Flyers

Just a teenager, Carter Hart already mentally fit for Flyers' future

VOORHEES, N.J. — The last time Carter Hart recalls becoming irritated on the ice, he was 10 years old. He was in his first year of playing goaltender after previously playing forward.

His dad, John Hart, was his coach and his current sports psychologist, John Stevenson, was then his goalie coach. What transpired may have resembled a more PG version of this.

“This one kid kept crashing into my crease,” Hart said, “so my dad was on the bench coaching and he’s just like, ‘Just give it to this kid.’ So I just started blockering him.

“I actually didn’t know to blocker a kid, they consider it a weapon [and it’s] a five-game suspension. So I got a five-game suspension when I was 10 years old.”

Eight years later, Hart finds himself as one of the most anticipated goaltending prospects the Flyers have ever had, perhaps even more than the person who drafted him, Ron Hextall.

There was Pete Peeters in the late 1970s and Pelle Lindbergh in the ‘80s. Hextall, of course, in the late ‘80s. The Flyers’ history of drafting goalies is an urban legend.

Not many swooned over the likes of Dominic Roussel and Neil Little.

Hart is a different breed of goaltender. The Flyers made him the first goalie drafted in 2016 when they selected him 48th overall. He won the CHL Goaltender of the Year his draft year.

Last season, he posted superior numbers but didn’t recapture his crown. Owen Sound’s Michael McNiven won the title. Politics was likely involved. No goalie has ever won it twice.

Still, Hart won the Del Wilson Memorial Trophy as the WHL’s Goaltender of the Year for the second consecutive season and was twice named the Vaughn CHL Goaltender of the Week.

When sports psychologist and an 18-year-old come up in the same sentence, it may carry a negative condonation. Some may trigger the alarms. It shouldn’t, especially for a goalie.

Mental toughness is as essential to goaltending as hand-eye coordination is to hitting a baseball. If any conclusion can be drawn from Hart having one, it should be positive. 

Stevenson is a registered psychologist based in Edmonton, Alberta. He runs Zone Performance Psychology with his wife, Jaci Stevenson, and is a former scout for the Oilers.

The relationship between Hart and Stevenson goes back to when Hart was 10 when he was encouraged by his dad to blocker the kid crashing his crease. Stevenson was originally his goalie coach before transitioning into psychology full-time. Hart describes himself as laid-back whose “energy levels have dropped” in the eight years since. On the ice, he carries a calm demeanor — he doesn’t get mad and doesn’t consider himself to be vocal.

Perhaps some tricks he’s applicated from working with Stevenson, who also works with Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby, the 2016 Vezina Trophy winner. As a former goalie coach, Stevenson would try to get in Hart’s head to mess with him, according to Hart, which taught the Sherwood Park, Alberta, native to control what he can control.

“I talk to him on a regular basis,” Hart said Friday of Stevenson. “I’ve learned a lot on the mental side of things. The mental game is huge. It’s probably 90 percent of the position, really. If you believe you can do it, you can. That’s the mindset you have to have, you have to believe in yourself. You really have to believe in yourself and trust everything that you do.”

Holtby has been working with Stevenson since he was 15 years old. The Capitals’ goaltender told The Washington Post in 2015 that he didn’t realize how important Stevenson has been to him in his professional life until his first year away from him.

“That’s when I really found out how crucial that experience I had with him was,” he told the Post. “Kind of take it for granted when it’s right there at your fingertips, and once it’s gone, you have to start doing it on your own. It makes it harder, but you learn it even more.”

While Holtby and Hart share the same psychologist, Holtby isn’t the goalie Hart admires most, though he did call Holtby “one of the most mentally tough guys in the business.” Hart said he’s met Holtby a few times through Stevenson, and Holtby texted him after the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championships. The goalie he models his game after is Carey Price.

“He’s very efficient,” Hart said of Price. “He’s one of the best skaters in the game. He makes things simple and makes difficult saves look easy. I really admire the way he skates. That’s one of the biggest things for me is being a good skater. If you can’t skate, you can’t play.

“You have to be an elite-level skater to play in the NHL. … I think Price is the most elite skater in the league.”

Hart turns 19 on Aug. 13 and is not eligible for the AHL. It’s either one more year in Everett or breaking training camp with the Flyers. “Obviously, it doesn’t happen often for 19-year-old goalies,” he said. That’s his goal, but the numbers game dictates his October destination. Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth are the Flyers’ goalies for the next two years.

In 2016-17, Hart posted a 32-11-6 record in 54 games last season with the Silvertips. He led the WHL in goals-against average (1.99), save percentage (.927) and shutouts (nine). He had a shutout streak of 193 minutes and 38 seconds during the record season.

After his season ended in Everett, Hart joined the Lehigh Valley Phantoms during AHL playoffs largely as a third goalie with Anthony Stolarz injured. Then Alex Lyon suffered an injury in Game 2 of their first-round series with the Hershey Bears. Hart found himself on the bench backing up Martin Ouellette for Game 3. The Phantoms rode Ouellette for Games 4 and 5 with Mark Dekanich backing up. Lehigh Valley lost in five games.

Hart never played.

“I thought maybe against Hershey when I backed up, maybe see what happens,” he said.

Hextall drafted his fifth goalie in his fourth draft last month as Flyers general manager, selecting Russian netminder Kirill Ustimenko in the third round. With Ustimenko in the fold, the Flyers now have nine goalies in the organization.

“It doesn’t really matter. It’s just goalie depth,” Hart said. “There’s nothing wrong with having goalie depth because you never know what happens. The position of goaltending can be tough and tough on the body. … It’s a long year. Seventy-two games in the WHL, 76 games in the American League and obviously 82 in The Show.

“It doesn't bother me. Just got to worry about yourself.”