TORONTO– A 2-1 loss to Colorado College on March 13th wasn’t the way he wanted to finish his career at the University of Wisconsin, but D Jake Gardiner new it was time part ways and take the next step in hockey.
“Wisconsin’s always been a well respected program and I had a lot of fun there but it was the right decision for me to move on,” said Gardiner after Saturday’s 3-1 loss to the Adirondack Phantoms (Philadelphia affiliate).
The opportunity for the Minnesota native to move on came in the form of an Amateur Try-Out (ATO) contract with the Toronto Marlies, which he signed on March 16th (His three year entry-level contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs kicks in next season). Being able to sign with the Marlies became a possibility after his rights were traded, along with RW Joffrey Lupul, to the Leafs from the Anaheim Ducks in February for D Francois Beauchemin.
“I was just watching tv on my couch and the assistant GM of the Ducks, David McNab, called and just told me I was being traded. I was shocked at the time but Burkie really likes me so it was a good move,” said Gardiner.
Drafted by Brian Burke (Burkie) and the Ducks in 2008, Gardiner was taken in the first round, 17th overall. At the time, he had only played one season as a blue-liner, spending majority of his time at Minnetonka High School as a forward. Regardless of the position change, he led the team with 20 goals and 48 points in 25 games played; good enough to be a top-10 finalist for Minnesota Mr. Hockey and 2008 Associated Press First-Team All-State.
Rather than stay local, Gardiner crossed state lines to play his next three seasons with the Wisconsin Badgers. A promising rookie campaign there was followed up with a statistically mediocre sophomore year, but he would bounce back this season recording 10 goals and 41 points in 41 games.
Furthering his development as a defenseman, Gardiner would also represent Team USA at the World Junior Championships twice, earning a gold medal in 2010.
Known to be an offensive presence his whole career, Gardiner says he has other skills to offer now that he’s playing with the Marlies.
“My skating, making the first pass, making passes and I’m getting better at defense. It’s one of my better parts now too.”
Wednesday night’s 3-1 victory over the Grand Rapids Griffins (Detroit affiliate) was Gardiner’s third game as a Marlie; a game that had him earn his first professional point assisting on a RW Ryan Hamilton goal in the first period.
“He’s played very well, has some poise. He’s been playing big minutes in college, thirty plus minutes a night,” said Head Coach Dallas Eakins. “I thought he’s adjusted well. He’s going to turn out to be an offensive threat for us,” he added when asked about Gardiner’s transition.
But with only seven games remaining for the Marlies and no guarantee of post-season play, Gardiner’s stay with the club could be brief.
“I’m going to try to make the team (Leafs) next year, work my butt off in the summer and try to compete for a spot on the team,” Gardiner said when asked where he sees himself in the organization’s near future.
Although he’s determined to make the NHL as soon as possible, Gardiner does believe playing hockey in Toronto is a thrill regardless of the symbol on the front of the jersey.
“Growing up in Minnesota, it’s (hockey) always been huge but here it’s a different animal. It’s pretty intense, putting on the Marlies jersey felt good.”