“I started skating when I was four years old and I hated it,” said Gabrielle. “It hurt my feet too much.”
A couple of years passed, however, and Gabrielle watched as all of his friends in Edmonton began playing organized hockey. He couldn’t sit on the sidelines anymore.
But Gabrielle’s second bid at a hockey career started off just as roughly.
“I was probably the worst player on the team,” said Gabrielle, who recalled scoring just one goal that first year.
Something clicked, though, the next season, when Gabrielle estimates he tallied around 100 goals.
And he really hasn’t slowed down since.
The 18-year-old was drafted by the Bruins in the fourth round of the 2015 NHL Draft, and after scoring 40 goals for the Prince George Cougars of the WHL this year, has joined Providence on an Amateur Tryout Agreement for the remainder of the season.
“It’s been great,” said Gabrielle, who has played three games with Providence and will be with the P-Bruins for the Calder Cup playoffs, which begin Wednesday night against Wilkes-Barre Scranton.
“The guys in the locker room are helping us out a lot, being really nice, inviting us out to really be a part of the team and doing things like that.”
Despite his impressive offensive output in the WHL, Gabrielle has never considered himself the most skilled hockey player. Crushing hits – and maybe a fight or two – appeal to him more than a highlight-reel snipe or a saucer pass across the slot.
And that grind-it-out style is precisely why a kid from Edmonton took such a liking to a team from Boston – well before he was drafted.
“I’ve never been the most skilled guy,” Gabrielle said after a recent Providence practice at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center. “I was never really a finesse guy. I was a north-south guy, just beat the winger because I was always a thicker kid, just kind of beat the defenseman and take it to net hard and play that kind of Big, Bad Bruins way.
“I was never a guy that wanted to be like Patrick Kane or anything; I wanted to be like [Milan] Lucic, an energy, hard-nosed player.
“When I watched the Bruins and everyone called them the Big, Bad Bruins, that was sort of the thing that caught my eye. I’ve been a fan since.”
The 5-foot-11, 204-pounder admits he can be a bit of an agitator, who likes to be “a rat, get in guys’ faces, stick them after the whistle,” said Gabrielle, who had 75 points and 101 penalty minutes (including five fights) in 72 games for Prince George this season.
Naturally, for him, Brad Marchand stands out.
“When I saw Marchand for the first time, watching him throughout his career here, I instantly fell in love with the way that he played,” said Gabrielle, who had the chance to sit and talk with Marchand during Boston’s training camp last fall.
“That’s kind of the way that I want to play. I’m not a bigger guy…He’s got a great skill set, that’s kind of what I’ve got to work on. The way that he plays on edge is what I like about him.”
Marchand, who started his career as a fourth-line grinder, has developed into one of the NHL’s top goal scorers, ranking fifth in the league with 37 this season. Gabrielle has shown that he too can find the back of the net with regularity, ranking 12th in the WHL this season with 40 goals, and hopes he can follow a similar path in the NHL.
“Brad Marchand was a middle-round pick that’s beat the odds, played in the American League, delivered for us, earned his way up – went from the fourth line to the third line to second line to the first line, and beat the odds in terms of people’s expectations when he first started,” said Providence coach Bruce Cassidy.
“I think it’s a great role model. I love Brad, I love his work ethic, love his passion for the game; [he] plays on the edge, but it works for him. And Jesse has some traits here similar to Brad. It’s a great guy for him to model his game after and just find that line and try not to go across it.
“He’s been a terrific player for the Bruins and hopefully Jesse can do the same.”
But the 18-year-old, who has yet to score during his short time with Providence, knows there is plenty left to accomplish to reach that level. And it starts with building up strength and gaining some critical in-game awareness.
Gabrielle learned that firsthand during his time at Boston’s training camp last fall.
During one drill, he was battling in the corner with Boston center David Krejci when he was able to steal the puck away after Krejci fell to the ice. Gabrielle started to break towards the front of the net, but soon realized he no longer had the puck.
“I was like, ‘Oh, I got the puck, take it to the net.’ I thought I was wide open and all of a sudden [Krejci] picks it right off – just man strength – takes it right way from me,” said Gabrielle.
“It was kind of a funny moment, you think you’re at that level or you could play with those guys, but they’re at another level. It gave me an idea about what I needed to work on.”
His first games at the professional level have reinforced to Gabrielle the amount of work he must put in if one day he would like to make the jump to the NHL.
“I knew it was a men’s league and you’re going to play against men, but some of these guys are just so strong on the puck and their details, guys are always in the right spots, always in the right position, their sticks are always in the right lanes,” said Gabrielle.
“[I’ll] work on that in the next couple years and try to get as right as I can in those areas.”
That work has already begun in earnest. Gabrielle was one of the last two players on the ice following a Providence practice last week, a commitment that has not gone unnoticed.
“So far he’s been a good addition to our club. At that age, it’s baby steps for him and it’s eye openers," said Cassidy.
“He looks like he’s enjoying it, he’s working hard in practice. He comes to the rink with a smile on his face.”
And his feet feeling just fine.