Rampage forward Garrett Wilson was with his teammates in the visiting team locker room at the Wells Fargo Center when he got the news. The Rampage had just dropped a 2-1 decision to the Iowa Wild. It was a tough loss, and the San Antonio locker room remained quiet as the team prepared to continue a five-game road trip in Charlotte.
That was when San Antonio coach Tom Rowe called Wilson into the coaches’ office to tell him he would be joining the Florida Panthers in San Jose for their west coast road trip – Wilson would be making his NHL debut.
“It was a dream come true to get called up this year. I was pretty happy about it, and then Tom came into the locker room and announced the news to everyone,” said Wilson, who happened to also be celebrating his 23rd birthday on the day he was recalled. “Everyone was so excited for me to get the call, which was really cool.”
One of San Antonio’s most promising young forwards, Wilson has made steady, consistent improvements throughout his career. The fourth round (107th overall) NHL draft pick of the Florida Panthers in 2009, Wilson made his professional debut with the ECHL’s Cincinnati Cyclones during the 2011-12 season. He played in 63 games for the Cyclones that season, notching 17 goals and 18 assists before making his AHL debut with San Antonio on November 5, ultimately skating in 11 games for the Rampage. He began the 2012-13 season with the Cyclones and was recalled to the Rampage on January 24, where he finished the season, tallying three goals and two assists in 26 games.
The 2013-14 season was his first as a full-time member of the Rampage, and coach Tom Rowe, who took over as the team’s bench boss on November 8th, continued to see those gains in the play of a young star quickly emerging as one of San Antonio’s top forwards. Wilson tallied 30 points on the season, but it was his defensive play where his hard work and improvement really impressed Rowe and the coaching staff.
“By January, every time I would write on my lineup card who I would use at the end of a game to protect a lead,” said Rowe, “he was on it.”
Wilson was on a plane the morning following the Iowa game, but a series of flight delays didn’t put him in San Jose until after midnight on game day.
“I was pretty nervous the whole day just thinking about the game,” he said.
With his parents and his agent in attendance, Wilson recorded three hits in 8:07 of ice time as the Panthers topped San Jose 3-2.
“It was my first game, so I knew I probably wasn’t going to have my best game,” said Wilson. “I just tried to move my feet and finish my checks.”
Quinton Howden and Joey Crabb, Wilson’s teammates in San Antonio, tallied a goal and an assist, respectively, to lead the Panthers to the win. Wilson was also greeted by a couple other familiar faces as Vincent Trocheck and Colby Robak were also with Florida at the time.
“Having the guys from San Antonio there – guys I had played with all year – definitely helped make the transition easier,” said Wilson. “All the guys in Florida are pretty great. They knew I was nervous and they helped calm me down.”
Wilson played in three games with the Panthers, also skating in a 2-1 loss to Phoenix and a 6-2 loss to Anaheim. His time on the ice increased with each game – he averaged just over 10 minutes in those three games – and the nerves faded, giving way to a higher level of comfort at the NHL level.
“I felt like I improved with each game,” Wilson said. “I started to feel pretty good and more comfortable with every shift.”
“I thought he played the game he’s capable of playing in the Phoenix game,” added Rowe. “Getting out there the first time, there is the shock and awe of it all, but once you’re there you know you’re good enough to be in this league. He played good defensively and made plays offensively.”
At 6-3, 206 pounds, Wilson’s offensive strength is his net presence – Rowe thinks he is one of the best in the AHL at staying in front of the net and creating havoc – something the Panthers could be looking for more of as they look ahead to the makeup of next season’s roster. As the Rampage wrapped up the 2013-14 season, Wilson headed home to Ontario with his focus on improving his strength and conditioning, something that Rowe thinks will make him NHL-ready.
“He’s very consistent. I knew what I was going to get out of him,” says Rowe. “He’s ready to go into Florida next year and win a job.”
While his time with the Panthers this season was relatively short, it was enough to give Wilson a taste of the show and help set his focus on his offseason training, knowing a permanent NHL job could be just a summer away.
“Getting a taste, knowing the experience and what it’s like to be up there definitely makes me hungry to work hard and have a good training camp,” he said. “It fueled my desire to get there and stay there next year.”