The first time Gerard Gallant truly realized that he had accepted the tall task of coaching an NHL team in Las Vegas—of all places!—came on-set at the local FOX affiliate, while getting mic’ed up for an appearance. It was April 14, the day after his introductory presser for the expansion Golden Knights, and Gallant was making the media rounds. Upon entering the TV studio, he was taken aback by the sight of another local headliner, alone on a nearby set, wearing a shimmering emerald bikini draped in tassel. And so, after some nudging by some team officials, Gallant eventually sauntered over and posed for a picture with a wax statue of Britney Spears. “I had to double-check a couple times to make sure it wasn’t real,” he says.
Unlike Britney, whose effigial presence was linked the recent announcement that her Vegas residency will end in December, Gallant is only just arriving in town. Later that afternoon, as he headed to the airport, the realization hit him one more time. Out the car service window—save your taxi jokes, please—Gallant spotted a digital billboard splayed with his picture and the message, WELCOME GERARD GALLANT. “It was a little embarrassing for me,” he says. “I want to be a guy that’s in the background and you coach your hockey team and work hard.”
All around town, Sin City gladly offers such anonymity to its visitors. The behind-the-bench face of Las Vegas's first major-pro franchise, however, cannot enjoy this luxury. Gallant understands that he’ll soon be tugged every which way—to fan clubs, youth tournaments, TV studios, anywhere to help “grow the game,” he says.
But it hasn’t been a circus so far, hasn’t driven him crazy, hasn’t been much of anything, really. A week on the job, what’s he been doing? “To be honest with you, not a whole lot.” Right now, as Gallant chats on the phone, he’s stuck in traffic somewhere along Interstate 95 near Savannah, Ga., one-sixth through a 30-hour solo drive to Prince Edward Island, his childhood and off-season home. “It’s not so bad,” he says. “A little AC/DC and George Thorogood.” Unfortunately, there is no mention of any Britney bangers on the stereo.
This stretch of relative peace promptly ended once Gallant crossed the border. Later this week he leaves for Europe, where he will work as an assistant coach on Jon Cooper’s Team Canada staff at the world championships. Assuming the reigning champions return to the gold-medal round, Gallant will finish in Cologne, Germany around May 21, exactly one month before the Golden Knights unveil their expansion draft selections at T-Mobile Arena, their home rink, during the NHL awards ceremony. Next comes the entry draft on June 23-24, and then development camp later that month, and then free agency starting July 1, and then…
Hang on. Slow down. Don’t hold it against him, though. It’s been five months since Florida fired Gallant following a 11-10-1 start. He expects needing to scrape off some coaching rust overseas. “You get used to your meetings again, your preparation that you do with your team,” he says. “Some of your practice drills you might not be as sharp. It’ll be real good [for me].”
At first, Gallant took his dismissal hard. In 2015-16, fueled by the power of Holographic Astronaut President Frank Underwood’s sweatshirt, Florida had won a franchise-record 47 games and finished atop the Atlantic Division. But the Panthers fell to the Islanders in the first round and limped from the gate this season—somewhat literally, given injuries to top-line winger Jonathan Huberdeau and middle-six center Nick Bjugstad. Then Gallant was shown the door, and images of him climbing into a cab outside Carolina’s PNC Arena on Nov. 27, bags in hand, went viral. “You’re shaking your head, saying I can’t believe I got fired,” he says. “We had high expectations, and that’s what we wanted. Things were okay. We were a good hockey club. They weren’t brutal and they weren’t great. But when you get fired, it hurts your confidence.”
Gallant immediately knew how to recover. Within hours of management’s decision, he called his wife, Pam, and asked her to book plane tickets to Germany. “I’m not sticking around here,” he told her. “I don’t want to read the papers and hear everything.” For close to two weeks, Gerard and Pam visited their daughter, Melissa, and her husband, Darryl Boyce, a former Leafs forward who plays for Ingolstadt ERC in the DEL. They attended some games, hung out with their two grandsons, and toured through a local Christmas fair. That was a family favorite.
At some point during the trip, Gallant’s phone rang. On the other end was George McPhee, the Las Vegas’ general manager. “Do you have any interest in our head coaching job?” McPhee asked, to which Gallant replied that he definitely did. The Golden Knights were still putting out feelers, staying patient as the regular season lurched along, but soon Gallant had arranged for an in-person interview in mid-January.
He spent two days in town, meeting with McPhee and other team officials at their offices, and later owner Bill Foley. They asked about the 2011 Memorial Cup that Gallant won with Saint John Sea Dogs in the QMJHL; his experience as an assistant—and later head coach—for the expansion Columbus Blue Jackets from '01-07; and about his work overseeing consecutive 90-point seasons for the once-bottomfeeding Panthers. McPhee asked why Gallant believed he had become a better coach. Gallant replied, “I’ve got a lot more confidence when I make my decisions.”
Gallant left impressed. Two days later, he told Pam, “I really hope this works out.” McPhee kept in touch, calling every 10 or so days to update Gallant on Las Vegas’ process, and requested that Gallant do the same on his end. Other teams showed interest—Gallant declined to specify which—but when the Golden Knights offered, he accepted within “three to four hours.”
Since then, what time Gallant has dedicated to Las Vegas has been spent reviewing résumés for his coaching staff. He soon plans to sit down with McPhee and assistant GM Kelly McCrimmon to narrow the list. The slate is almost entirely blank; only goalie coach Dave Prior is currently onboard. That leaves one assistant to handle the forwards and power play, another for defensemen and penalty kill, plus a video coach, and maybe an “eye-in-the-sky skills coach,” Gallant says. “It wouldn’t be filled in until at least I get back from the world championships. I’m thinking early June, but we’ll see. There’s no big rush right now.”
As McPhee and the front office can attest, though, business moves fast in Vegas. The practice facility installed its final beam last week. Contracts with flagship radio stations, including ESPN Deportes 1460 AM, were signed. The only current player under contract, Reid Duke, was loaned to the AHL’s Chicago Wolves, who are widely assumed to be serving as the Golden Knights’ affiliate next season. Recently the organization continued its trend of out-of-the-box hires by choosing Jonny Greco, formerly of the WWE, to oversee in-game entertainment. Tryouts for varying age groups of the Junior Golden Knights will be held starting May 10.
Still, these aren’t really matters on Gallant’s radar. “We were hired to be coaches of our hockey team and make our team better as quick as possible,” he says. “That’s going to be our main goal.” The time away was nice. Germany was lovely. The solo drive home is going smooth. But like any NHL coach, Gallant knows will happen when he finally returns behind the bench for the Golden Knights—again, he’ll just get lost in the game. (Oh baby, baby.)