By Stu Hackel
Defenseman Hal Gill will play his 1,000th NHL game tonight when the Montreal Canadiens take the ice against the Penguins in Pittsburgh. It's a real accomplishment for any player to skate in that many games in this league -- only 265 have done it -- but perhaps more so for Gill. His first NHL coach, the late Pat Burns, didn't want him on the Boston Bruins back in 1997. When Gill later played for the Maple Leafs, the fans regularly booed him for his obvious lack of speed and offensive flair.
Fortunately, Burns' assistant coach, Jacques Laperriere -- a Hall of Fame defenseman -- saw what Burns didn't in the 6-foot-7 Gill and persuaded his boss to keep him. Burns' legendary gruff demeanor often targeted Gill, especially when the Concord, MA, native felt the need to be the kind of passer in the NHL that he was as a quarterback for the Nashoba Regional High School football team. Burns reminded Gill that fast feet and deft puckhandling were not his game. Just use the glass and get the puck out of the zone.
So Gill kept it simple and he's been doing that as well as anyone ever since.
As for the Leafs fans booing, well, that was nothing new for Gill. He wasn't Boston's darling either. They saw him as little more than a gentle giant. Anyway, in Toronto, they always seem to find a blueliner to boo. They booed Larry Murphy out of town and he went to Detroit to help the Red Wings win a pair of Stanley Cups in the late '90s, securing his own selection to the Hall. Like Murphy, Gill left town and, paired with Rob Scuderi as a shutdown duo, helped the Penguins win the Cup in 2009.
It took a while in Montreal, too, but Gill won over the Bell Centre crowd -- which isn't shy about booing Canadiens players, either. In the 2010 playoffs, Gill and Josh Gorges formed an excellent shutdown tandem that eliminated Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals and then Sidney Crosby and the Penguins.
Gill's deficient skating was evident even in the pre-lockout Dead Puck Era of neutral zone defenses that slowed the game, but he worked hard at what he could do to stick in the NHL. Laperriere instructed him to be the first player on and the last player off the ice at practice. Gill was -- and he still is.
"His skating is his skating," Penguins GM Ray Shero told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette during his team's run to the Finals in 2008. "It's been like this for all the years he's been in the league, since he's been at Providence College. He has good hockey sense and better skill than people give him credit for."
"I love the competition of it," the 36-year-old Gill said after Thursday's morning skate in Pittsburgh (audio) when a reporter noted how much Gill seems to love being on the ice. "I think that's what's kept me going is that if you're in practice, even though it's practice, you get to play against the best in the world, even in practice. I've played against Sid; I've played against (Mike) Cammalleri. You want to try to play your best against them. And then it becomes game time and it's even heightened; you get a crowd involved. All the way along, that's all I've been looking for is competition."
Now, the game moves at warp speed. Jaromir Jagr, away from the NHL only three years, described the difference to Jeff Z. Klein of The New York Times earlier this week, saying "The puck is everywhere. Not as much on your stick. The players don’t play the position game as much as we used to play. A lot of young guys go up and down, shoot the puck, go for the rebounds. You’re getting tired quicker because the body has to react where the puck is going to go. You cannot read it, because you don’t have the puck on your stick.”
Somehow, Gill has made the adjustment to the new NHL and has not been overwhelmed by the change. "You have to use your timing and your spacing, and rely on your teammates a little more, which I think is the biggest key with the new game," Gill says of defending in the post-lockout NHL. "You can't be left on an island. You can't be expected to handle someone one-on-one the whole time. You have to force him into a bad area and count on your teammates. So I think I've adapted well that way."
"When he was playing for the Leafs, some people probably thought that he wouldn't play very much longer," Canadiens coach Jacques Martin said Wednesday (audio). "He went to Pittsburgh and won a Cup, has come here and I remember in his early days in Montreal he took a lot of abuse because of his speed. But he's a player who uses his size to his advantage, his stick -- he has a good stick -- he blocks a lot of shots and excels in a defensive role."
Over the years, Gill not only developed into a reliable penalty killer and shutdown defender. He's mentored young defensemen the way Raymond Bourque and others helped him learn how to play the game and act like a professional, something Gill discussed yesterday at the Canadiens' practice facility.
Two of Gill's protegees are among the best young d-men in the NHL: Pittsburgh's Kris Letang and Montreal's P.K. Subban. Gill is nowhere near as dynamic as they are and never has been. His ironic nickname, "Skillsy" is somewhat deserved by comparison. But Gill's leadership is what his teammates respect in addition to his steady play.
"As a teammate, you couldn't ask for much more," Gorges told reporters yesterday (video). "A guy that's a warrior out there, he always has your back, whether it's a play during the game or whether it's a guy to lean on on the bench, to talk to, to bounce ideas off of, to correct your mistakes, to push you for more. You know, he's a great guy, but I think if you ask anybody, it's what he brings off the ice. He's a good friend and we're all excited about tomorrow night for him."
"Sometimes it's like a broken record with the things he's saying over and over again," Subban jokingly told Arpon Basu of NHL.com. "Hopefully by my 1,000th game, I'll get it."