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Gilmour Defied The Numbers

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
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Doug Gilmour defied the numbers, all the numbers.

Like the ones that identified him as a slight five-feet-10 and 175 pounds.

Or number 134, his draft position with the St.  Louis Blues in 1982.

Gilmour assumes his place beside the greatest names in Maple Leafs history by virtue of his insistence of doing more when bigger players did less. Gilmour will be recognized January 31 when the Pittsburgh Penguins visit Air Canada Centre.

While his 450 goals and 1414 points merit Hall of Fame consideration, they represent only a small piece of his legacy. He grew stronger as he became more emaciated with each playoff game. The dark rinks and swelling around his eyes gave him the look of a fighter five minutes removed from his latest bout.

“Where’s Doug?” someone asked Pat Burns during the 1993 playoffs. “He’s gone back to his home planet to rest,” came Burns’ reply.

From the beginning, Gilmour was told he was too small. And from the beginning, he fought back.

“That’s always something that has driven me more, when someone says you can’t do something,” he once said. “It makes me want to do it more.”

At 16, desperate for someone to look past his size, Gilmour left his hometown of Kingston to play Tier II in Belleville. He was a 129-pound rushing defenseman. As a Cornwall Royal, Gilmour taped small weights to the inside of his shorts for weigh-ins. He became adept at subtly lifting his heel when his height was measured.

Passed over for the draft in his first year of eligibility, he recorded a 46-goal, 119 point season the following year. When he showed up at the Blues camp, he was one again, a darkhorse.

“Doug was at best, a long shot,” said former Blues coach Jacques Demers. But Gilmour worked so hard in training camp and adapted so nimbly to the defensive game, Demers had to keep him. Gilmour thanked him with a 25-goal season and a year spent going face-to-face with the NHL’s best centreman.

Gilmour had established himself as a potent two-way force when he was traded to Calgary in 1988.

The Flames won their only Stanley Cup in Gilmour’s first year. He helped out with two third period goals including the game winner against the Montreal Canadiens but three seasons later, unhappy about his salary, Gilmour was sent to Toronto in a record 10-player deal.

“I remember jumping around my place in Calgary when I got the news,” Gilmour said.

Gilmour’s six years in Toronto would be the highlight of his career. He recorded a franchise record 127 points during the 1992-1993 regular season and led the Leafs to an upset victory over Detroit. His wraparound goal against Curtis Joseph in the St. Louis cage remains his signature goal and in that first season with the Leafs, Gilmour trailed only Mario Lemieux for the Hart trophy. He won the Selke Trophy for defensive excellence.

Leaf fans point to Wayne Gretzky’s high-sticking of Gilmour, a foul that went uncalled, as the only thing that kept the team out of the final in 1993.

The Leafs became the only team to reach the Conference Finals when they returned in 1994.

A Leaf for only six seasons, Gilmour still leads the team in career playoff points with 77 in 52 games. That franchise leading total was forged in only four playoffs.

His 10 goals and 35 points in the 1993 post-season are another club standard but his game wasn’t so much scoring goals as arranging them. A steady procession of wingers benefited from his passing and Dave Andreychuk once carded 53 on Gilmour’s left side. He could penalty kill, anchor a power play and skate with pretty well any player on the rink. If there is a comparison to Gilmour, it is to another player long thought incomparable, the great Dave Keon.

In 1994, GM Cliff Fletcher traded Wendel Clark to Quebec to land Mats Sundin. The move meant the C had a new place on Gilmour’s right shoulder.

“It sounds corny,” Fletcher said, “but it’s like he’s been training for this moment all his life.”

But the Leafs would not recapture their playoff glory and eventually slid into mediocrity. Gilmour was the lead carpenter in a crumbling kingdom. It was time to go.

Gilmour’s final days as a Leaf were among his best. When Fletcher went to trade him, he garnered excellent value from the New Jersey Devils who forked over Alyn McCauley, Jason Smith and Steve Sullivan.

That was the beginning of an odyssey. After two solid years in New Jersey, Gilmour turned in two good years for the Blackhawks who flipped him to Buffalo. He had enough left for two more seasons with the Montreal Canadiens and one final truncated game with the Leafs where a knee injury ended his career in Calgary.

That’s what it took to end it. He was 39 years old, and the same size he had always been. That is to say, still a giant.
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