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After getting his first full season of pro hockey under his belt, Jon Gillies has 'set the bar in a different position'

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames /

Trooping down the tunnel onto the ice at the Staples Centre on April 6th, Jon Gillies couldn't help but glance en route at the poster-sized images of Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson and his idol Jonathan Quick on the walls, all toting iconic, title-tested silverware.

Readying to mark his NHL debut against the team of his growing-up dreams, the black-and-silver clad LA Kings, in front of the 18,230 SoCal crowd along with his nearest and dearest - parents, grandpa, other family - his thoughts naturally drifted back to where he'd been only 12 months earlier, how he'd reached this personal landmark night.

"I wasn't nervous,'' the rangy puck-stopper from Concord, N.H., is recalling four months later. "I was little jumpy just before the game started, though, which is not like me at all.

"Kinda weird, actually.

"But a lot had changed. A little less than a year before, I was just getting back to Calgary from the bedside of my best friend since I was four years old," - Brendan Horton, gone far too soon at 21 from synovial sarcoma, a rare form of cancer - "having watched him move on to the next life.

"I'd been hurt the virtually the entire season.

"So to be there, in LA, playing my first NHL game …"

A proud mom cried at Jon's debut. His dad - more stoic, like Jon - reportedly did, too ("He denies it," teases the son).

Gillies produced 27 stops that evening - including an eye-popping windmill glove theft during a second-period L.A. powerplay - in posting his inaugural showtime W, 4-1.

As first impressions go, rock solid.

Video: CGY@LAK: Gillies sprawls to deny Forbort in NHL debut

"I wish I could've made it happen sooner,'' says Gillies now, "so (Horton) could've seen it in person.

"I guess it was the next best thing. I'm sure he was watching.

"Having the people - parents, family - who sacrificed so much for me thought the years … that's what made it special."

That would be - and is - his only NHL appearance to date.

Fast forward to today, summer 2017, a month away from the start of training camp. The 23-year-old Gillies is outside Indianapolis, Ind., his girlfriend's home, spending the off-season working with his USHL goalie coach, Jamie Morris.

In the interim, April 6th to now, the organizational blue paint hasn't gotten any less crowded. NHL-tested Mike Smith and Eddie Lack have come aboard to start as the Flames' 1-2 punch. After a solid year, Gillies' Stockton sidekick David Rittich is looking to make inroads (Both Gillies and Rittich signed one-year, two-way deals this off-season).

And there's young 'un Tyler Parsons to consider, lurking out there on the horizon.

"Obviously, Ritter and I have a great relationship,'' says Gillies. "Then Eddie Lack and Mike Smith are very experienced, from all I've heard great people, and great goalies.

"This year, I feel I'm closer. I feel I'm ready to make that 'next step' everybody talks about. But you've still got to prove it.

"There's just a different feeling from a personal standpoint. (In 2016) I'd just come off a year of missed hockey. As much as I kept telling myself being hurt wouldn't affect me, it did for a while.

"I mean, it happened to Carey Price, the best goalie in the world.

"And then the Flames were healthy throughout the entire roster pretty much all year so the opportunities were few and far between.

"I'm thankful I got the one.

"I thought I played well. Thought I played my game. And we had a great team performance.

"I'm looking to build off that. It was kind of stepping stone to me solidifying in my own mind: 'OK, I can do this. I can play in this league.'

"I'm just focus on getting better. It's been a good summer."

Video: Get to know Flames prospect Jon Gillies

Splitting duties with Rittich, Gillies' pro indoctrination in Stockton netted an 18-14-1 record, a 2.93 GAA and .910 save percentage.

The belief, as he said, is instilled, unshakeable, in him. April 6th just reinforced his NHL worthiness.

"It was the realization of a dream. And the start of achieving another goal."

Gillies may be 23 but, remember, he's only entering his second full year pro.

"I'm not one to get too excited about things. I've had my fair share of adversity throughout my career. Being cut from my high school team. Not making different select teams when I was younger.

"Confidence is something I've always been able to maintain, though, with the help of my parents.

"This year, I have set the bar in a different position. And I'll work from there. I'm looking forward to getting out there.

"At the end of the day, all I've ever done is put my best foot forward and let the chips fall where they may.

"Your best: That's all you can do. Then it's out of your hands."

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