Conor Garland acknowledges he has been an underdog most of his hockey career.
The 25-year-old Boston native was the fifth-round draft pick in 2015. Afterward, he kept his head down and quietly worked his way up through the Arizona Coyotes’ system.
The result? He has the most goals and points of any Coyotes fifth-round pick. Since his NHL debut in 2018 with the ’yotes, he has registered the most goals on the team — including this delayed season. At the halfway point, Garland led in assists (14), points (22) and plus/minus (+3).
“My whole life I’ve gone under the radar,” the North Scottsdale resident said modestly. “I’m so small I play under the radar. I’ve been cut from countless numbers of teams. I played in the American Hockey League for two years (with the Tucson Roadrunners). I was able to stick. The word ‘underdog’ fits pretty well. There have definitely been a lot of bumps in the road.”
The 5-foot-10-inch, 165-pound Garland cracked up at one stat given by the Coyotes: He’s the quickest player to record 20 points for the team since the 2013-14 season. Garland did it in the 21st game.
“You’re the first to tell me that,” he said enthusiastically.
“They keep some weird stats. It’s great, though. I’ve always been someone who produces offense. That’s my job. If I’m not doing that, I’m not doing my job. I guess I’ve been doing my job.”
Hockey is in Garland’s blood. He said a lot of players contend they didn’t have a choice but to play hockey. His childhood was a bit different.
“I didn’t give my parents a choice,” he said with a laugh. “As soon as I got on skates, I knew it was for me. My only worry is what do I do after it? I figure I have 10 to 15 years left of playing this game. I just can’t imagine life without it.
“I feel fortunate every day that I get to do this for a living.”
Garland wanted to play professional hockey since he was 7, when he knew there was such an occupation.
“It was a foregone conclusion that’s what I was going to do with my life,” he said. “I enjoy it so much. I love talking about it, and I skate in the summers even when we’re not playing. I watch other teams. My best friends are also hockey players. That’s what the conversation turns to. It’s all I kind of do.”
That may be true, but there are things he likes to do with his girlfriend, Meghan, a Boston Children’s Hospital employee who is working remotely from their home. They walk along a nearby golf course at night and sneak in a quick putt or two. When there isn’t a pandemic, the couple enjoys the restaurants Fat Ox Italian eatery and Ocean 44.
“We’re not big party people,” he said. “We like to keep it simple.”
On Twitter, Garland calls himself a “coffee connoisseur” who loves to try local coffee shops when he’s on the road. In Scottsdale, he loves Dutch Bros. At home in Boston, however, he favors Pour in Norwell, Massachusetts. His uncle, Mike Sullivan, operates a coffee company, Harmon Coffee Micro Roasters, based in Rockland, Massachusetts.
“There aren’t a lot of sit-down places here,” he said about the Valley. “It’s definitely different from Boston. They have bakeries and coffee shops made for that. Pour is right on the way to the gym in the morning.”
Staying on that course, family is just as important to Garland. His parents, aunts and uncles lived near him during his formative years, and they spent quality time together.
“I was at their house almost every day, having dinners or swimming in pools,” he said. “My cousin, as he gets older, is one of my best friends. I have sisters right around the same age. We’re close and in each other’s lives. I have a good support group. My job is a little different than theirs.”
A “good support group” is part of Garland’s success, especially because he’s his “hardest critic.”
“When I score, I have a bunch of texts from everyone in my family; same with when we win a game. It’s just good to know I have a lot of people in my corner.”
The Coyotes team this year has a similar camaraderie. Garland said it helps that all the young players were drafted around the same years. They attended prospect and rookie camps together. When the Coyotes win, those bonds are strengthened.
“We’re all extremely close. They’re some of my best friends,” he said. “I don’t take lightly that I’m getting to play with them. I think that’s huge for us to be so close. We’re lucky. There are only a few teams like this.”
Last season, few fans were allowed in Gila River Arena for games. At other arenas, the ambient crowd noise just wasn’t the same.
A few teams are still not allowing fans due to their cities’ COVID-19 restrictions.
“It’s an added bonus to play in front of your own fans,” Garland said. “It’s hard when you have no one in the stands and the building is quiet. It feels almost awkward at the time. I love it when fans are loud and they’re appreciative of being able to come to a game.
“When you just see tarps hanging over the seats, the only word to describe it is ‘depressing.’ It takes the mood out of the rink. It’s not natural — especially when you’re playing Vegas and Colorado. They’re so loud, and the arenas are so fun to play in. I look forward to the day when everybody can have fans.”