ALLENTOWN, Pa. — The hopeful final stop to the Philadelphia Flyers‘ goaltending carousel is a 20-year-old with a precocious sense of self named Carter Hart. The Alberta, Canada, native has been working with a sports psychologist since he was 10. He practices mindfulness breathing, including 15-minute sessions each morning. In an interview, Hart speaks in composed sound bites, though that shouldn’t be surprising. As an elite prospect and standout on the Hockey Canada circuit, he has been speaking to reporters for as long as he can remember.
And he has something important in common with Flyers fans: Despite the organization preaching patience — stashing Hart, the goaltender with the most upside, away in the AHL — he wishes the future were now.
“I don’t really want to follow any path that they have for me, I just want to get to the NHL as fast as I can,” Hart said. “I appreciate the fans and love the city of Philly. I want to be there as soon as I can. I don’t care what path it is, I want it to be the quickest path possible.”
Since Hart was drafted by the Flyers in the second round (48th pick) of the 2016 draft, he has been tantalizing Philadelphia fans with his promise. Over four-plus seasons with the WHL Everett Silvertips, Hart compiled what many people (even those outside of greater Philadelphia) consider one of the greatest junior hockey careers ever for a goalie. That includes a 116-46-19 record, 2.01 goals-against average, .927 save percentage and 26 shutouts; he is the only player ever to win the CHL Goaltender of the Year Award twice. He also shouldered the spotlight in two straight World Junior Championships and thrived, especially in 2018, when Team Canada won gold behind Hart’s 1.81 GAA and .930 save percentage in six games.
This contrasts, of course, with the Flyers’ recent history, which is muddled with uncertainty in net. Not since Hall of Famer Bernie Parent in the 1970s has the franchise had a dependable star goaltender. (The irony, of course, is that Ron Hextall, the Flyers GM until Monday, was the last man to come close. Hextall last suited up 20 years ago.) It stings that the team gave up on Sergei Bobrovsky only to see him blossom as one of the league’s top goalies while haunting them within the division. This season, it’s much of the same for the Flyers, with the uninspiring mix of Brian Elliott, Michal Neuvirth, Anthony Stolarz, Alex Lyon and Calvin Pickard combining for a .887 save percentage, 3.35 GAA and just 10 wins in the Flyers’ first 23 games.
Hart had a great training camp and thought he had a good chance of making the roster but was among the last cuts. Hextall wanted Hart to get professional experience in the AHL first.
“I was really disappointed to be sent down after training camp,” Hart said. “I thought I had a really good camp. Coming down [to the AHL], with some familiar faces that I’ve gotten to know over the past few years, many guys have been through it before. Obviously, I want to make the Flyers as soon as I can, but at the same time, I have to worry about where I’m at — that’s with the Phantoms — and work hard here, and things will come.”
The transition to the pros was a bit tougher than Hart expected. He was pulled in his second game after allowing four goals on 16 shots. Through his first seven starts, he allowed 23 goals on a .883 save percentage. “In juniors, I could get away with a lot more than I can here,” Hart said. “A couple times, I have been burnt on plays where I’ve been sleeping a bit mentally. I have to be fully engaged in the full 60 minutes.”
Living on his own for the first time has presented hiccups. In Everett, Hart’s billet, Parker Fowlds, became “like a grandpa to me,” the netminder said. Fowlds always had breakfast, lunch and dinner on the table, did laundry — the works. For Christmas last year, Hart bought the 78-year-old Fowlds a new phone, and they now FaceTime every morning.
In Allentown, Hart shares an apartment with fellow rookie Connor Bunnaman. Last month, they forgot to update their info to the electricity company and were without power for two days. Hart has received two noise complaints in the second-story unit: one for listening to a movie too loud, another for using his vibrating foam roller.
To help with his transition, Hart consulted with John Stevenson, the goalie coach turned full-time sports psychologist he has been working with since he was 10. (Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby is another Stevenson client.) Hart says he’s “lucky to have that guy as a resource and friend” and that Stevenson has helped most “with my mental makeup.”
“The biggest thing for me is, when you come into a new environment, a new situation with different people and things you’re not used to, just controlling what you can control and worrying about yourself,” Hart said.
Hart had practiced mindfulness breathing last year, waking up and listening to a 15-minute track that concentrates on coherent breathing and deep breaths while focusing on one part of the body and the sensations there, and then moving on. Hart had stopped the routine but resumed recently and found the practice has helped. “Once I come out of it, I feel more aware of my surroundings and myself,” Hart said.
Hart deleted his Twitter account. He said he has not watched one Flyers game this season. “I don’t need to worry about what’s going on up there,” Hart said. “Obviously, if there’s a goaltender injury up there, I’m aware of it. But my focus needs to be here; I’m not concerned about how things are going up there.”
Hart’s game has turned around. In back-to-back starts this weekend, he won one game (stopping 29 of 31 shots) and lost the other (stopping 32 of 38 shots)..
“I’m starting to get into a routine of things, and things are starting to feel more comfortable,” Hart said. “Now things are feeling more comfortable at home, I’m starting to feel more comfortable at the rink. I’m starting to feel like myself again.”
As for the burden he might feel considering fan expectations? Hart does have more interview requests than most of his AHL teammates, and he knows that’s just a preview of what’s to come.
“The Philly media, I’ve met some good people there, and the fans, they’re really passionate. I’ll love the chance to play for them,” he said. “As far as the history with goaltending, I haven’t really thought about it as my problem — it’s a problem of past years. It doesn’t really affect me. I’m worried about working on me so I’m ready when I get to that next level.”