Doug Gilmour: A Habs Captain With The "C" In 2002

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Soon to be Hall Of Famer Doug Gilmour is best known as one of the greatest players in Toronto Maple Leafs history. I fell in love with the player that he was some 29 years ago, when he joined my hometown Cornwall Royals. I remember watching him closely, (you couldn't really take your eyes off him, you'd miss something) and thinking, "Jeez, it must be a pain in the ass to play against this guy!"

As he made his way through a stellar NHL career, I could only dream that he would one day play for the Habs.

I met Dougie once. He was a Chicago Blackhawk at the time, in Cornwall to help promote a Royals alumni reunion in the summer of 2000. I confessed to him, that although I was a long time admirer, I was also a Habs fan. I mentioned that I was thankful for the Mem Cup wins, but still pissed at him for Calgary beating the Canadiens in 1989. I recall telling Gilmour that I felt he was robbed of the Conn Smythe Trophy that year, but Dougie stated that no Flame deserved it more than Al McInnis. We chatted on and off for the better part of the evening.

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Along the way, I almost got into an argument with Gilmour. My friend Shaun - likely liquored up good as it was his birthday - started comparing Killer to other NHL'ers. Not a bright idea, especially since my boozed buddy was way off the mark. I tossed the name of Esa Tikkanen into the mix, and received a profanity laced snarl from Doug, backed by the meanest threatening glare I'd ever seen come in my direction. Gilmour, it was obvious, hated Tikkanen with a passion. For some reason (drunk, too), I didn't immediately back off. I offered that all the elements of Tikkanen's game that served to irritate opponants, were present and surpassed in skill and application by what Dougie brought to the rink.

I gather he accepted my response. He bought us a round and invited us over to his pool table. I'll never live long enough to forget Gilmour's eyes, as he lined up and sunk shot after shot.

"Killer" - it's all in the glare of his eyes! Shaun and I couldn't help but stick around until the bar closed at 2 a.m.

What really made the night memorable for me was when Gilmour, upon someone else asking, admitted that he would like to finish his career in Canada - perhaps with the Canadiens or Senators (heaven f***ing forbid). The question was whether he'd like to play for the Leafs once more, to which he replied positively, while underlining the doubtfullness of that, as they had traded him away just a few seasons prior.

My dream of him in a Habs uni was brought back to life!

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In the fall of 2001, I was greatly kidded when Brett Hull seemed to have used negotiations with Montreal as a springboard to a better deal with Detroit. The laughs were even louder when I suggested the Habs would then target Gilmour.

When Gilmour did sign with the Canadiens, I knew it was a good thing. After it was shockingly announced to the hockey world that Canadiens captain Saku Koivu was about to battle a rare stomach cancer, having Gilmour on board would help breach the loss to an extent.

I had no idea how much Gilmour would come to mean to the Canadiens in that 2001-02 season. Habs coach Michel Therrien would refuse to name a captain in Koivu's absence, and Gilmour would eventually play a large part in filling that void. To suggest that Gilmour helped rally the troops, would be an understatement.

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Koivu's current status with the Canadiens in the summer of 2009 is perhaps indirectly responsible for why I am posting this Gilmour piece today. I have a large amount of older Canadiens related newspaper clippings and articles on the team that often inspire postings at this site. I specifically went looking through those bundles for a particular edition of Le Journal de Montreal, dated April 10, 2002 - the day after Koivu returned from a 79 game absence following his heroic and successful battle with cancer. The previous evening, Koivu dressed for the first time that season, in a 4-3 Habs win over Ottawa that clinched a playoff berth for the team.

There were three stories of great merit that season: Gilmour's leadership; Jose Theodore's Hart and Vezina Trophy performance, and Saku's almost miraculous return to the ice.

Inside the eight page spread on Koivu's return, I found a sheet that contained a Gilmour article, dated May 2, 2002, after the eighth seeded Canadiens eliminated the first place Bruins, in that playoff's greatest upset. The article, titled "Le leader qui controle tout" is written by Le Journal's Bertrand Raymond - translated and recounted here with some additional insight - and explains how Gilmour's leadership made it possible for Montreal to bounce the Bruins and live to play another round. The tale of Gilmour's leadership and perseverance might not quite compare to what Koivu inspired that season, but it played a large part in that season's story.

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Once I have compacted the eight pages of the 2002 Koivu miracle from that paper, you will be able appreciate once more the player Koivu is, and the evening in Habs lore, which has often been termed as the night the Bell Centre grew a heart. The followup on this will be a large enough endeavor, so stay tuned.

"Le leader qui controle tout"

When Richard Zednik was knocked senseless by the Bruins Kyle McLaren, general manager Andre Savard, insensed and furious, descended to the Canadiens bench to tear a strip off the game's officials. The rinkside double doors were wide open to allow Zednik's stretcher and doctors tending to him to pass.

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Savard was dangerously close to ice. In a heated rage, he was about to set foot on the playing surface and risk making matters severely worse. Doug Gilmour approached Savard, and gently placed a hand on him and guided him back, while calling a nearby security agent to shut the doors.

In a polite manner, the team's elder statesman assumed leadership while protecting his own boss from himself, and avoiding a worse scenario. Few players on the team would have risked stepping in front of the general manager, especially when the superior is screaming mad. It's one thing to be a leader on the team, but the boss remains the boss.

Immediately following game 4, McLaren apologized somewhat, stating that his action was unintentional, but Therrien didn't buy it. "If they try to go after our best players ... we have no choice — we'll go after theirs." After he had threatened retaliation, the coach was asked if his threat would escalate into violence. Therrien replied, "I don't care. This is what they did and this is what we're going to do."

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The following morning, in the lobby of a Boston hotel, Gilmour was seen discussing the previous night's events with his coach. Therrien was seated in a sofa chair, while Gilmour held his attention, crouched beside him on one knee. For long minutes, Gilmour spoke, and Therrien listened. In the aftermath of the previous evening's massacre, both wore faces that looked as though they had just burried a loved one.

"Killer", as he was known, was disgusted by what went on the night before. He'd seen it all in 19 years of patrolling NHL rinks, while Therrien was a coach in the midst of on the job training, so to speak. Therrien, was learning new things on a daily basis. If Therrien progresses in this field, it will be because he has the intelligence to understand that his job isn't a one man show. He consults with his assistant coaches. He listens intently when a veteran player has something to say.

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That morning, Gilmour convinced Therrien that regardless of the fact that one their own had had their head practically ripped off the night before, the Canadiens would gain nothing in reciprocating the action. It was extremely important in this situation that the Canadiens do not answer with an eye for an eye, because they would have just received more of the same from a rugged Bruins team. Overzealousness and indiscipline, in this instance, would only have served to create a greater distance between the Canadiens and their game plan in defeating the Bruins.

"To beat the Bruins", Gilmour made Therrien understand, "We have to stick to playing hockey and only playing hockey."

The message was understood, resulting in the outcome that we all are aware of.

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It says a whole lot about the importance of Gilmour to the team, considering that he had thoughts of hanging up his skates in December and heading home when things were slow to come around for him. Gilmour persisted, got his legs back, and there hasn't been a concern about him since. At this point, it is a valid question to ask whether the Canadiens would represent such a unified group were it not for Gilmour's contribution.

Gilmour was the sole Canadiens player to benefit from two days off after the Bruins elimination. That the Canadiens have sought to rest him some, speaks that he is presently worth his weight in gold to the team. If the Canadiens are to go a ways in these playoffs, they want to assure that Gilmour has enough gas in his tank to reach the finish line.

Last September, when Gilmour was hesitant to accept Savard's contract offer, Jacques Demers - Gilmour's first coach in the NHL - asked the GM if he'd object to him giving Killer a call. Savard gave it his blessing. While speaking with Gilmour, Demers was relentless. Among other things, Demers spoke of Therrien's work ethic as a promising young coach, who along with Savard, would turn the team's fortunes around. He made Gilmour understand that in a hockey mad city such as Montreal, a player of his stripe would be very appreciated by fans.

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Perhaps it was written somewhere that Gilmour would one day play for the Canadiens. At three years old, a family member, for reasons Gilmour does not recall, gave him a Canadiens sweater. It was an unlikely gift, considering Kingston is smack dab in the middle of Toronto Maple Leafs turf.

"It really is a Canadiens sweater", Gilmour clarifies, "because the Kingston Canadiens did not start until I was 10 years old. I've no idea why I was given it. Strange, isn't it?"

Demers recalls his first impressions of Gilmour, when he arrived in St. Louis nineteen years ago. A late round pick by the Blues, the smallish Gilmour was considered a longshot after a standout junior career with Cornwall that included a pair of Memorial Cups and an OHL record 55 game point scoring streak.

"I wanted to learn what made him tick", says Demers, "so I took him to a baseball game - a loose comfortable atmosphere where he would at ease to just be himself. During the game, he goes and buys himself a few beers. When a 19 year old kid has a few beers in front of the coach that could cut him, that takes a lot of guts. I knew right then that this kid would make a career in this league."

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Gilmour learned about leadership playing alongside vets such as Rob Ramage, Brian Sutter, Bernie Federko and Mike Liut. It was Sutter who gave Gilmour the "Killer" moniker.

"Right from the start in St. Louis, Gilmour displayed great hockey sense", Demers says. "In road games, I'd match him up against Gretzky and Denis Savard, and he never let me down."

Gilmour has always been a noted playoff performer. This spring, he's earned the greatest respect among his newer teamates, who have been witness, once again, to his innate thirst for competition. Even at 39 years old, the Bruins can attest to what a constant thorn he can be.

We will never know whether it was Demers' intervention that played a role in Gilmour joining the Canadiens. One thing is certain, Gilmour does not regret it.

"The Canadiens had a fragile psyche last season - from the dressing room out onto the ice", says the former coach. "It seemed as though players did not appreciate being here. The presense of Dougie Gilmour and veterans like Joe Juneau changed all that."

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