BEVERLY, MA -- Boston Bruins Assistant Coach Doug Houda played 561 games in the NHL, 550 games in the AHL and most days it can be said that nobody's better prepared to teach toughness in a hockey arena.
But on Thursday, even a seasoned professional blueliner like Houda took a backseat.
You see, it's certainly not shocking to see long-time Beverly High School Head Coach Bob Gilligan at Panthers' practice, but it is astounding that the long-time North Shore bench boss was in the rink several weeks ahead of schedule as he battles non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
"He’s definitely teaching them a different lesson than I am on the ice," said Houda during a break. "He’s teaching them a life lesson...which is totally different.
"His demeanor, and just the battle that’s he’s going through right now is huge. For these players to see him show up everyday in a cold rink, and put in his time and effort to spend time with them is also huge."
Even with the sound of shouts, skates, sticks and shots, and even though he might have been one of the quietest participants in Thursday's session, there's a clear message delivered by Gilligan -- make that a gravitational field -- which makes it impossible not to listen intently whenever he speaks.
"When you first get this disease, you always wonder why, how the heck did I get this, I never abused my body, and why me?," began Gilligan when asked about his battle with cancer. "You get through that stage, and you get over that, and then you start to figure, what do I need to get better? What do I gotta do?
"From this playing this game, number one, since I was a little boy out on the ponds, to going to all the rinks to the colleges, it has helped me. The doctors have always been amazed at how I withstood all the treatment they’ve given when, when most of the patients they were treating couldn’t even come close to this. I was very fortunate body-wise, and my immune system to get through it, but it came from the sport of hockey."
And Beverly Panthers hockey remains an important part of his therapy.
"Definitely with these kids, and what I’ve got going, and being here so long in the community -- growing up and being raised here, playing for Beverly High School -- it’s been immense," he said. "These are the things, the cards, the support I get from the kids, the calls, the 'get well coach, we hope to see you soon' has made me work that much harder."
Houda himself took note of that hard work and determination and hopes Gilligan's players do, too.
"In this day and age, everybody is trying to get healthier, and stay in shape any way they can," said Houda. "Obviously, from his past playing career, he is in good shape, and it’s definitely helped him out down the line.
"He’s battling like crazy, and he looks great, obviously he said it’s not over yet, but he’s continuing to battle."
No, Gilligan's war with cancer is not over yet, but he's won the latest skirmish.
"The doctors thought that I’d be in there for probably at least another two months, that this season was probably out," said Gilligan. "I said you’ve got the wrong guy.
"I said believe me, I’m going to see what I can do, and every time I see them -- I have to see them tomorrow for another checkup -- they’re amazed at what’s going on."
What's going on is that Gilligan has become an inspiration.
"For us to come out here to represent the Bruins, and visit the coach who has been through a lot…is very special," said Houda. "We get to spend some time with the kids, and it was a great night.
"Like I said, the coach is going through [a lot] himself, and he’s out here with the boys, and trying to teach them some hockey, so we’re just out here to support."
And Gilligan, a long time Bruins fan, was thrilled to see that support come in wearing Black & Gold.
"I have a picture at home, I wish I had it with me, with Bobby Orr down at Gordon College with the wiffle [haircut]," said a smiling Gilligan. "They brought the picture into the hospital, and there were probably about five out of 200 people that could identify Bobby Orr.
"So you figure out how old that picture is in 1964, his first year into league, and he had a crew cut.
"I appreciate the Bruins organization coming down," he continued. "It means a lot to us as fans.
"For these kids here it’s huge," he said.
And for the kids in Beverly, Bob Gilligan is even bigger.