And boy, has the Panthers hulking defenseman blossomed.
“He's got more muscles than I've ever seen,'' Brian Campbell said, laughing. “I'm like, whoa!''
Garrison, who turns 27 on Nov. 13, wasn't drafted as a junior player in western Canada. “I never even thought of being drafted,'' Garrison said. “I wasn't that good.''
A tall, skinny defenseman with a decent shot, Garrison found his way to the University of Minnesota-Duluth where his game – and his physical presence – evolved. Garrison started to fill out. Scouts took notice.
After three years of playing for the Bulldogs, Garrison decided to turn pro. Despite not being drafted, despite having doubts he would ever make it to the NHL, Garrison was on his way. Florida general manager Jacques Martin heard about Garrison from the Panthers scouts. Martin offered a two-year deal and Garrison, despite being courted by other teams, saw opportunity with the Panthers and took it.
On Oct. 25, 2008, Garrison made his NHL debut with the Panthers in St. Louis. He wouldn't become a full-time NHL player for another year, but Garrison had fulfilled a dream many said he wouldn't.
“It just goes to show you that if you want something bad enough,'' Garrison said, “you can go get it.''
And if there are hockey players out there today who have heard they can't make it to the show one day because they are too small, too skinny, just not good enough, well, they can look at Garrison and know it can be done.
“I keep my head down and try to earn the respect of my teammates by doing that and working hard,'' said Garrison, who today has more goals than any other defenseman in the entire NHL.
“I have found that working hard is probably the best way for me to go about my game. That hasn't changed over the years. I'm definitely humble for the position I'm in. When you work hard to get here, and it's not quite handed to you, you respect every little chance you get more. I think that's what's going on. I'm happy to be part of this team.''
Garrison has shown that dreams still come true in the NHL, although it didn't come from chance. Garrison is a meticulous worker who uses previous snubs as motivational fuel both on the ice and in the weight room.
“People don't see how he's always here, always preparing. He hasn't been in the league that long, so he still has a lot to learn. And he has a lot of upside,'' said Campbell, Garrison's defensive partner.
“We have formed a nice combo and I think he's been put in a position to succeed. I don't know how much power play he was on last year, but he's playing more this year, getting more responsibility. He's easy to play with. That's the best compliment you can give another defenseman. I like what I see from him.''
Garrison's game has been noticed of late because of his offense, although teammates have often praised his defensive skill.
A good skater, Garrison is rarely out of position and hardly gets hooking or holding penalties called on him despite having plenty of opportunities to do so. In the first 11 games this season, Garrison has been called for just three penalties – two were for boarding and the other was for a hook.
What has set Garrison apart this season isn't his defensive play – but a booming slap shot. Garrison's five goals are highest amongst NHL defensemen and he goes into Thursday's game against Chicago riding a three-game goal streak.
Garrison's five goals this season match his career-high set last season through 73 games. Garrison scored just four goals in his first two seasons in college – and five in his last one.
“He has the big driver,'' Dineen said of Garrison's slap shot. Each goal has come from an average of 50 feet out and all were set up by Campbell. “It seems his teammates realize he's cracking the thing pretty good right now and they're putting it in his wheelhouse. He's doing what he does best. That's hitting the puck hard. The best thing about that shot is its velocity, but also its accuracy. He knows where that thing's going.''
Said Garrison: “I'm just shooting the puck as much as I can. You keep shooting, they'll eventually go in and they're coming in bunches right now.''
An unrestricted free agent at the end of this season, Garrison says he wants to remain with the Panthers. General manager Dale Tallon said Saturday that he has spoken informally with Garrison's agent regarding a new contract, one that should give him a considerable raise from the $700,000 he's making this season.
“I thought Florida was the best fit for me and definitely do not regret my decision to sign here at all,'' Garrison said. “I want to be here.''
THURSDAY: BLACKHAWKS AT PANTHERS
When, Where: 7:30 p.m.; BankAtlantic Center, Sunrise
TV/Radio: FSN; WQAM-560
The series: Chicago leads 13-9-3
The game: This is another reunion game between the two teams as Florida features four players (and GM Dale Tallon) who were with the Blackhawks two seasons ago. The Panthers will have Sean Bergenheim back after missing a few weeks with what is thought to be a groin issue. Scottie Upshall has been dropped to the fourth line and Tim Kennedy was returned to AHL San Antonio. The Hawks have won five of their past seven games after beating Nashville in overtime on Monday.