He is the Philadelphia Flyers’ “chosen one” between the pipes.
Carter Hart was burdened with the expectations of a fanbase that has been burned time and time again by flawed masked men, but he didn’t flinch with that weight on his shoulders at the tender age of 20.
The native of Sherwood Park, Alta., was thrown to the fire when he was called up from the AHL in December, becoming the sixth goalie to play for a struggling Philadelphia Flyers team last season (the club later gained the dubious distinction of using a record eighth netminder).
Hart went on to compile an impressive 16-13-1 record with a 2.83 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage, capturing Rookie of the Month honours in January.
We spoke to Hart over the phone from his hometown last week in a wide-ranging interview about his summer plans, his sensational debut and what he needs to do to repeat it, the Flyers’ chances in 2019-20, facing his idol Carey Price and his strangely arms-length relationship with Gritty.
(This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity)
Sportsnet: Do you have any big plans for your downtime in the off-season?
Hart: Probably just a lot of golfing just with my buddies. I’m not going anywhere this summer. I’m going to be staying at home for most of the summer, so probably just a lot of golfing with my buddies after workouts and stuff. We like to go out and smack the ball around there.
SN: How’s your golf game?
Hart: It was slow to start, but it’s getting better. But I’m trying to work on it, I’m good at the drives and my approach shots, but once I get on green … that’s where my game sort of falls apart.
SN: Your .917 save percentage was among the best posted by a rookie (with 30 or more games played) all-time. How did you manage to do that as a 20-year-old and where do you go from here?
Hart: I think during the season, I just took things day by day. I didn’t want to get too ahead of myself and just tried to enjoy the moment — each moment that I had. And coming up in December, the guys made me feel really like a part of the team right away and so when I came to the rink every day I could just be myself. I know when I first got called up, I was a little bit nervous to be around all the guys, and I wasn’t quite sure, I didn’t want to step on anybody’s toes or anything like that. But all the guys, we have a great group of guys in Philly … they all treated me really well from Day 1 and made me feel like a part of the team.
Down the stretch when [we] started having success, that was a big part of just being a team and coming to the rink every day with a smile on your face and just having fun. And with our group, we have a great group of guys and a lot of skill with our team, and I know we came up short and it was disappointing, but if we play like we do for that second half for the full season next year, then there’s no question that we’ll be in the playoffs.
SN: On a personal level, though, how do you come back with a strong sophomore year and repeat some of your success.
Hart: For me, I have an important summer of training ahead of me and it starts in the gym. I want to get bigger and stronger and faster, and I want to make sure I manage my ice-time this summer so that coming into the next season, I realized the grind of an NHL schedule where you’re playing almost every second night, and I found that I needed to make sure you’re taking care of your body, and you’re doing all the right things. And I know a guy like JVR [James van Riemsdyk] has been a big help for me on that side of things. He’s a great player — he’s been a great player in the league for a long time — he really takes care of his body and he’s opened my eyes to what he does off the ice to stay an elite player in the league for so many years. And I think what’s really important going into the next year, is using all those little experiences and all that knowledge that I’ve gained through this season in the NHL, and using that for the upcoming season, so that I’m prepared and ready to go right from Day 1.
SN: Besides the conditioning, is there stuff specifically that you’re working on?
Hart: Yeah, I want to work on my [lower body] in the gym … that helps with my edges in the game and just being able to push from point A to point B, and be explosive through my pushes. And then on the ice too I’ve been working on some post-play, little details behind the net and how to handle some situations behind the net. And then trying to actually, we’ve been working on it for the past year or so with my goalie coach in Philly [Kim Dillabaugh] just working on executing a spread save when you have to, coming out of the box a little bit — out of the structure — to make a save that may be unorthodox. But I know spread for me is something that adds a little bit of structure to a save that could be a little bit uncommon. Just those kind of things in the game that you can’t really control, and sometimes you just got to go out and make a save.
SN: Coming into the league at 20 years old, were there veterans you really leaned on for support and were there any moments where they really picked you up?
Hart: We have an unbelievable leadership group in the locker-room and I know [Claude] Giroux and [Jakub Voracek], and all those guys — [Wayne Simmonds] — all those guys have been in the league for a long time, and for me as a young guy coming in they’ve given me advice and helped me out along the way, and made me feel welcome right from Day 1.
When I was around for Christmas I didn’t have any plans to go anywhere. I didn’t have any time to go back home, so Giroux invited me over to his house for dinner and so did Dale Weise, and I really appreciate those guys doing that for me and making me feel welcome with their families. And I know Giroux invited me over a couple of times throughout the year just for a home-cooked meal, or something with his wife or his wife’s parents are in town, and that goes a long way and it makes me feel welcomed.
And Jake Voracek, I was told I could get a place two months after I got called up and I think there was only like two or three months left in the season and I was like, ‘I don’t know if I really want to get a place yet or not cause there’s not much time left in the year, I don’t know if I want to sign another leasing agreement,’ but Jake had an empty apartment that was furnished, so all I needed to get was a mattress and he let me move in there for free and he didn’t charge me any rent or anything, and it was unbelievable place, too. So that was really nice of him to do that for me.
SN: As a young netminder, there’s probably some guys you had to face who you grew up idolizing. Did you have any “holy crap” moments when you couldn’t help but be a fanboy?
Hart: Probably the first time I played against Carey Price. I mean, he was my favourite goalie growing up, and I know my first game against Montreal I actually played against Niemi, so I wasn’t quite as nervous and then I played against Price, I think, maybe a month later and it was in Montreal. I just remember looking down on the ice in the other end, and seeing Carey Price in the net there — it was pretty surreal to see him there and facing off against him. [Laughs] I probably paid too much attention to that instead of my own game, I ended up getting pulled — it was not too good of a game. But then I got the chance to face off against them again a month later, toward the end of the season, we ended up losing that one 2-1, but I wasn’t quite as starstruck that game as I was the first time I played against him.
SN: Have you spoken to general manager Chuck Fletcher and coach Alain Vigneault about expectations going forward?
Hart: I got to meet [Vigneault at the World Championship] and talk with him about, not so much the Flyers, we were just kind of worrying about Team Canada, not worrying too much about the Flyers. But I got a chance to see what he’s all about, his coaching style and he seems like a really nice guy. All the guys really liked him over there, and I really liked him over there, so I’m really looking forward to playing under him next season.
SN: Obviously not the result you wanted, but did you enjoy the experience at the World Championship? Was it tough to be in the No. 2 spot at the tournament behind Matt Murray?
Hart: We had a great group of guys, had a lot of fun together and, yeah, Matt Murray did a great job. He played really well the whole tournament, played really well in those big games. Against the Czechs he came up huge and against the Americans in the last round-robin game, so it was really cool to play with him … And it was just cool to be around those kinds of guys, like Mark Stone and [Sean] Couturier came with me from Philly, and he’s been to a couple as well, and has had success there.
SN: It was a busy week or so for your team, what do you make of some of these deals?
Hart: Definitely sad to see Gudas go to Washington — he’s a great guy off the ice and all the boys loved him. And he treated me really well from Day 1. He’s an old Everett [Silvertips] guy, he played his junior hockey in Everett, Washington so we had that connection there… From what I’m hearing we’re getting a great guy coming over from Washington in [Matt] Niskanen, and then adding Justin Braun as well on defence only strengthens our D-corps. And then signing Kevin Hayes as well, locking him up for seven years, long-term, we already have a skilled group of forwards, but to add him to that group as well and now we’ve really got a skilled group of forwards.
SN: What gives you hope about the Flyers’ chances next year?
Hart: We’ve got a great group of guys and we know when to have fun and when to work. And coming to the rink every day, I know I love coming to the rink every day with the guys that we have. It’s just fun to be around them and go to work beside them. It’s a long season — 82 games — and you got to make sure that you remember you’re still playing a game, and these guys know when to focus and they know when to have fun, and I think that’s a big part in success. And I think, just with the culture in the locker-room, and I know we’ve been through a lot of ups and downs last year, and the success that we had in the second half, I think it’s gonna definitely translate over into next season with the group that we have.
SN: Any noteable interactions with Gritty?
Hart: I literally haven’t even seen Gritty.
I don’t think we’ve ever really met. When I warm up in the hallway, or whatever, he walks by. But he doesn’t ever talk to us. I don’t even think he can talk.
SN: You’re the franchise goalie and you haven’t met the franchise mascot?
Hart: I know he’s met my parents. When I played in my first game, my dad got a picture with him.
SN: So is this a meeting you want to happen?
Hart: Um, if he wants to meet me sure, but I know … he’ll walk by and he’ll give you a fist bump but that’s pretty much it … I’d prefer that.