Three years ago defenseman Garrett Haar was, in the opinion of then-general manager George McPhee, the “surprise” of the Capitals’ development camp.
Last year, McPhee said Haar’s development had “leveled off” and that leaving Western Michigan University for the Western Hockey League might be “good for his development.”
Last week, Haar participated in his fourth development camp for the Capitals and says he could not be happier with the long and sometimes stormy path he has taken to his first pro contract.
“I’ve kind of been all over the map,” said Haar, a 6-foot, 207-pound native of Huntington Beach, Calif., taken by the Caps in the seventh and final round (207th overall) of the 2011 NHL draft. “But I wouldn’t change the path that I’ve been on and I think it’s helped me grown into the person I am today.”
Haar was drafted by the Capitals following his only season with the Fargo Force of the USHL, where he recorded seven goals and 16 assists in 51 games. He went on to play two years at Western Michigan, recording four goals and 13 assists in 58 games.
During his sophomore year at WMU, Haar missed 16 games with a back injury and was ruled academically ineligible for the start of the 2013-14 season. After a public feud with head coach Andy Murray, he decided it was best if he leave the college.
“I knew in my heart I wasn’t happy at Western Michigan and, as much respect that I have for Andy Murray, I thought it was really easy to make that call and tell him what I thought and tell him what I thought I needed to do,” Haar said.
Murray, who has coached at every level of professional and amateur hockey, had some biting words for Haar at the time of his departure, saying his staff did everything it could to keep Haar academically eligible, including having people walk him to class.
“But you have to be committed to it and unfortunately he wasn’t,” Murray said at the time. “There were issues of integrity between the coaches and his teammates that were not at an acceptable level.”
Later, Haar tweeted, “I did not get kicked off Western Michigan, this was my decision #layoff.”
Shortly after concluding the Capitals’ rookie camp last summer, Haar signed with the Medicine Hat Tigers, who later traded him to the Portland Winterhawks of the Western League.
“Leaving school was a big decision for me,” he said. “As much as it made my mom cry, I just kind of had to stand up for myself and make that decision.”
Playing under the direction of Portland head coach Mike Johnston and assistant coach Karl Taylor, Haar’s game grew at every level. He finished the season with seven goals and 38 assists and was a plus-32 in 61 games. He added three assists in 21 playoff games as the Winterhawks lost in the WHL finals.
“I couldn’t have gone to a better organization,” Haar said. “Honestly, it was one of the most fun years of my life playing in juniors and I’m really glad I made that decision. I thought it bettered me for sure.”
Johnston’s success in Portland helped land him the job of head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, while Taylor accepted a job as assistant coach of the AHL Texas Stars.
“He was a real professional, so he kind of gave us a preview of what it’s going to be at the next level,” Haar said of Johnston, who replaced Dan Bylsma. “He was a really good mentor, not just to me but to all the younger guys, and the Penguins are extremely fortunate to have gotten him as a head coach. I don’t think he’ll do anything but have success and I’m really happy for him.”
Known for his offensive acumen, Haar said it was his work on the defensive side of the ice that helped land him his first pro contract with the AHL Hershey Bears, who signed him to a one-year contract in June.
“Over the last couple years, I always knew I had to improve my defensive game if I wanted to play at the next level,” Haar said. “Coach Johnston and Karl Taylor really worked with me in the defensive zone and made me more of a two-way player. I have gotten stronger in the D corners and I’ve gotten more aware defensively.”
At 20 years old -- he’ll turn 21 next month -- Haar says he’s anxious to take the next step of a hockey career that began as a young boy in southern California.
“That’s what I wanted since I was a little 11-year old,” he said when asked what it will be like to get paid to play hockey. “I told my Mom, ‘I want to do this for my job,’ and she was like, ‘Alright, well we’ve got to get you on ice skates.’ I’m not there yet, but it is a dream come true to make that first step into the door.”