For most of Brendan Gallagher's hockey life, he has made a habit of proving his doubters wrong.
For instance, as a rookie with the Vancouver Giants of the Western Hockey League, Gallagher started as the 13th forward and few expected much production from him. By the end of that season, he was playing on the top line.
When the Montreal Canadiens selected him in the fifth round (No. 147) of the 2010 NHL Draft, experts claimed the 5-foot-9 forward was too small to be effective at the NHL level. And when Canadiens training camp started in January 2013, few expected Gallagher to crack the lineup, let alone play a significant role in the team's success in the coming months.
He would go on to finish in a tie for the team lead in goals with 15 in 44 games, and his 28 points were fourth among NHL rookies.
Many athletes in similar circumstances might feed off the critics' negativity and motivate themselves to succeed almost as an act of defiance. Gallagher takes the opposite approach.
"I don't think I've ever worked to prove people wrong. I think that, for me, it's been working to prove the people that supported me right," Gallagher told NHL.com Friday as part of the annual NHL Player Media Tour. "I don't worry about the critics. People are always going to tell me I'm too small, or that I can't do something. It's going to happen. I don't worry too much about that. It's the people who help you get there and the people who support you along the way … those are the people you want to play for."
After finishing the season as runner-up in the Calder Trophy voting for the NHL's top rookie (to Florida Panthers forward Jonathan Huberdeau) and helping the Canadiens win the Northeast Division one year after finishing at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, it is safe to say Gallagher's supporters have been largely vindicated. However, that does not mean Gallagher is content to rest on his laurels this season; far from it. He knows that if the Canadiens wish to avoid suffering another first-round exit in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, as they did last year in five games against the Ottawa Senators, there is plenty of work to be done.
"I've thought about [the loss] quite a bit this summer, I've had a lot of time to pick at it," Gallagher said. "For me, I think we had a young team, and a lot of guys, including myself, were new to the playoff atmosphere and experience. I think as the series went on, they handled it better than we did. But as a young team we're really going to learn from that, and I think going into this year it'll make us that much better."
The Canadiens are going to be challenged to repeat as division champions. With the arrival of the two Florida teams and the Detroit Red Wings, the Atlantic Division could prove to be the most competitive of the four new NHL divisions. But again, Gallagher focuses on the positive.
"It's definitely going to be tougher to make the playoffs, but I think that will also make us stronger," Gallagher said. "I think we'll be very competitive all year round. Especially when you're playing those division games, they become much more meaningful and incredibly intense as well. So I'm excited heading into this season. It should be fun."
The Canadiens should benefit from their three newest acquisitions: forward George Parros and defenseman Douglas Murray, two rugged players Gallagher claims will "command respect" from teammates and opponents alike, and forward Daniel Briere, a veteran goal-scorer of similar stature to Gallagher. Even though the 20-year-old said he believes he can learn a lot from Briere, he made it clear he has no intentions of drifting away from his tenacious, aggressive style of play.
"The style that I play, that will never change," Gallagher said proudly. "It's something that I've done since I was a young boy, regardless of who I'm playing; whether you like them or you don't, you're going to play the same way. You're still trying to compete to win the hockey game."
It is that competitive nature combined with excellent skating ability and a tireless work ethic that made Gallagher an antagonist to his opponents and endeared him to the Bell Centre faithful this past season. Gallagher is quick to show his appreciation for the enthusiastic Montreal crowd, but the Edmonton native claims he must continue to work hard in order to merit such support.
Some might think being a Calder Trophy finalist and a fan favorite in such a major hockey market would be enough to prove you belong in the NHL. Gallagher said he believes he is scratching the surface of what he can do.
"I don't think I'm proven yet," he said. "I think there's still a lot left for me to accomplish in this League, so I don't consider myself proven. I just consider last year a step in the right direction."
If Gallagher can continue moving in the right direction, the Canadiens should continue to improve and may finally be able to bring the Stanley Cup back to La Belle Province. Until then, he is going to keep working and proving the critics wrong by playing hard for those whom he wants to prove right.
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