Following the departure of goaltender Ethan Chadwick in the summer, the Saskatoon Blades had a goalie slot to fill entering the 2023-24 Western Hockey League season.
Saskatoon’s backup job would be won by 2021 third-round draft pick Evan Gardner after a trio of standout seasons with the RINK Hockey Academy in Kelowna, British Columbia.
Despite a rough first WHL start against the Regina Pats, Gardner has become a model of consistency in net for the Blades and has been one of the team’s biggest early season surprises.
“That first game for me was a little shaky and I was getting in my head a little bit about that,” said Gardner. “But I think ever since then, I’ve just been over the moon with confidence and I’ve really felt like I belong in this league.”
Skating in the footsteps of recent Blades goaltenders such as Nolan Maier and current teammate Austin Elliot, Gardner has impressed head coach Brennan Sonne in his eight appearances so far this season.
“He’s awesome, he’s a great kid,” said Sonne. “Since I’ve been here, this has kind of been a little bit of a goalie factory.”
But under the pads, is a battle which Evan has been fighting since he was just 11 years old.
On a road trip to a baseball camp in the summer of 2017, Gardner began showing distressing signs to his parents that he was unwell.
What followed was a diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes, a lifelong chronic condition that he knew little to nothing about.
“Being diagnosed, I didn’t really know what it was or what would come with it,” said Gardner. “I was super scared in that hospital.”
Evan’s immediate thoughts went hockey and if he’d be able to continue to play the sport at a high level.
Doctors however pointed to a number of athletes such as Max Domi and Bobby Clarke, who have navigated diabetes diagnoses to successful careers in the National Hockey League.
“That just really helped me think that I could continue my dream and play with diabetes and not be scared that it’s going to affect me,” said Gardner. “Obviously there’s been some bumps in the road with the diabetes, but it’s been getting better and the team here has been great. They support me the best they can with all of that.”
That support through sport has been a constant for Evan in those six years since first being diagnosed, led by the medical professionals who gave him hope that elite sport would continue to be an option years down the line.
“Sports were a big part of my life and that obviously scared me,” said Gardner. “But just them telling me that everything was going to be okay and I was going to pretty much live a normal life, it was great to hear.”
Since joining the Blades, Evan has gone public with his diagnosis in the hopes of raising awareness around diabetes and how athletes are able to adapt at high levels.
That’s included a push during Diabetes Awareness Month in November, in which the 17-year-old netminder has led the Unite the Circle challenge in which Blades fans walked the concourse of SaskTel Centre on November 17 to raise funds for Diabetes Canada.
Dr. Peter Senior sits as the board chair for Diabetes Canada and said Evan’s story is an inspirational one for young athletes across all sports.
“Whenever I hear of anybody succeeding in pursuing their goals and their dreams it’s great,” said Senior. “Diabetes is an additional task, it is an additional burden that often is invisible and maybe not perceived by other people. But it is just great news.”
Like Domi, Gardner has a continuous glucose monitor on him at all times which allows him to track his levels without the constant need for finger pricks.
Even while managing his condition, Gardner has stormed out of the gates with a 2.47 goals against average and a .916 save percentage which places the Saskatoon netminder among the league’s top-10 goaltenders.
“If somebody is being a successful athlete despite the fact they have diabetes, their identity is that they’re a successful athlete,” said Senior. “It’s not necessarily that they’ve got diabetes and that’s all that there is about them.”
“So I think there is an increasing awareness, I think there is an increasing willingness to disclose this.”
Along with the examples of NHL talent dealing with diabetes, Senior pointed to examples of women in professional sports such as WNBA forward Lauren Cox and Canadian softball pitcher Sara Groenewegen who have overcome the condition to achieve successful athletic careers.
More than anything, Evan is wanting to be that next person young athletes look up to who are experiencing the same fears and worries that he once did.
“I just hope to be an inspiration for them,” said Gardner. “I want them to know that nothing is going to stop you from your hockey dreams and you can do anything you set your mind to. For the most part, I just hope I can inspire a few kids that are in my shoes.”