BEHIND THE MASK WITH MICHAEL GARTEIG

Growlers starter Michael Garteig talks highs and lows of the job, finding consistency with his new club and falling in love with Newfoundland and Labrador.

Is there a more polarizing job in pro-sports than that of a goaltender? Hero one moment, pariah the next, all with the flick of the stick, motion of a blocker, a reflex perfectly timed or inches too slow.

Yes, it is an at times thankless job, that of a goaltender for a professional hockey organization. Prince George, British Columbia native Michael Garteig knows that all too intimately.

Something of a prized prospect out west, Garteig saw a boyhood dream realized when he was signed to a one-year-entry-level contract by the Vancouver Canucks in the spring of 2016, the club he idolized growing up.

To say he earned that shot would be an understatement, as the then 24 year old led the Quinnipiac Bobcats to an ECAC Championship and a run towards the NCAA National Championship, posting a fantastic 32-4-7 record and 1.91 goals against average in the 2015-16 season.

“It was cool for me to sign a contract with a team I grew up watching,” Garteig shared, citing Canucks legends Marcus Näslund Roberto Luongo and Dan Cloutier as influences. “At the same time, all good things come to an end.”

Garetig spent the 2016-17 season bounced between the Alaska Aces of the ECHL and the Utica Comets of the American Hockey League. That inconsistency resulted in admitted less than stellar numbers (3.01 GAA in eight games suited for Utica and 3.11 GAA in 22 starts with Alaska). He had a cup of coffee, at best, in the National Hockey League as an emergency backup for the Canucks, but you won’t find that on any stat sheet or game log.

His 2017-18 season saw him suit up for 24 games with the ECHL’s Kalamazoo K-Wings before being the first goaltender signed by the Growlers organization in the fall of last year.

It is here where Garteig has shown himself to be a serviceable starter at a pro-level, carrying a 2.68 GAA and .914 save percentage through 25 games with the Growlers to date. That consistent pace has provided stability both on and off the ice for the B.C. native.

 “My first year pro, when I was in the ECHL with the Alaska Aces, I did play a significant amount of games and I was getting that opportunity and the numbers were showing,” Garteig admits.

“I ended up getting called up to the AHL and I played four or five games in the span of 60-plus days. When that happens you kind of get out of a rhythm and you might lose confidence at times. You might not play like yourself and you know you can, but in saying that it has taught me a lot, it’s made me learn to work, to work smart and learn how to be prepared and ready for when you do get those opportunities.

“I trained hard in the summer and made sure that when I came into camp here that I’d be ready. I’m lucky enough that they’ve given me the opportunity to have the ball and go with it.”

That hard work and the reps on the ice earned Garteig the ECHL’s goaltender of the month title for November, as the 27-year-old went 6-1-1 in eight starts for Newfoundland with two shutouts, a 2.25 goals-against average and a save percentage of .932.

“I think it speaks volumes to how the team has had success,” Garteig says, reflecting on the honour. “It sounds cliche, but usually with team success comes individual success and I think that’s kind of the case.”

That winning record would result in Garteig splitting time between the Toronto Marlies of the AHL and Growlers through December and early January. He suited up for two games with the Leafs’ AHL affiliate, backstopping them to a 5-1 win with a 26 save performance against Manitoba on December 15th. His return to the Growlers just days ago was equally inspired, as he blanked the Maine Mariners with a 28 save shutout on January 16th.

He’s grateful to the organization for the trust, an investment that has produced both ways, especially for a net-minder who works best under pressure and with a heavy workload.

“I think all goalies will attest to that,” he says of his desire to see as much action as possible. “I think if you’re a goalie and you don’t want to play every game I don’t know if you’re playing the position. For me, I’d play every single game if I could. I’m conditioned well enough that I could play. I played back to backs this year and have had success in the second game. You just have to keep moving forward and doing the same.”

Having seen many sides of the pro-hockey world in a relatively short span, Garteig expressed his enthusiasm to play for an organization that values team growth and player maturation on all fronts – from the NHL to the ECHL, not sacrificing one for the other.

“That’s probably been one of the biggest surprises for me. I know Toronto is obviously a top notch organization, but just from past experience it has been different in that regard and it has been great,” he shared.

“We have skill coaches come down from Toronto, player development guys watching regularly and I think they do have significant interest in us. I think that helps and it shows that they have confidence in us and the players here and that gives our players the extra boost to know that they’re cared about and know that there’s some investment there. They’re trying to basically breed us into what the culture is there and that’s what they do here. It’s been good.”

Truth be told, the west coast native was tickled to return to the Growlers, as he’s an admitted super fan of this place and its people. He hopes to repay the city and fans by carrying his status as iron man for the Newfoundland Growlers through the second half of the 2018-19 season, where playoff glory and a league title would look good on the resume.

“I think if you ask anyone I probably get made fun of because I love it here so much,” he laughs. “All the locals like to bug me because I speak so highly of it here. I like it here so much. The people are really unique and the culture is so cool, basically speaking your own language. So proud of Newfoundland. They’ve been so welcoming of us and it couldn’t be a better place to play. It has to be in the top five places to play in this league, no doubt ... This has been the best year of pro hockey I could ask for.”