If one’s hockey career is measured in dog years, then Gerard Gallant would have already accrued two lifetimes' worth of experience at the top levels of the game.
Born in Summerside, PEI and drafted by the QMJHL’s Sherbrooke Beavers in 1980, Gallant took a step toward stardom that not many players in his hometown were brave enough or talented enough to take.
“I remember, as a 16-year-old kid, leaving PEI, coming to Sherbrooke and not knowing a word of French. It was pretty nerve-wracking, but there were great people there. Georges Guilbault, who was the general manager, was a very good person to me during the two years in Sherbrooke,” recalled Gallant, who had to overcome a bout with homesickness before making his mark on his new team. “If you wanted to go farther in hockey, you had to leave PEI. It was tough back in those days, not many players from the Maritimes played in the league. The first three months, I quit three times, but Georges talked to me about it each time. Once I got back from the Christmas break, it was fine. Everything was perfect after that.”
Indeed, the diminutive forward lit up opposing goalies to the tune of 41 goals and 101 points in only 68 games. He would go on to accrue 321 points, 706 penalty minutes and two Memorial Cup wins during a three-year stint in Junior.
“We had great teams in Sherbrooke. My first year, I had no expectations, and after I got there our team won everything. We had very strong teams,” acknowledged the 1982 Memorial Cup champ, who also went all the way with the Verdun Juniors the very next season alongside future All-Star Pat LaFontaine.
Undeniably skilled with the puck, Gallant could also get the work done with his fists, and he would often need to while consistently playing against bigger and stronger players.
“The game has changed a lot since back when I played. I was 150 pounds my first year playing in the Q. I fought a lot and I worked a lot. There weren’t many Maritime guys in the league, so the guy would be yapping at you, telling you different stuff. You had to battle and fight for your ground. It was a big part of the game back then, not nearly as much now, but I enjoyed that part of the game,” revealed Gallant. “Once you get the fight out of the way in the first period, you can start playing your game.”
In 1984, the feisty winger would graduate to the NHL with the Detroit Red Wings, scoring 480 points in a 615 career NHL games. Now up to his fighting weight of 190 lbs., Gallant would end his career with a whopping 1,674 penalty minutes.
With his playing days behind him, he would make a successful transition to coaching, becoming one of the QMJHL's most successful bench bosses ever. Under his stewardship, the Saint John Sea Dogs would finish atop the league during three consecutive seasons, while also capturing league titles in 2011 and 2012. Having proven his worth in the Junior ranks, Gallant once again made the leap to the NHL, this time behind the bench with the Habs.
“It’s been a lot of fun, the last three or four games. We’re playing very well and we think our team is going in the right direction,” offered Gallant, who works in conjunction with fellow assistant coaches Clement Jodoin and Jean-Jacques Daigneault under head coach Michel Therrien. “We played against good teams and it’s good to see the team pull together and get some tight wins.”
Gallant dismisses the notion that the team’s three-game winning streak came as a result of increased motivation playing against the likes of Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, two of the best in the business.
“We try to get motivated for every team, and there are no easy games nowadays in the NHL. You have to be ready to play every game. We’re starting to get pretty healthy now, knock on wood, and that’s a big part of our recent success,” stated Gallant, who went on to provide a measure of insight about his teaching style.
“I think it’s our job as assistant coaches to point out the little mistakes players make during the game,” underlined Gallant. “The head coach is running the bench and he has to make the line changes and the matchups, so our jobs are different, obviously. I try to be positive behind the bench, even when pointing out our players’ mistakes. I aim for 80 percent positive and 20 percent negative.”
“We have a tough job. There’s a lot of pressure when you’re in Montreal, like in other big market cities, but I try to have fun with it and be positive each day at the rink while we’re getting our game plan together and preparing to win to the best of our ability,” he concluded.
While Gallant is well-liked by all of his charges, one of his biggest fans is veteran Josh Gorges, who has seen his fair share of coaching staffs in his long NHL career.
“He said 80-20? I’d say it’s more 85-15,” insisted the blue-liner, referencing Gallant’s positive nature. “He’s a great person to have in the dressing room. As an assistant coach, he's always there to answer our questions, but more importantly, he’s an easy person to talk to. When times are tough and things aren’t going too well, he always finds a way to spin things in a positive way. As a player, it’s great to know that he’s there for you. I’ve had a few coaches like that, like Kirk Muller for example. Gerard is just a good guy, someone who everyone respects in the dressing room.”
While winning streaks don’t last forever, Gorges, like his teammates, will always be grateful for Gerard Gallant’s support and advice on a daily basis.
Jack Han is a writer for canadiens.com.
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