After spending last year in the Florida Panhandle, leading his team to the Southern Professional Hockey League championship with the Pensacola Ice Flyers, local Garrett Milan spent the off-season at home in Whistler waiting to see what offers would come his way.
Late in the summer, with the hockey season right around the corner and plans of returning to the U.S. to play in the East Coast Hockey League, one final offer came in: a chance to make the move overseas to play for the Halmstad Hammers in Sweden’s HockeyEttan league. Milan jumped at the opportunity.
“My agent actually gave me a call when I was working out one day and said that they’re interested here in Sweden. So I did some research on the team and the league and everyone I talked to was saying that this is the best conference by far in the league to go to, so it was a pretty easy decision for me,” said Milan. “At the time I was focused on going back to Florida for a little bit and then this offer just kind of came out of nowhere. So I jumped on it to try to kick-start a little bit more of a career in Europe.”
While he said the cultural transition to Sweden was easier than expected, with most people being able to speak English fairly well, the biggest shock for Milan was returning to an actual winter after spending the last few seasons in the southern United States where he would spend his off days on the beach or playing golf with his teammates.
“A lot of the guys here do have a second job, they don’t get paid as imports do. So it can definitely be a little bit boring throughout the day sometimes,” he said. “But you just kind of go to the gym, you get body maintenance, [and get] yourself ready for games. There’s not too much else to do. Definitely a lot of Netflix, maybe try to read a couple books here and there. But yeah, there’s not much to do on the cold gloomy days in Sweden during the wintertime, for sure.”
Despite taking a little while to get used to the bigger ice surface and the more run-and-gun style of play versus the more structured game he was used to in North America, Milan’s production was strong in the games he played, putting up 29 points in 23 games across the regular season.
Unfortunately, the season as a whole didn’t quite go as expected for Milan, who ended up missing 18 games with an ankle injury.
Initially believed to just be an ankle sprain, Milan tried to play through the pain after resting it for a couple weeks. But when it didn’t get any better, Milan demanded an MRI, which showed he had actually tore a tendon in his ankle. The injury kept him out an additional few weeks in the middle of the season.
“Coming back, it was tough. Obviously points-wise I produced pretty good, but I was definitely playing at 70 per cent for probably 80 per cent of the year, so I wasn’t able to do a lot of stuff that I wanted to do physically that kind of made me the player that I am,” said Milan. “Being a short guy, my best quality is skating, and when you take away your skating, tight turns, things like that, it’s kind of tough. I thought I did pretty well during the season, putting up numbers, but there’s obviously more room to improve.”
Despite picking up where he left off down the stretch and into the playoffs, after coming back from injury, Milan’s role on the team changed, as he saw less powerplay time and other opportunities usually given to the team’s top producers.
That, plus the way his injury was handled, soured his experience to the point that Milan already knows he won’t be returning to Halmstad next year. However, he hopes to remain in Europe and finish off his playing career with a team in Italy or France.
Wherever he ends up playing next year, whether in Europe or back in the U.S., Milan says his expectations and goals for the year haven’t changed.
“Obviously the main goal is to win as many games as you can, whether it’s the championship or a promotion to the next level. That’s kind of where you want to go,” he said. “You want to go to a team that has those aspirations. But also being an import, you’ve got to come and produce, and at this point in your career, you want to do as well as you can personally to open up doors.”
With the Hammers’ playoffs coming to an end in the next week and no chance of the team advancing to the next level—which is the incentive for winning European leagues versus a championship banner or trophy like here in North America—Milan will be returning home to Whistler for the summer where he plans to run some summer hockey camps and dryland training programs for local kids.
“This year, I’m actually going to have about two different weeks of four ice times a week in July. It’s going to be a skills development camp for kids,” he said. “I’ll be running off-ice speed and conditioning camps for kids as well. I had about eight to 10 kids last year that fully committed to the program, and hopefully I can double that this year.”
For more information or to register for one of his camps, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.