Carter Hart seems almost too good to be true.
He looks destined to be the Flyers’ best goalie in three decades. Combine that with his boyish enthusiasm and genuineness and you can understand why he has quickly become the fans’ most popular player.
At 20 years old.
When they announced the starting lineups for Monday’s game against Vancouver at the Wells Fargo Center, there was a loud roar from the fans for Flyers captain Claude Giroux, a likely Hockey Hall of Famer some day.
One player got a louder roar: the Whiz Kid Goalie who is the only Flyer to ever wear No. 79.
Hart selected that number because he didn’t want to disappoint an autistic boy named Connor Parkilla, who devotedly watched the goaltender’s home games when he played in the Western Hockey League for the Everett (Wash.) Silvertips.
In 2016, Hart had just gone back to Everett from the Flyers’ development camp in Voorhees. He wore No. 79 at camp, but he would get a lower number, he figured, when he eventually made the Flyers.
But his plans changed — and his heart melted — when he saw Connor at a Silvertips home game wearing a No. 79 Flyers jersey with Hart’s name on the back of it.
Which is why Hart, who has taken the league by storm and become a rookie-of-the-year contender even though he has been with the Flyers less than two months, decided to keep the number when he reached the NHL.
“I didn’t want to disappoint him, and that’s the first Flyers jersey I ever saw anyone wear with my name on the back," Hart said the other day. “I was like, ‘Maybe I should just stick with 79. I don’t want his parents to be too mad and have to buy him another jersey if I switched numbers.’ I wanted to just honor that.”
Hart and the little boy will soon be reunited. The goalie has arranged for Connor and his parents to be his guests at home games Feb. 16 against Detroit and Feb. 19 against Tampa Bay.
“It’s going to be pretty cool,” said Hart, who, during the season, receives video messages from Connor that are sent by his parents. “Connor is a big fan, and you have to honor the fans.”
It’s easy for professional athletes to get jaded by the fame and the fortune. There seems little danger of that happening with the oh-so-grounded Hart, who went out of his way to spend extra time with blind students and a man battling ALS as they visited the Flyers’ practice facility this past week.
“We’re put in the spotlight a lot as NHL players,” Hart said. “I know for myself growing up, I looked up to a lot of professional hockey players and professional athletes in general. We’re kind of put in the public eye a lot and you need to make sure you’re doing the right thing 100 percent of the time. We’re kind of role models for young kids, and it’s important you set a good example for them."
With Saturday’s 6-2 win over Anaheim, Hart is on a personal eight-game winning streak. During that span, he has a 2.35 goals-against average and .934 save percentage.
Hart will take a personal seven-game winning streak into Saturday’s game against visiting Anaheim. During that span, he has a 2.26 goals-against average and .934 save percentage.
But don’t think for one minute Hart would have been this dominating if he didn’t get his feet wet in the AHL, where he struggled mightily at the start of this season.
“Just to go through everything was [helpful],” Hart said. “It’s completely different when you’re living on your own and you’re with a new group of teammates that you don’t know very well. It’s a huge adjustment on and off the ice, and I think it takes a little bit of time and there are some growing pains you have to go through — like any other things in life.”
After a strong training camp with the Flyers this season, Hart was disappointed he was sent to the Phantoms.
“I went down there and just made the most of every opportunity,” he said. “My goal was to come back here as fast as I can. I wanted to be here every single day I was down there, and I kept that in mind and that’s what I always worked on. But at the same time, I was just worrying about everything I was doing there — and being more consistent and not taking any days off — and not worrying about being up here.”