When Kyle Schmidt tapped the winning goal into Michigan’s net during the 2011 NCAA Men’s Hockey Championship, few of the 19,222 fans at the Xcel Energy Center knew that an even more significant victory was happening on the bench. For the Bulldog’s equipment manager, the team’s historic win was symbolic of a personal victory over “a beast” that tried to take him down, but failed.
Throughout his childhood, Chris Garner’s dad, who worked at a federal prison for 25 years, would remind his son to choose a career that he loved. “I always took that with me,” says Chris. “Being an equipment manager was a no-brainer. I can’t picture myself doing anything else. I don’t know if I could.”
His predecessor ran the Bulldog locker room for three decades. When he announced his retirement in 2008, Chris quickly submitted his application. The position merged his two passions, hockey and the North Shore. Growing up in Rochester, Minn., vacations were squeezed in between hockey practice and they were always trips to Duluth. “It was a place I always wanted to be and live and work. It was kind of one of those things that you wonder if it was meant to be, it all worked out.”
Chris’ path to Duluth wasn’t a straight shot up I-35. He first hit the ice as a Mite and played through his senior year, working the defensive line at Mayo High School. He went on to Junior B hockey before enrolling at St. Cloud State where he landed a job as a student manager for their hockey program. He took a break from school to work with the University of North Dakota’s women’s hockey team and the Houston Aeros, then back to St. Cloud where he graduated with an emphasis in sports management.
After graduating, he worked with a minor pro team in Kalamazoo, Mich., a job that he says gave him the experience needed to be the equipment manager in Division 1 hockey. Beyond the experience, Head Coach Scott Sandelin hired Chris for his intangible qualities, “I just liked him as a person, and it seemed like he’d fit in well with our staff.”
It’s a big job. On game days, Chris will spend up to 15 hours at AMSOIL. He describes his work as, “Nothing really too difficult, but there are a lot of little hands-on things. Whether it’s repairing someone’s shin pads, sharpening a dozen pairs of skates, that’s pretty typical on a game day. Getting the room ready, cleaning, getting the uniforms ready, sewing all the jerseys and socks, setting up for the game. Making sure the puck’s frozen, setting up the bench, setting up the visitors’ area.” He gives credit to student manager Ezra McPhail, his partner in tackling the massive "to do" list.
Pucks are kept in the freezer until they drop, preventing bounce. And once that puck drops, Chris is ready for his own face off with any equipment challenges. Fans see a Bulldog take a hard turn and crash into the boards and cringe. Chris is on his feet, “I know, most likely he’s lost an edge.” He’ll either try to make a temporary repair on the bench or, in less time than most can hit the concession stand, run back to his room to professionally sharpen it. “There are guys who are like, ‘Hey, there’s a time out coming. Can you buzz it?’ And that’s why my room is set up right where it is; it’s really close to the ice, so I can take a skate, buzz it, and he won’t miss a shift.”
Coach Scott Sandelin says that Chris’ capability allows him to focus on the game, “When you have good people, you don’t have to micromanage them. You trust what they’re doing because that’s why you hire them. They’re good at what they do, and Chris is good at what he does. He works hard.”
When asked about Chris, it’s clear that Scott’s feelings go beyond the typical employee appreciation. There’s personal admiration that came after watching Chris battle harder than his toughest players ever had to fight.
After working with Scott for two years, Chris was diagnosed with Myelodysplastic Syndrome, a leukemia-like blood syndrome that Chris describes, as “its own little beast.” Most people with Myelodysplastic Syndromes (MDS) get it after receiving cancer treatment, but Chris’ was genetic. Five of his great-grandfather’s eight siblings died of leukemia. When he was a teenager, doctors told him that something was wrong with his blood cells, but they didn’t know exactly what it was.
Chris was treated in Duluth before being transferred home. Fifteen years earlier, he’d played the defensive line at Mayo High School. Now he was at the Mayo Clinic, fighting for his life. “It was a full-time job for two months. The fact that I could go home to my parents’ house every night was huge.” His parents live three miles from the Mayo Clinic and could drive him to treatments, which lasted up to six hours every day. He had chemotherapy first and then, in August of that year, he underwent a stem cell transplant.
“It was a long struggle; that’s scary stuff,” remembers Scott. “You don’t know what’s going to happen there. It was a long process to find a match, and you don’t know how it’s going to go.”
It was a tenuous recovery. As the hockey season got underway, Chris was able to return to the game that he loved and the north woods that he needed. Players watched him resume his job, initially looking underweight and wearing a surgical mask to protect his fragile immune system. But he needed to be back. Staying in Rochester wasn’t an option for Chris. “His solace was coming back and working,” says Scott. “Being around things that he likes to do, and being around the game and the guys, and doing his job.”
His best friend, Jeremiah Minkle, has known Chris since the St. Cloud days and was with him through his treatment. Jeremiah doesn’t think the timing of his return was a coincidence, “It took tremendous courage to battle something like that. He fought and kept on fighting. It’s a huge accomplishment that he got back to UMD, and they won the National Championship. It seemed like fate.”
The picture of Chris triumphantly hoisting the NCAA trophy is telling. Beyond team pride, it tells the story of a guy who took a time out, did what he had to do, and made it back on the ice with perfect timing and not a lot of fanfare. Chris prefers to stay behind the scenes, saving the limelight for the players. But his team noticed. Says Scott, “He went through all that and came back. For me, for our whole team, he was an inspiration.”