulatory infection. He works as a pro scout for the Vegas Golden Knights and the two men speak pretty much every week.
Someone unaware of the situation could look at Garland’s AHL statistics that season and say, ‘how the hell is this guy still playing.’ He skated in 55 games for Tucson with five goals and 14 points. Hardly the elite numbers one would expect from a player with an impressive development background.
It comes as a surprise to many to find out Garland won the Michel Brière Memorial Trophy as the QMJHL Most Valuable Player in 2015. He led the Quebec League and all of major junior hockey with 129 points and followed up his draft year with 128 more the next season. This after dabbling with the Junior Bruins and briefly playing in the USHL after a prolific season at the elite hockey boarding school Shattuck St. Mary’s in Minnesota.
At one point, Garland got cut in bantam for being too small, something he rarely thinks about until he’s reminded.
“For me, you’d just rather have people focus on the hockey,” Garland stated. “I know I’m small, when people say it, it doesn’t surprise me. I knew I was small, but as a kid I always scored and I always produced, so I never saw it as a hindrance or anything.”
Yet, it is reality, and it is entertaining, especially considering Garland’s propensity for mixing it up with players much bigger than him. He’s quick, he’s relentless, and he’s a pest.
On October 17th in Philadelphia following a scrum, Travis Konecny of the Flyers called Garland ‘an angry elf’. The next night in Detroit in a postgame press conference, Filip Zadina of the Red Wings called him a ‘midget’.
“For whatever reason it’s a big topic now, but it doesn’t bother me,” Garland said. “I guess it could be because it’s a hockey market now and Arizona you never really heard much of hockey, but the size is a big deal here for some reason.”
There’s no doubt more people are paying attention here than there. Garland’s game was so overshadowed in the hockey purgatory that is Glendale, most in BC were cautiously optimistic that his acquisition would pay off. The tenacity of the 25-year-old and his play over the last two seasons helped bring higher hopes. He arrived to the Vancouver Canucks in a deal with defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson on July 23rd, 2021. Four days later he signed a five-year deal for $4.95-million per season.
Thus far it’s paid off. He’s third on the Vancouver Canucks in scoring behind JT Miller (36) and Quinn Hughes (28) with 23 points and he’s third in goals with 10 (Miller and Bo Horvat each have 11).
His proficiency is made even more bizarre by the size of his hockey stick, cut four inches shorter than it needs to be, something that makes Garland look even smaller.
“Maybe that’s another thing that makes me look so small, I’m so low to the ice,” he said. “I just want the puck in tight because that’s where it’s hard to get at. When guys are reaching and it’s away from their body, it’s easy to slip in there and take the puck from them. I understand I have to sit real low to use that stick and get the most out of it, so it probably makes me look even smaller out there.”
Getting torque and leverage on his shot seems to defy logic and physics. He’s definitely not shooting for power, he’s shooting for placement.
“At practice It probably doesn’t look very good because you’re shooting from so far out,” Garland explains. “In games you’ve got screens, guys cutting across the front, so I rely on my accuracy, just placing it, and I think I can place it as good as anybody in the league. In practice when you’re shooting straight on at a goalie, it doesn’t matter where you place it, he’s gonna see it and save it. In games it looks a little harder because I’m putting it in the right spots.”
Overshadowed no more, Garland’s biggest test playing for the Vancouver Canucks comes over the next eight days. He’s raised expectations for Vancouver Canucks fans. They’ll plan on seeing him scoring and creating havoc on this important five-game road trip.
Not a problem. Garland believes in himself, confident that he’ll emerge once more.