ARTICLE WRITTEN BY GREG RAJAN, ICERAYS BEAT WRITER FOR THE CALLER-TIMES. FOLLOW HIM ON TWITTER @GREGRAJAN
CORPUS CHRISTI — In the fall of 2009, Ryan Garbutt came to Corpus Christi as a rookie trying to earn a spot on a pro hockey roster.
When Garbutt returns to Texas in a few months, he’ll do so with an NHL contract in hand.
Garbutt, who played for the IceRays during their final season as a minor-pro franchise, signed with the Dallas Stars on Friday, the first day of the NHL’s free-agent signing period.
He signed a two-way contract with the Stars that includes an invitation to their training camp.
“I’m very excited about that, especially signing with a team like Dallas,” Garbutt said from his home in Winnipeg, Manitoba. “Obviously, it’s what I’ve been striving for my whole life, and I want to take advantage of the opportunity I’ve been given.”
“It’s definitely exciting, but I know have a lot of work ahead of me. It’s definitely a step in the right direction. It doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to play in the NHL next year. I’m going to have to work my way up there.”
Garbutt is the first IceRays player to sign an NHL contract after playing in Corpus Christi during the franchise’s 14-year history. While the IceRays have since shifted to the junior ranks since Garbutt played here, general manager Pat Dunn was quick to call him the embodiment of what the team is trying to accomplish.
"It’s huge for the organization,” Dunn said. “We’re still the IceRays and we hope it’s the first of many more to come. We’re trying to get (guys like) Garbutt every year. Our goal is to move guys up to the next level and this is a perfect example.
“(Garbutt) fell through the cracks; it happens. He (persevered) and never gave up. He worked hard and got noticed. That’s a great story. People should take a look at that and be inspired.”
Garbutt started the 2010-11 season with the Gwinnett (Ga.) Gladiators of the ECHL and had 17 points (10 goals, 7 assists) in 10 games before being promoted to the Chicago Wolves, the American Hockey League affiliate of the Atlanta Thrashers.
With the Wolves, he had 37 points (19 goals, 18 assists) in 65 games with a plus-27 rating. Last month, the Thrashers relocated to Winnipeg, and it was presumed Garbutt would stay with his new hometown team.
But Garbutt said he was unsure of Winnipeg’s interest in keeping him, and Dallas stood out from a handful of teams that pursued him.
“Dallas just seemed to be the place I wanted to go and the place that would be a good fit for me,” Garbutt said. “I loved the experience playing in Corpus, so it made me want to go back to (Texas).”
He’s come a long way from that 2009-10 season in Corpus Christi, when he came to training camp as an unknown out of Brown University, won a job and started the season on the third line.
Garbutt quickly moved up the IceRays’ depth chart, and finished with 50 points (22 goals, 28 assists) in 64 games with a team-best plus-24 rating. He finished second in the Central Hockey League’s rookie of the year balloting.
“I saw it as a steppingstone when I went down to Corpus,” Garbutt said. “I didn’t look at it as a dead end at all. I had some great guys on the team to look up to and they helped me get better and take the next step.
“It was a great opportunity for me and allowed me to gain a lot of confidence in my game knowing I could play at the pro level and excel. I just used it as a place where I could build confidence in myself and prove I could play at that level and beyond.”