Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Jake Gardiner, 23, learned to skate about the same time he started walking. As a 2-year-old, he began hopping on the ice in his Minnetonka, Minn., backyard rink that his father would build every year.
“My dad actually got me into hockey,” Gardiner said. “He played as a kid and through high school. We’d always skate outdoors — my brother and I and my dad — my sister figure skated for a while, so she was out there every once in a while, too.”
It’s not hard to imagine that another Minnesota family enjoyed lacing up their skates. But what might come as a surprise is the conversations that would go on inside the Gardiner household.
“I never liked to do my homework when I was younger,” Gardiner said laughing, “and my mom always said, ‘What are you gonna do when you grow up?’ [And I’d respond], ‘Be a professional hockey player.’ I didn’t think that I actually would at that time. I obviously wanted it, but I didn’t know.”
The 6-foot-2 NHLer, who recently surpassed his 100th game mark in October, said he and his mom laugh about that now, every once in a while. Growing up he also played golf, baseball and soccer, but it was around the time he was drafted in 2008 — 17th overall by Anaheim — when he started to believe his childhood hockey dream could become a reality.
Gardiner played Minnetonka High School puck and was the 2008 All-Metro Player of the Year and a Mr. Hockey finalist. He went on to build a good foundation playing at the University of Wisconsin for three years. After his junior season in 2011, he joined the Maple Leafs’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Marlies, for 14 games, and in the fall he made his NHL debut.
Gardiner tallied 30 points on seven goals and 23 assists in 75 games in the 2011-12 season and was named to the NHL All-Rookie Team. After spending most of the next year with the Marlies, Gardiner has grown and developed into “a more complete player” and is back in his Leafs jersey this season.
“When I first started in the league, I wasn’t as sharp defensively,” Gardiner said. “I think that the coaching staff — Randy Carlyle — has really worked with me to become more reliable defensively, more competitive in my defensive zone and finishing checks. I’m still working on that, but I think it has definitely improved from my first year.”
In Gardiner’s words, Toronto is a great city to play in because “it’s filled with passionate fans,” but that doesn’t mean his loyalty only belongs to Canada. Over the summer, Gardiner attended the U.S. Men’s National Team Orientation Camp along with his Maple Leafs teammates Phil Kessel and James Van Riemsdyk.
“It was really fun to be a part of the top 50 players in the U.S. — just to be with all those guys in the same camp was great,” Gardiner said. “We didn’t skate or anything, but just to see the way they carry themselves. We had some military people come and speak with us, and it was good to kind of hear their stories — you don’t get to see that every day, so the whole experience was an honor.”
He’s already represented the United States in the 2010 World Junior Championships and won a gold medal, which he said “was awesome,” but he has his eyes set on even bigger things.
“The Olympics would be a whole different level, you know, the best players in the world playing against each other,” Gardiner said. “I remember actually watching the 2010 Olympic games in college. I was watching the battle and thought just how cool it would be to wear that jersey. It has definitely been a dream of mine since I was a kid.”
He’s already had one childhood dream come true, so as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for because you just might get it.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.