Senior Rhett Gardner has established himself thanks to the way he plays on the ice.
It’s a common word used in the sport of hockey: grit. Every coach has used the word in a speech to their team, every player has tried to showcase it in their performance on the ice. Yet very few hockey players are truly gritty. A small number of players take pride in their blue-collar work ethic. In most cases, it is that very same work ethic that has gotten them to wherever they are now in the hockey world.
Rhett Gardner is one of those players. He exemplifies what it means to be gritty on the ice. His “grind it out” mentality has won over his teammates, coaches and professional scouts. Because of it, he is poised to have a lengthy career in the professional ranks.
The senior from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan cannot see the game of hockey any other way. He is under the impression that, as the old saying goes, hard work and effort will lead to personal success. Gardner has seen plenty of that success in his time at North Dakota.
All of this praise and attention paid to his work ethic led to Gardner being given the UND Coaches’ Unsung Hero Award at the end of last season. For the senior, there’s a pretty simple reason as to why he received the award. “I think it’s kind of the way I play the game. I don’t play the flashiest game or the most attractive game, but I do a lot of little things that not everyone notices if you’re not in the hockey world,” he said. “Obviously the team recognizes it, my coaches recognized it, so it meant a lot to win that award and I think it’s just a testament to how I play the game.”
While that may have been the most meaningful award Gardner received last season, it was not the only one. He was also named the NCHC Defensive Forward of the Year and was on the NCHC Academic All-Conference team, his third season being named to said team.
The numbers perfectly coincide with Gardner’s postseason accolades. He totaled 20 points in just 33 games in 2017-18. With seven goals and 13 assists under his belt, he finished the season with a plus-6 rating. That mark was tied for sixth best on the team.
Gardner is also vital in the faceoff circle for the Fighting Hawks. He compiled 459 faceoff wins last season which was the best in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference and seventh best in the country. However, perhaps the most telling statistic about Gardner is UND’s record without him. While missing seven games over the course of the season, North Dakota went an abysmal 0-3-4 without Gardner on the ice. When he was on the ice? The team went 17-10-6 overall.
Now in his second season as an assistant captain, Gardner knows what it takes to become a leader on the ice for North Dakota. He feels as though his teammates respect him and feel comfortable coming to him if they have any qualms.
“I’m pretty approachable for the younger guys. They know if they ever need to talk to me about school or hockey or anything, I’m approachable,” he said. “I like to have fun around the rink with the guys, but I know when to do that and when not to do that. I think it’s important because you can’t always be serious around the rink, you gotta enjoy it. Finding the right balance is what makes good leaders. Knowing when to speak and when not to speak and what to say. I think sometimes there are times where nothing needs to be said and sometimes where you need to speak up. Just picking your spots and guys will listen.”
With a wide variety of classes on this North Dakota roster, senior leadership is key. Luckily for Brad Berry, he can sleep well at night knowing Gardner is as strong of a leader as he’s ever had in his coaching tenure. It is with that leadership and overall skill set that has propelled Gardner to the eyes of NHL scouts.
Drafted by the Dallas Stars in the fourth round of 2016’s NHL draft, Gardner will have a go at the professional ranks after this season concludes. In the meantime, Gardner may have a shot to eclipse the school’s record for faceoffs won. To date, Gardner has won a total of 1,126 career faceoffs. The current record, held by Corban Knight stands at 1,746 career faceoff wins. Given Gardner’s previous tallies of faceoffs won, the chance of him breaking Knight’s record is in the realm of possibility. Gardner is sure to at least be second in school history by season’s end. Current New Jersey Devil Travis Zajac is third with 1,134 wins, eight short of Gardner’s mark. Next on the list would Chris VandeVelde with 1,474 faceoff wins and then Knight’s mark.
However, there are two things that Gardner will readily admit that he and the team need improvement in. For him, he knows he has to do a better job of staying out of the penalty box. Gardner was penalized 20 times last season and spent a total of 48 minutes inside the box. That is the equivalent of just over two full periods of hockey. While it was not the highest mark on the team, it was third most minutes spent in the penalty box by a UND player (behind Christian Wolanin and Cole Smith).
Unfortunately for Gardner, he did not begin 2018 the way he would have wanted from that perspective. In the team’s exhibition against Manitoba, he had four stints in the box on hooking, slashing and cross-checking penalties respectively. In total, Gardner spent 10 minutes serving out penalty sentences. Ultimately, he redeemed all of that by scoring the game-winning goal in overtime to carry the Fighting Hawks over the Bisons 3-2. However, to expect Gardner to redeem his penalties by netting game-winning goals consistently is a tough ask, even for a player of his caliber.
From a team perspective, Gardner shares the sentiments of many North Dakota players and coaches. He knows the team needs to start the season strong in the non-conference before the NCHC gauntlet begins. “It’s huge. There’s a lot of out of conference games in October and November and those are huge down the stretch when preparing for the tournament,” Gardner said. “I think the earlier you can start off on a good note, it’ll let you build and not have to start from scratch every week. The biggest thing is playing our game and getting our systems right and going from there.”
Gardner won 10 of 17 faceoffs in the season opener at Bemidji State. He also had one shot on goal in the third period in the 2-1 loss to the Beavers. Gardner won 19 more faceoffs at the home opener the following night. Though the Fighting Hawks tied Bemidji State 1-1, Gardner was able to get three shots on goal that night. As UND split their weekend series with Minnesota State Mankato, Gardner finished with a plus-1 rating. However, he did receive a major penalty for checking from behind. Without Gardner on the ice, the Fighting Hawks lost that game 7-4.
Rhett Gardner has more than established himself within North Dakota’s hockey program. He is gritty. He is tough. His blue-collar. While a similar sentiment can be said about other hockey players at other universities, none truly live it and breathe it like Rhett Gardner. That mindset (and his overall ability) will prove advantageous for him as his senior season moves along and into his transition to professional hockey.
Gardner’s Path To UND And Beyond
- 2013-2015: Played two seasons for the Okotoks Oilers of the Alberta Junior Hockey League. Played in 106 games, tallying 37 goals and 54 assists
- 2013-2015: Represented Canada West at the World Junior A Challenge, serving as captain the latter year and winning a bronze medal in the former.
- 2014: Graduate of Vanier Collegiate in Moose Jaw.\
- 2015-16: Freshman season at UND. Tied for fourth on the team with 11 goals. Was a vital member of the NCAA Championship team that season.
- 2016: Drafted by the Dallas Stars in the fourth round of the NHL Entry Draft. First UND player to be drafted following their freshman season since 2011.
- 2016-17: Sophomore season at UND. Set a career-high in points with 21.
- 2017-18: Junior season at UND. Named assistant captain for the first time. Led NCHC in faceoff victories and also took home the NCHC Defensive Forward of the Year honors.