DALLAS -- Undrafted, unsigned and unwanted were the best words to describe the early years of Ryan Garbutt's pursuit of an NHL career.
No longer, as the three-year, one-way contract worth $5.4 million the Winnipegger signed with the Dallas Stars this past January can attest.
While most of Garbutt's NHL peers were playing AAA in their hometowns or had moved on to major junior programs, the Dallas Stars left-winger was playing high school hockey for three years at Winnipeg's Vincent Massey Collegiate.
The odds of getting to the NHL are long enough but almost no one in the NHL played high school hockey in Canada for more than a week. Let alone three years.
Garbutt is a freak but not of nature. He is a testament to hard work.
"He's a gym rat. He works so hard in the off-season," said fellow Winnipegger and Stars teammate Cody Eakin. "Having him here has been great for me. We do everything together. And we're competitive whether it's golf or table tennis or whatever. So when we get in the gym in the summer, he pushes me and I push him. But he loves it. And it's helped him reach new levels in hockey."
Stars GM Jim Nill says Garbutt's fitness is "elite."
"It has to be. His game is built on speed and he needs to be just as fast late in the third period as he is in early in the first," said Nill. "His conditioning and commitment to fitness unlocks a lot of what he does for us on a night in and night out basis."
Garbutt says it's no accident his speed has improved to an elite level among NHLers.
"I wasn't always a great skater and then, when I was 18, I started working with Richard Burr in Winnipeg and he got me to focus on my footwork and explosiveness and it's changed me as a player," said Garbutt. "My legs and my speed are always with me. It's different than a guy who has hands and sometimes they're there and sometimes they're not. My speed is the foundation of my game and I can always rely on it."
After turning a couple of strong seasons with the MJHL's Winnipeg South Blues into a scholarship and some good years at Brown University, Garbutt left school and found himself in familiar territory. No one believed in him. But he did.
Garbutt took a tryout with the Corpus Christi Stingrays of the Central Hockey League and earned a spot, scoring 22 goals and 50 points over 64 games in his first pro season. Next came the ECHL for a quick stint and then a promotion to the AHL where he quickly adapted, scoring in bunches and banging into everybody on the ice.
Some scouts still ignored him but others couldn't. The Stars took a chance on him, offering him a minor-league contract in the summer of 2011. Garbutt lasted just 50 games with Dallas's AHL affiliate in Austin before moving to the NHL for good.
"It's a great story. A story in perseverance and hard work," said Nill, who removed the minor-leaguer label from Garbutt for good when he offered him a three-year contract. "Ryan has become a big part of our team. We have our big line with (Jamie) Benn and (Tyler) Seguin and then we have a core of young guys that make us deep and competitive. Ryan and Cody are a big part of what we're doing here today and what we want to do in the future."
Eakin will be a restricted free agent at the end of this season and says he wants to stay in Dallas.
"We're building something here. You can feel it in this city. People want to come and watch our games," said Eakin. "We've got scoring and a great goalie. We've got a special group. We all want to win."
Garbutt says climbing to the NHL from humble beginnings will help keep him in the world's greatest hockey league.
"It gives me a different perspective. It lets me enjoy every day in the NHL but also reminds me to work a little harder," said Garbutt. "I know how lucky I am to be at this level. I want to help the team and do the things they ask me to do."
Stars coach Lindy Ruff says he wants Garbutt to dump some of the instigating that got him into the NHL as a fourth liner and focus on the offence that has allowed him to score 12 goals this season.
"Sometimes he gets distracted by that stuff," said Ruff. "He's got a good shot and we want him to shoot more. There's more upside to his game."
Garbutt might look like a fourth-line grinder to some but his speed and desire have others convinced he can be more. One thing is already known: doubting Garbutt is a poor bet.