At the end of 2016, Reid Gardiner made a tough decision.
The standout from juniors was enjoying his first taste of professional hockey after making the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins roster out of training camp. Gardiner was playing regularly and registered six points in 23 games.
And then he decided to leave.
Gardiner, who was 20 at the time, had a season of eligibility left in juniors, and the desire to try for a Memorial Cup and spend a season playing with his younger brother, Erik, was stronger than playing in the pros.
“It was hard to leave all the guys in Wilkes-Barre,” Gardiner said.
But it was easy to come back.
Gardiner, 21, signed a one-year AHL deal with the Penguins in July. Now, after putting up lofty point totals during four-plus seasons in the Western Hockey League, Gardiner is ready for his first full season as a pro.
And based on his success in juniors, he’ll bring some lofty expectations.
In 290 career games in the WHL, Gardiner registered 124 goals and 257 points. With Kelowna last season, Gardiner posted 18 goals and 19 assists for 37 points in 28 games. He led the team in points (28) during the WHL Playoffs and finished second in the postseason with 15 goals despite playing in five fewer games than the leader.
And while his goal of winning a championship fell short, Gardiner doesn’t regret his choice to leave the AHL last season to go back to juniors.
“The first game with my brother it hit me that we’re on the same team after years of playing minor hockey,” he said. “It was a lot of fun.”
The taste of pro hockey followed by a return to juniors was a learning experience for Gardiner. He said he had to adjust from going to juniors to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, then adjust again when going back to the WHL.
After spending time in the pros, Gardiner said he returned to the junior ranks as a faster player and a leader on his team.
“I saw how guys like Tom Kostopoulos and Carter Rowney operated in Wilkes-Barre and I wanted to take that pro routine back to the guys in Kelowna,” he said.
Gardiner also wanted to produce. After all, he would be viewed as the player with pro experience and it was expected to pay off.
“I didn’t want to take any steps back. I wanted to put up decent numbers, especially in the playoffs,” Gardiner said. “I wanted to rise to the occasion.”
Now, Gardiner hopes to rise through the pro ranks and follow in the path blazed by Rowney, who began his career on AHL deals and now has his name on the Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Gardiner feels he’s in the right organization to achieve that same goal one day.
“It was pretty amazing to have been teammates with some of those guys for a few months, and then spend the end of the season watching them win the Stanley Cup,” he said. “Pittsburgh puts a lot of emphasis on developing their players, and Carter Rowney is a good example of that.
“I believe in myself and making the NHL, especially with Pittsburgh, is a realistic possibility one day.”
With training camp a month away, Gardiner is working out back home in Saskatchewan and keeping an eye on the other moves made by the Pittsburgh organization. He’s encouraged by what he’s seen and feels Wilkes-Barre/Scranton will be competitive this season.
Perhaps most of all, Gardiner is happy to see Kostopoulos return for another season.
“That means a lot. I saw how he carried himself on and off the ice and I’m looking forward to learning as much as I can from him to be a better player and person,” Gardiner said.