It takes heart to make the NHL
The size of one’s heart is perhaps as important as any quality in determining an athlete’s success.
Take current Montreal Canadiens’ rookie Brendan Gallagher, for example.
At only five-foot-nine and 170 pounds, the 20-year-old right winger was considered a long shot to make the NHL. Even the Habs didn’t select the former Vancouver Giants’ captain until the fifth round, 147th overall in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. All Gallagher has done since is to cap a four-year junior career with the Giants by being selected to the WHL West First All-Star Team and become the team’s all-time leading goal and point scorer. He also helped to lead Canada to second at the World Junior Hockey Championship, and then earn a roster spot with the Habs this season after playing the first half of the lock-out shortened campaign with Montreal’s AHL affiliate Hamilton Bulldogs. Through his first 19 games in the NHL, Gallagher had six goals and seven assists.
“The thing about Brendan is he’s played the same way at every level,” said Giants’ head coach Don Hay, guest speaker Wednesday at the Richmond Sockeyes Smoker, a team fundraiser.
“When (Gallagher) was in Peewee people said he wouldn’t be able to do it at Bantam. But he’s got so much courage in his game. Talking to him the other day, I asked him what it was like to play against (Zdeno) Chara (who is six-foot-nine and 255 pounds). After being checked by Chara, Gallagher looked up at the Boston defenceman and just smiled. There are a lot of good, smaller players who don’t make it because they lack the compete level, but players (like Gallagher) you never doubt they’re going to make it somehow.”
Hay said whether a player makes it to the NHL also has very little to do with what level they play in minor hockey.
“Where you can get the most competitive advantage is where you can have success,” he said. “You don’t want to sit on the bench. My feeling is that at the minor hockey level everyone should play and be on the ice at all different times of a game. It doesn’t matter whether you’re playing single-A or double-A. You’re not winning the Stanley Cup in minor, (instead) you’re there to develop kids so they can become better players and enjoy playing the game. We don’t want to lose players, we want to keep them in the game.”
Widely considered one of the best junior coaches in hockey, having sent many players to the NHL including future stars such as Mark Recchi, Scott Niedermayer, Jerome Iginla and Evander Kane, Hay’s own path in the game is a storied one.
Originally from Kamloops, Hay played junior hockey with the New Westminster Bruins under the legendary Ernie (Punch) McLean and was a late-round NHL draft pick of the old Minnesota North Stars. He toiled in the minor pro ranks for a few seasons before ultimately giving up on his dream of playing pro hockey and returned home to become a firefighter in Kamloops.
“I’d considered coaching but thought there was no chance,” he said. “I had a young family and coaching wasn’t that stable at the time. For me, firefighting was the way until I got a call from Hitch (current St. Louis Blues’ coach Ken Hitchcock).”
That was in 1985, when Hitchcock was head coach of the Kamloops Junior Oilers (which morphed into the Blazers) of the WHL. Hay didn’t know Hitchcock, but decided to pay him a visit anyway and listen to what he had to say. Hitchcock offered him an assistant coaching gig which paid $500 a month. Hay then spoke to his wife, encouraging her to let him try coaching for a year. That was nearly 28 years ago.
Hay spent six years as an assistant under Hitchcock and then Tom Rennie, before assuming the head coaching job in Kamloops. With players such as future NHLers Recchi, Neidermayer, Iginla, Darcy Tucker, Nolan Baumgartner and Shane Doan, the Blazers won two Memorial Cups as Canada’s top junior teams before Hay was offered, and accepted, an opportunity to coach in the NHL—first with the Phoenix Coyotes in 1996 and later the Calgary Flames in 2000. He returned briefly to junior hockey in 1998-98 with the Tri-Cities Americans, before joining the Giants in 2005.
“I’ve been lucky, I’ve had some very good players,” said the modest Hay.
“When you have that kind of success, you typically also have a great organization—just like the Sockeyes. Ronnie (Paterson) and his ownership group have done that here. It’s all about the people you surround yourself with.”
“But,” Hay added, “it’s funny how scouting has really changed to the game.”
When he started coaching in Kamloops, the Blazers didn’t have any paid scouts but rather “bird-dogs.” General manager Bob Brown used to have them across Western Canada, which led them to many players.
“One of the bird-dogs sent us an old VHS tape and said I think this kid is not a bad player,” said Hay. “We invited him to training camp and he made the team. His name was Shane Doan.
“Shane was probably bigger then than he is now,” continued Hay. “He was a real farm boy, from Halkirk, Alta. (a village of just 122 people and 120 kilometres east of Red Deer). I remember we went out to his ranch one day and we were like a bunch of city slickers riding horses—terrified. Shane rode bareback and jumped on and off the horses. I also remember him being in awe of everything, like when we went to the 10,000-seat rink in Portland.”
Despite his humbleness and strong work ethic, Doan still only managed to score seven goals in 51 games his first year in Kamloops. But he had 24 the next year, while averaging almost a point a game. Two years later, in 1995, he was chosen seventh overall in the NHL Entry Draft by the Winnipeg Jets. Doan’s story reminded Hay of how players today expect instant reward.
“All the 15-year-olds come into our league wanting to score 50 goals and be rookie of the year,” he said.