Michael Gallagher, nashvillepost.com
As he took the traditional rookie solo lap Sunday evening in Minnesota — something he said he thought was only done for skaters and not goaltenders — Connor Ingram was aware of the journey that he took to get to the NHL.
It wasn’t long ago that the 24-year-old was in the NHL’s league assistance program, and it was unknown when he would return to playing full-time hockey.
Now, Ingram has his first NHL start — and win — out of the way.
“Nine months to the day that I stepped away and went into the @NHLPA program for help, I played my first game,” Ingram tweeted after the game. “Amazing the things that happen when you put your mental health first. #LetsTalk.”
Added Predators coach John Hynes: “Guys are hockey players, but they’re people too. And he went through a bit of a struggle last year but give him a ton of credit, he’s spent a lot of time here this summer and really got himself going. I thought he had an excellent training camp. He knew he had a good training camp, he put the work in and it’s nice to see a person develop as a layer but more importantly as a person.”
Ingram was nothing short of dominant against the Wild, stopping 33 of 35 shots — including turning away all eight shots on Minnesota’s five power play opportunities — for a .943 save percentage as the Predators handed the Wild their first loss of the year.
He also became just the second Predators goalie in franchise history to win his NHL debut. The other was Pekka Rinne.
“I still don’t think it’s hit me yet,” Ingram said. “Ignorance is bliss almost at this point, where you don’t really realize what’s going on yet. But I feel good. You jump out to an early (3-0) lead like that, and it’s a lot easier to play goaltender. It was lots of fun.
“My first shot in the Western League and my first shot in the American League both went in, so I was half expecting that the first one would go in today.”
Added captain Roman Josi: “He was awesome. He was great; he was so calm in that first game, and it’s a big deal. I was really nervous when I played my first game, and he looked so calm. There’s so much confidence in him and within our team. It was an awesome game from him, and we’re definitely really proud of him.”
Ingram’s success on Sunday was of no surprise to anyone in the Predators locker room. After all, many of them watched him perform at a high level with the Milwaukee Admirals in 2019.
That season, while splitting time with Troy Grosenick, Ingram ranked third in the AHL in wins (21), goals-against average (1.92) and save percentage (.933) as the Admirals iced the best team in the AHL that year. Milwaukee allowed the fewest goals in the league (141) and had an AHL-best 41-14-5-3 record while occupying the top spot in the Central Division.
Many believe the Admirals would have won the Calder Cup trophy had COVID-19 not ended the season prematurely.
That 2019 season was supposed to serve as the appetizer for how good Ingram could truly be playing full-time starter’s minutes. But the Admirals announced the cancelation of their 2020 season, then they struck a partnership with the Chicago Wolves to have a player share for the season.
Ingram decided then was the time for him to focus on his off-ice issues. He checked himself into NHL/NHLPA player assistance program, which helps players deal with mental health issues, substance abuse problems and other personal matters.
He returned to the AHL and made five starts for the Wolves to close out the season before spending his summer in Nashville competing with David Rittich to be Juuse Saros’ backup. When Rittich was placed on the COVID-19 list, Ingram got his shot.
“I mean, I surprised myself,” Ingram said. “I had a little nap in even, so I must have not been too nervous, I guess, if that’s a possibility. It was really exciting. Everybody at home was really fired up, too, so I guess the first one’s over.”
“He’s been working so hard,” Josi added. “He spent his whole summer in Nashville, he was skating almost every day. So that start was well-earned and the win. You could see it in his game, the way he played, he has a lot of confidence, he’s calm and that’s how he is off the ice too. He’s an awesome teammate.”