After finishing last in the Eastern Conference last season, the Canadiens have already punched their ticket to the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs, thanks in large part to the contributions of rookie forwards Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher.
Entering Saturday, 20-year-old Gallagher ranked second among NHL rookies with 13 goals, and 19-year-old Galchenyuk ranked second among first-year players with 15 assists. But their roads to Montreal couldn't have been more different.
A standout since the age of 13, Galchenyuk was the first player taken in the 2010 Ontario Hockey League draft before being selected third in the 2013 NHL Draft. Undersized, Gallagher was taken in the ninth round of the Western Hockey League draft before the Canadiens selected him in the fifth round, No. 147, at the 2010 NHL Draft.
But there is one major similarity in their divergent paths to Bell Centre: the presence and sizeable role of their fathers.
"We have a lot of talks. And not just about hockey. 'Are you healthy? Are you happy? Any questions for your parents?'" Ian Gallagher said. "There isn't a lot of advice that comes from us in terms of performance. That's left to their team. In terms of mental health and mental wellness and general approach to life, we have plenty of conversations."
As the longtime strength and conditioning coach of the WHL's Vancouver Giants, the team that selected Brendan 195th in 2007, Ian Gallagher was able to work with his son for four years. At the same time, Alex Galchenyuk Sr. was grooming one of the world's top prospects. The elder Galchenyuk started coaching his son with the Dynamo Moscow development program, guiding a 13-year-old prodigy who would star on a team made up of players a year older. Galchenyuk Sr. would continue to coach his son in Chicago midget hockey and joined the Sarnia Sting's coaching staff when the team selected Alex Jr. first in 2010.
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"I kind of help him. I don't push him. I just share information and he reacts. He'll ask me 'What's a better way to this, this and this?'" said Galchenyuk Sr., who admits he was surprised to see his son make the Canadiens roster as an 18-year-old. "I didn't expect that. But I had a good feeling. His last game before [competing for the United States at the] World Juniors, he got five points and dominated. In my head, I thought it was probably the last game for him in junior."
Gallagher wasn't nearly as hands-on with his son's junior hockey development. In fact, he was somewhat wary when the Giants added his son to their roster.
"It's just uncomfortable. Sometimes you have to do things with players that are not necessarily something that parents agree with but are in the interest of the program," Gallagher said. "I think everybody made the best of it and ultimately benefitted from it. From a selfish point of view, it's nice to have your son at home while he plays junior hockey."
The rookies have endeared themselves to the Montreal fans this season. After starting the season as a healthy scratch, Gallagher has become a favorite thanks mostly to the fearlessness and energy he's demonstrated on the ice. They are qualities his father identified at a young age.
"That's something that I think is part of Brendan's identity. He likes to compete and he enjoys competition," Ian Gallagher said. "He likes to be successful in competition. In order to do that, you have to pay a price. I don't think he looks at himself as sacrificing any more than anyone else on the team."
While Gallagher has often been portrayed as the hard-working underdog, Galchenyuk has been making headlines for years. Adding the 2013 World Junior title to his formidable resume, Galchenyuk has enjoyed incredible success at a young age. But it hasn't come without hard work for the Milwaukee-born player, who lives with his mother and older sister in Montreal.
"People don't realize how hard he works. He is staying focused. He's controlling what he is doing," Galchenyuk Sr. said. "It's not like other teenagers. He has practice and his individual stuff. He controls what he eats always. He's got his own menu and his mom and his sister cook for him. It was very hard for him to stop drinking Coke."
Much like their sons, Gallagher and Galchenyuk Sr. enjoyed different careers playing hockey. Gallagher played Junior A but describes himself as having "no chance of being a professional in the sport." Galchenyuk Sr. played for Dynamo Moscow as well as the fearsome Soviet national team before coming to the United States to play for the Milwaukee Admirals of the International Hockey League.
Entering the playoffs, the two Canadiens rookies have provided stability for one another. Together they'll be sharing the experience of competing for the Stanley Cup for the first time.
"They are friends. It makes him adapt quicker. Even in the locker room and in practice and in games," Galchenyuk Sr. said. "It's better if two young players have good communication off ice and on ice. It always helps."
Their backgrounds may be wildly different, but Gallagher shares Galchenyuk Sr.'s assessment of the bond their sons now share in Montreal.
"The fact that they're experiencing the exact same things for the first time together is tremendously helpful," Gallagher said. "Brendan talks about what a good person and a good player [Galchenyuk] is. That also makes it very comforting."