If he's being honest, Gabriel Vilardi isn't really sure how or why he started playing hockey. The Kingston, Ontario native's best guess is that his brother, Francesco, older by three years, played hockey and Gabriel always wanted to be like his big brother.
"Whenever [my brother] was at the rink, I was at the rink with a stick and ball and was just playing around. One thing led to another and I just kept playing hockey, I had so much fun that I just kept playing," remembers the 20-year-old forward.
Ice hockey is a far cry from the small Southern Italian village where Gabriel's mom, Giovanna, is from. Not knowing any English, Giovanna and her husband, Lino, moved Francesco to Kingston in 1997, and on August 16, 1999 Gabriel completed the family of four. Although they knew little about hockey, Giovanna and Lino did what any other typical Canadian parents would do with their kids - they threw them on the ice.
Family back home in Italy still has a hard time understanding the magnitude of Gabriel's accomplishments, and it was little strange for parents who didn't even know how to ice skate to have two boys playing in the Ontario Hockey League, but that was the reality for the Vilardi family when Gabe was drafted second overall in the 2015 OHL Priority Selection by the Windsor Spitfires.
It wasn't until he was in the OHL that Gabriel really began to set his sights on getting to the National Hockey League.
"My whole life I've always had goals, I've always worked very hard," Vilardi shares. "My parents were both very hard-working and they always told me: 'If you work hard, there's nothing you can't achieve.'
So I just kind of worked and worked, I knew I wanted to play in the OHL from - when I was 13 or 14 my brother got drafted so I knew I wanted to go there - and then when I got drafted there I knew I wanted to get drafted in the NHL."
Hailing from Kingston, Vilardi followed the OHL's Kingston Frontenacs growing up and always knew the OHL was for him. He was a fan of the Philadelphia Flyers, Daniel Briere and current Kings teammate Jeff Carter, but the first NHL game he ever attended wasn't until the age of 16 when he went to see an Ottawa Senators game.
After spending three seasons in the OHL with the Spitfires and eventually his hometown Frontenacs, Vilardi was drafted by the Kings in the first round, eleventh overall, in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft.
Prior to the draft, Vilardi was ranked the No. 4 North American Skater by the NHL Central Scouting Bureau. On March 1, 2018 Vilardi signed a three-year entry level contract with the Kings and debuted with the Ontario Reign later that November.
Chronic back issues delayed Vilardi's NHL debut, which finally happened on February 20 of this year as the Kings hosted the Florida Panthers. While his debut may have taken a bit longer than anticipated, he didn't have to wait long to score his first NHL goal, which came less than 10 seconds into his first shift, on his first shot. With his family it attendance, Vilardi set a new NHL record for fastest first career goal.
Video: FLA@LAK: Vilardi scores opening goal in NHL debut
Vilardi's mischievous grin and composed goal celebration would have led anyone to believe he'd done it hundreds of times before. But indeed it was a game to remember as Vilardi added an assist to Martin Frk's goal to give him two points in his first game, and the Kings a 5-4 win.
"If you work hard you get rewarded," Vilardi says, no doubt a mantra he's learned about life in general.
Having been in SoCal for almost two seasons, Vilardi is settling in nicely with two teams worth of teammates, only have previously played with the Reign's Jaret Anderson-Dolan for Team Canada.
He is currently living in Hermosa Beach, just a 10-minute bike ride from Reign goaltender Matt Villalta, his childhood buddy. The two can be found cruising the beach cities on their bikes, playing basketball and occasionally video games. While FIFA is Vilardi's video game of choice, he is consciously trying to cut back on his gaming time.
Although he played various sports as a kid, soccer is second to hockey in Vilardi's book. His favorite team is Inter Milan, and he is hoping to get to see them come through Los Angeles on an American tour one summer. Vilardi is also looking forward to seeing an NFL game at SoFi Stadium when it's complete.
A self-proclaimed 'quiet guy,' Vilardi will listen to any kind of music and watch most movie genres - except for horror because he won't sleep - but he prefers comedies and romantic comedies. He lists "The Vow" as one of his favorite flicks.
When it comes to food, Vilardi has a quick opinion.
"Nothing compares to my mom's pasta," Vilardi declares, adamantly and with a smile.
While he is trying to cut back on his pasta on the advice of a nutritionist, Vilardi has taken up cooking himself. Chicken, steak, asparagus, peppers and sweet potatoes are some items that frequently make their appearance on the dinner menu at home.
Vilardi claims that if he could have any guest in the world for dinner he would choose Lakers' basketball star Lebron James.
"He's more than an athlete. You see what he does. He's an athlete but he's got so much else going on," explains Vilardi, who hasn't seen Lebron play live. "He's someone I look up to, he works very hard and I think he's a really cool person."
Between his good-natured demeanor, down-to-earth personality, and the poise that emulates both on and off the ice, one would easily forget Vilardi is only 20-years-old. But this 20-year-old has some big plans.
"My dream is to win the Stanley Cup and I want to do that here one day."
That, he is definitely sure of.