It’s hard not to “stand out” on the ice when you carry 241 pounds on a 6’7″ frame, but there’s more to the Montreal Canadiens Number 75 than meets the naked eye.
Harold Priestly Gill III (born April 6th, 1975) is a native of Concord, Massachusetts, so it’s fairly hard to believe that he could eventually become a Hab. Growing up, his allegiance was to the rival Boston Bruins, but hearing him speak today about his life on and off the ice here in Montreal, it’s clear to see that his allegiance has changed.
But the path that led Gill here to Montreal is an interesting one.
From early on in life, Gill has always been an athletic person, and that made for some pretty tough decisions. As a successful quarterback for his high school team – the Nashoba Regional Chieftains (Bolton, MA.), he recollects what it was like to actually be heralded as the game changer and play maker on the field. A far cry from how his talent is seen on an 85 x 200 foot ice surface.
There was no doubt that hockey was part of him, but football seemed to be his passion. So much so, that he wasn’t even present on June 16th when he was drafted 207th overall (8th round) in the 1993 NHL Entry Draft by the Boston Bruins. That day was the changing moment in Gill’s life, and the day that his momentum shifted completely to the world of hockey.
Gill put in 4 years of play with the Providence College Friars (NCAA) – a private coeducational university in Rhode Island – while earning his mathematics degree. As a matter of fact, if he hadn’t gone on to a life of hockey, he claims that being a math professor would have been his profession of choice.
The big man saw his first season in the NHL in 1997, as he suited up with the team that drafted him. He recollects how inspiring it was to play with NHL defensive icon Ray Bourque; a player whose poster hung in his room growing up. But it wasn’t just the chance to play with one of his hero’s that made those years special. It was the chance to learn first-hand, side by side, with one of hockey’s greats. An experience that forged skill and ethics into the budding d-man.
After eight seasons in Boston (as well as the lockout season with Lukko Rauma in the Finnish League), Gill found himself packing his bags for Toronto, signing a 3 year contract with the Maple Leafs. It was in Toronto that Gill really began to hone his hockey skills.
Much of the improvement to his game can be attributed to time spent with legendary coach Pat Burns. Gill says he was a tough coach, but honest. Burns was the man who set it straight for the massive defenseman, teaching him to keep his game simple, and always re-enforcing that Gill would never be a playmaker.
Under Burns watchful eye and honest coaching ability, Gill began using his strengths and diminishing his weaknesses. He became the shutdown defenseman that his body size enables him to be, and became one of the best shot blockers in the league.
He began showing his leadership skills on the ice as a strong penalty killer, all the while doing what he needed to lower his penalty minutes.
The words from his coach were tough to hear, but they made a solid difference to his play and career:
“He was hard. He was real stern. But he was just what I needed. You want to hear ‘Hey you’re great, and you’re gonna make plays, and you’re gonna be awesome. He wasn’t that guy. I needed that” ~ Hal Gill on Coach Pat Burns
Two years into his contract with Toronto, Gill was on the move again, being traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Here he would use his improved skills and go on to win a Stanley Cup in June of 2009.
Less than a month later, free agency found Gill donning le Bleu, Blanc, et Rouge and him lacing his skates for his third Original Six franchise.
Since joining La Flanelle, he has brought more to this team than just his “keep it simple” defensive play. He’s brought leadership that has helped develop young talent as he mentors others like PK Subban. He is respected in the room as a veteran, Stanley Cup champion, and also as a human being.
His role with Subban was blown out of proportion last season, when he chastised the rookie for leaving his practice jersey on the locker room floor, calling PK “a (expletive) idiot” and going on to say “Don’t throw our (expletive) team jersey on the ground”.
Subban’s reply of apology got the response that is apparently well-known coming from Hal Gill:
“Sorry doesn’t mow the lawn” ~ Hal Gill on the words “Im Sorry”
His ability to teach, mentor, and be a true leader comes from his life off the ice as well. Married to his wife Anne for 16 years has brought about two daughters (Isabelle and Sophie). It’s clear when you watch him with them, that he’s a true family man.
He and Anne can often be found giving back to the community, and it’s clear that they love being here in Montreal. Both daughters are learning French (which he wants to have them continue), they are still close to their native Boston, but the couple both express their love for the city of Montreal. A good fit for a man who doesn’t feel the cold, and prefers snow over rain!
Fatherhood has also helped his NHL game. While other players roughhouse with their sons “playing knee hockey” all afternoon, Gill gets to play dress-up, spend many hours within the pages of his daughters colouring books, and help them to complete puzzles. All the while keeping a fantastic – albeit dry – sense of humour.
Well balanced is one of the first things that comes to my mind as I both listen to, and watch Gill on and off the ice. He has “learned to ride the wave” over the past fourteen NHL seasons, which he feels has kept his career going in the right direction.
Although he doesn’t have the sports car play of others on the team (he equates his own game to a Ford F150 – which strangely enough was his first vehicle – a 1982 model in grey), he is one of the fiercest competitors in the game. Come playoff time, it shines through.
In the end though, it all comes back to his mother. Gill humourously recollects his days in peewee hockey, where the actions of his mother were instrumental in who he would eventually become as an NHL star. During the second period of a game, the youngster injured his arm, and seemed unable to go on. Instead of his veterinarian father being the one to fix the pain, good old mom taped a length of stick to his arm and wrist, ensuring a return to the ice for the third period.
Gill has seen many an injury and stitch over the years, but nothing stops him from fearlessly doing what he does best (outside of being a husband and father, that is). Dropping in front of pucks, moving bodies off the puck, clearing his zone, and giving his team a chance to win games. Someone that bleeds the team jersey as well as picking it off the change-room floor. A true heart and soul player.
It’s nice to know we have him around for another season!