BROSSARD, Que. -- When Hal Gill first cracked an NHL roster with the Boston Bruins back in 1997, it would have been hard to imagine he would reach this point.
Gill will suit up for his 1,000th career NHL game Thursday night in Pittsburgh when his Montreal Canadiens face the Penguins, and throughout his long journey the rangy defenseman has been forced to prove himself, right from Day 1.
Montreal's Hal Gill will play in his 1,000th career NHL game Thursday night when the Canadiens take on the Penguins. (Photo: Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
After an impressive training camp with the Bruins 14 years ago, the late Pat Burns told him that if it were up to him, Gill would be cut. But his trusted assistant coach Jacques Laperriere saw something in Gill, and Burns deferred to his judgment.
"Well, Jacques wants to keep you around," Gill remembers Burns telling him. "I don't really see it, but I'm going to go with Jacques on this one."
Gill eventually won Burns over, and continued proving his detractors wrong over and over again to reach this milestone moment.
"I think Jacques and Pat decided to give me a shot," Gill said after the Canadiens' practice Wednesday. "It was by no means handed to me; they made me work for it every day. But I look back at that and you need a lucky break to make it in the League. I think that was it, those guys
believing in me."
Since then, Gill has survived being booed in his own building while playing with the Maple Leafs, has adapted his game to the new rules coming out of the work stoppage to remain effective, has won a Stanley Cup with the Penguins in 2009 and is now a key leader in the Canadiens' dressing room.
He is not the fastest skater, he will never put up great offensive numbers, and -- by his own admission -- his game is not pretty to watch. But he gets the job done, and has done so for a very long time.
"When he was playing for the Leafs, some people probably thought he wouldn't play very much longer," Canadiens coach Jacques Martin said. "He went to Pittsburgh and won a Cup, and I remember in his early days in Montreal he took a lot of abuse because of his speed. But he uses his size to his advantage, he has a good stick, he blocks a lot of shots and excels in a defensive role."
A big reason why Gill has survived so long, according to his teammates, is that his value is not limited to what he does on the ice.
Martin points out how well Gill absorbs information on opponents given to him by the coaching staff, how much video he watches, and how effectively he uses that knowledge every game. But for two Canadiens defensemen Gill has helped mentor over his two years in Montreal, his influence on his teammates is his greatest strength.
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P.K. Subban learned a lot from Gill as his defense partner last season and says going through a difficult start to this season has been made easier because of the presence of such a steadying
"You come out for the start of the season, you play three games and you're not happy with those three games. To be honest with you, it's like the world's crashing down," Subban said with a laugh. "But I'm still playing hockey, it's just a matter of simplifying things and getting back on track. Hal's a guy that can help you with that kind of stuff. Every day I come to the rink willing to learn, and he's willing to offer his knowledge and his experience and I just try to take as much as I can from a guy like that."
Subban says the learning process is far from over for him -- considering he'll be playing his 85th career game while Gill suits up for No. 1,000 -- and that sometimes it can be draining.
"It's not easy, it's frustrating," he said jokingly, or at least half-jokingly. "Sometimes it's like a broken record with the things he's saying over and over again. Hopefully by my 1,000th game, I'll get it."
Josh Gorges is another one who benefited from Gill's influence as the two emerged as a top shutdown pair during Montreal's run to the Eastern Conference Final in 2010.
At the end of last season, the day after the Canadiens were eliminated from the playoffs by the Bruins, Gorges made an impassioned plea to bring Gill back rather than allow him to hit unrestricted free agency, calling him a player "that can't be replaced."
Sure enough, Gill was the first free agent signing the Canadiens made.
"It's very important to have a guy that will keep pushing us in the right direction," Gorges said in explaining his motivation for speaking so strongly that day last May. "His words carry a lot of
weight with the guys in the room, so if you lose a guy like that maybe the player can be replaced (on the ice), but what he brings to the room is tough to find. I just thought it needed to be said that I believed in him, and maybe people around Montreal who don't know those things should know about them."
For Gill, however, the milestone is taking a back seat to his current situation -- in more ways than one.
First of all, his wife just gave birth last week to the couple's third child -- their first son -- so his family will not be in attendance at the Consol Energy Center on Thursday. Second, Gill's concern lies more with the Canadiens' disappointing 1-3-1 start to the season.
"To be honest with you, I'm more excited to try and get a win here," Gill said. "It's fun and I'm proud of what I've done -- 1,000 games is something I never really thought I'd get to. But the win would be a lot nicer right now."
As focused as Gill will be on getting that much-needed victory and playing his role as a shutdown defender and top penalty-killer, he says the lessons he learned 14 years ago with the Bruins as a rookie out of Providence College still remain his guide, just as they have been through the first 999 games of his NHL career.
"I have a lot of what Jacques (Laperriere) says in my head all the time. I still try to be the last one off (the ice) and the first one on all the time, even if it's theoretical," Gill said. "I think about those guys, they gave me a shot to play."
Gill has been proving them right -- while proving his critics wrong -- ever since.