‘It takes a big person to realize they need help’

Photo: Scott Paulus

📝 by Jason Karnosky | AHL On The Beat

Every night Connor Ingram stands in front of the Milwaukee Admirals’ net, his squad knows they are playing in front of one of the the American Hockey League’s top goaltending prospects.

The Admirals do not take for granted having a luxury like Ingram, especially knowing everything the goalie persevered through in his five-year professional hockey career.

Coming off a lights-out 2019-20 season when Ingram helped the Admirals post the AHL’s best record, the netminder voluntarily admitted himself into the National Hockey League’s player assistance program. Though Ingram failed to understand what was giving him so much difficulty at the time, a therapist was able to pin down the fact that obsessive-compulsive disorder was causing the goaltender all sorts of mental anguish.

Ingram’s condition was exacting a toll on his health and well-being, making everyday life difficult, and holding him back from developing into the standout goalie scouts knew he could be.

“I think everybody in life goes through some ups and downs, and there were definitely some dark days for me,” Ingram said. “I am a lot different person now than if you talked to me two years ago. It is all for the best.”

Treated and refreshed this season, Ingram gives the Admirals a chance to win every night. To date in 2021-22, Ingram has appeared in more games (22) and played more minutes (1,244) than every other AHL goaltender except Grand Rapids’ Calvin Pickard. He owns a record of 10-10-2 with a 2.99 goals against average and a .910 save percentage ― solid numbers on a team that has faced an uphill climb in the Central Division for much of the season.

“Connor’s played very well for us this year,” Milwaukee head coach Karl Taylor said. “He’s had some things with his life that he has had to get straightened out and get help with. I could not be happier for a young guy who has had some challenges. He’s recognized them, stared them down, and has moved on.”

There have been some breathtaking performances for Ingram this season, especially early on. Ingram started the 2021-22 campaign as the Nashville Predators’ backup goaltender in place of David Rittich, who was placed in the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol.

On Nov. 10, in just his third game back in the AHL, Ingram got peppered with 60 Manitoba shots. However, the netminder stood firm and stopped 56 of them, helping Milwaukee get a critical point in a 4-3 overtime loss.

“Connor’s been making some crazy saves to keep us in games at times,” Admirals rookie defenseman David Farrance said. “He’s been unreal for us and makes saves look so easy, even when they are not. As a defenseman, he gives you a sense of calmness when he’s back there.”

Just before Christmas, Ingram picked up his first shutout this season as Milwaukee blanked Rockford, 2-0. The victory came during a stretch in December when the Admirals won seven out of nine games.

“We leaned on Connor a bit too much at the beginning of the year,” Admirals captain Cole Schneider said. “But he’s done his job back there for us. Lately we’ve started to help him out a little bit by putting some pucks in the other net.”

Photo: Scott Paulus

Ingram has come a long way to get to the here and now, climbing over plenty of hurdles along the way.

Early on in his professional career, Ingram seemed on track for stardom. He began getting noticed during an impressive three-year stint with the Western Hockey League’s Kamloops Blazers ― a team coached by former NHL bench boss Don Hay. While still playing in the WHL, the Imperial, Sask., native was selected by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the third round of the 2016 NHL Draft.

Ingram took a break from his final junior season to make even more of a name for himself playing on Canada’s 2017 World Junior Championship squad. Playing on his home soil, Ingram won a silver medal while working in tandem with future Philadelphia Flyers star goaltender Carter Hart. The championship game, won 5-4 by Team USA, featured several future NHL standouts on both sides ― including Ingram’s future Predators teammates Dante Fabbro and Luke Kunin, plus Adam Fox, Mathieu Barzal, Charlie McAvoy, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Troy Terry, Thomas Chabot, Clayton Keller, and Anthony Cirelli.

Ingram turned professional for the 2017-18 season, and that year the AHL rookie played in 35 games for the Syracuse Crunch. He posted a 21-11-2 record with a 2.33 GAA, a .914 save percentage, and four shutouts. Ingram also made four postseason starts, helping his team advance to the second round of the Calder Cup Playoffs.

His numbers continued to impress the following season, but in the summer of 2019 Tampa Bay shipped Ingram off to Nashville in exchange for a seventh-round draft pick. Playing alongside veteran Troy Grosenick on the impressive 2019-20 Admirals, Ingram looked rejuvenated, at least on the ice.

“That year Connor was coming into his second organization, so Milwaukee was kind of a fresh start for him,” Taylor said. “With Milwaukee he had an opportunity to reestablish himself as a prospect, and he did that.”

In 2019-20, Ingram went an unbelievable 21-5-5, finishing third in the league in wins. He posted the league’s third-best GAA ― a minuscule 1.92 ― and the league’s third-best save percentage (.933). Ingram and Grosenick backstopped the Admirals to the AHL regular-season title, and the pair earned the Harry “Hap” Holmes Memorial Award as the goalies on the team that allowed the fewest goals in the league.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic prevented postseason play that season for Milwaukee, which would have been one of the favorites to win the Calder Cup.

“I thought with Troy and Connor we had a great tandem that year and both guys pushed each other,” Taylor said. “Having Troy there helped Connor feel secure, but he also knew he would be challenged. This year Connor’s been determined as our number one goalie, so it is the next stage of his career and he has got to carry the mail for us.”

Instead of feeling on top of the world with all of his success on the ice, Ingram was not mentally right. That became clear during the pandemic-plagued 2020-21 season, as he dealt with an undiagnosed case of OCD.

Over the years Ingram tried coping with his mental demons internally, but the issues still drove him to the point of where he did not want to play hockey anymore.

With the Admirals sitting out the 2020-21 campaign, Ingram needed to ask for help while a member of Nashville’s taxi squad. With the support of Predators goaltending coach Ben Vanderklok, Predators assistant general manager and director of hockey operations Brian Poile, and others, Ingram voluntarily entered the NHL’s player assistance program in January of 2021. It was a big step on the road to recovery.

Photo: Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images

“There were times when I wouldn’t know what was happening to me,” Ingram said. “Luckily the league had the resources available to help get through it. Milwaukee as an organization, and Nashville, both have been great with assisting me. They’ve let me get the help that I need.”

Taylor was proud of Ingram for taking that all-important first step in trying to figure out what was going on.

“As humans we try to deny things and pretend it is not happening,” Taylor said. “The first stage on the road to recovery is recognizing that something is not correct. It takes a big person to realize that they need some help. Connor went and got the help he needed, and then he came back and really dug into his career.”

With the help of a therapist, Ingram got his OCD diagnosed and was able to treat the issue. Last April, he got back to playing hockey with the Chicago Wolves, where Nashville’s prospects played during the 2020-21 season. Ingram felt like a weight was lifted off his back.

“The fact that Connor is playing so well here in Milwaukee is pretty impressive considering what he’s been through, and the battles he faces,” Admirals assistant coach Greg Rallo said. “He’s owned his issues and he works at it every day. His effort level and his willingness to compete as a goaltender is outstanding. He’s a good goalie who takes pride in his craft, and he’s someone we really like having around.”

Ingram punctuated his personal and professional recovery progress early in the 2021-22 season, when the 24-year-old started his first NHL game with Nashville. Rather than play nervous or shaky, the netminder made the start count. Ingram made 33 saves as the Predators knocked off the previously undefeated Minnesota Wild 5-2 on Oct. 24.

“I still don’t think it’s hit me,” said Ingram after the game. “My first shot in the Western League (and) my first shot in the American League both went in, so I was kind of half-expecting it to go in today. But it didn’t, so that’s a nice way to start.”

Taylor pointed to all of the work Ingram put in this summer as a big reason why he got the opportunity to play in Nashville this season. Moreover, it is a big reason why Ingram will likely to get another NHL chance in the near future.

“I was so proud of him when he went to Nashville this year and played so well there,” Taylor said. “He did such a good job in the two games he played in for the Predators. Now he’s back here in Milwaukee trying to build his career and be ready for his next opportunity.”

Admirals defenseman Matt Donovan knows Ingram has his back when he is in goal. The same goes for Ingram, who knows his teammates are there for him.

“Connor’s been unbelievable for us as a player,” Donovan said. “The way he plays, and his stats, prove that. As a person he’s really turned his life around. He wants to make himself better as a player and as a person.”

Donovan thinks Ingram will continue to overcome all obstacles.

“Connor is such a great teammate and a great guy,” Donovan said. “As long as he stays on the straight and narrow, and I think he will because he has the attitude and personality to do that, he’s going to be a great goaltender for Nashville very soon.”