Edmonton Oilers defenceman Tom Gilbert is living the dream every aspiring hockey player growing up in the United States envisions.
It started innocently enough at Bloomington Jefferson High School in Minnesota, where Gilbert's career changed for the better when he made the switch from forward to defence. He finished as a finalist for Minnesota's “Mr. Hockey” award as the state's best high school player, in addition to being named the male athlete of the year in 2000-01.
"I not only played hockey in high school, but baseball and football, so it wasn't like I was always playing hockey," Gilbert said. "But I knew hockey was my first love; baseball was second. Playing high school sports in Minnesota was great and something I'll always remember."
He spent four seasons perfecting his game at the University of Wisconsin where, as a senior in 2005-06, he finishing third on the team with 30 points. He would also score the game-winner in a 2-1 victory against Boston College in the NCAA Frozen Four championship in front of several thousand screaming fans at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee.
"After I scored that goal, I had no idea how loud it was because everything was just so unbelievable," Gilbert said. "I just wish I could go back and sit in the stands and watch it unfold to see how it actually happened. The fans went crazy.
"It was such a close game, a real nail-biter. Playing four years of college hockey and to end up on top after those four years is definitely the way to go. Scoring the winning goal was definitely a bonus."
Before he even embarked on his collegiate career, however, Gilbert was drafted in the fifth round (No. 129) in 2002 by the Colorado Avalanche. Prior to earning his first cup of coffee in the NHL, Gilbert was traded to the Oilers in March 2004 in exchange for goalie Tommy Salo and a sixth-round pick in 2005.
"I really didn't know a whole lot about the draft and what to expect, so when I was traded to Edmonton, it really didn't mean much to me because I was still in college," Gilbert recalled. "I did think 'How could I be traded when I wasn't even on a team yet,' but it was all a great experience. It all worked out in the end."
Gilbert said the college experience prepared him well for life in the NHL.
"Wisconsin is a great college state," Gilbert said. "Playing four years was perfect for me and I would tell anyone to take the same path. Obviously when you play four years with the same group of guys, it makes winning your senior year that much more special. But to win it in front of your home fans was really surreal and something I'll never forget."
He would make his professional debut with Edmonton in 2006-07, splitting the season between the Oilers and the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins of the American Hockey League. In 48 games with the Penguins, he had 4 goals and 30 points.
The 6-foot-3, 210-pound Gilbert, who signed a six-year contract last April that could keep him in Edmonton through 2013-14, was one of five Oilers to play in all 82 games last season. He finished eighth on the team and first among defencemen with 13 goals and 33 points.
Gilbert's 13 goals broke an Edmonton rookie scoring record for defencemen -- snapping the previous mark shared by Paul Coffey and Marc-Andre Bergeron, each of whom scored 9. He was voted Oilers Defenceman of the Year, marking the first time in team history that a first-year player garnered the award, and hasn't missed a beat since, registering 3 goals and a career-high 24 assists in 53 games this season.
"This year is a little different because more eyes are on you,” Gilbert said. "But, I really can't worry about that because that's when you start making mistakes and get away from your game."
Edmonton veteran defenceman Sheldon Souray has witnessed that confidence in Gilbert.
"Tom works hard and is a real coachable guy," Souray said. "I think last year, being new, he might have been a little naïve. He still had a good season early and finished strong. He's just going to have to figure out ways to find himself more room to make plays and be most effective. He's definitely a guy who doesn't panic under pressure and you can't teach that.
"As he grows older and gains more experience, he'll become more comfortable and confident."