Long before they ever called me “Killer,” I was known as “Little Gilly.”
I was only four, maybe ﬁve, then. My father was the coach of a bantam all-star team in Kingston, Ontario, where I grew up. His name was Don, but many people around town called him Gilly. Whenever the team played, I went with him, and so they called me Little Gilly. Each time, I’d bring along my skates, and during intermissions Dad would lift me up over the boards and set me down on the ice. I’d wheel around before the ice was cleared. The fans would wait around at the end of each period just to watch me skate — I was like the team’s mascot. I had a special team sweater and I wore these massive hockey mitts that didn’t fit — they almost took up my entire arms. I didn’t know that people were watching me back then. I didn’t hear their cheers. I was too busy racing around the big, cold surface — striding and striding… and wobbling… and striding — around and around, trying to balance the puck on my stick. I would have kept going forever if they’d let me.
One time, during a tournament at Easter, the organizers gave me a trophy for my efforts. It was the ﬁrst one I’d ever received, and I was thrilled. In fact, I loved it so much that when I went to the same tournament the next year and they gave me a chocolate bunny, I was furious. For most kids, that would have been great. But I didn’t want the damn bunny! I wanted a trophy. I wanted to be part of a team — and I wanted to win. I was so sour about it I started to cry.
Let’s just say I was a competitive person from the start.
Even at that young age, I’d already heard time and again that I was too short and too small. It was my ﬂaw. It was the reality that would threaten to keep me from living my dreams of becoming a professional hockey player. Of course, even though I knew I had the strength to do more than my stature suggested, it wasn’t going to be easy to convince the world of that. And by “world,” I mean the hockey world. This was Kingston, after all. And in Kingston, hockey was all that mattered.
Kingston is known for being the ﬁrst capital of the British province of Canada, designated as such when the colonies of Upper and Lower Canada were united in 1841. That only lasted a few years, but the city has served the country in many ways since. My hometown is considered to be one of the birthplaces of hockey. While historians argue about exactly when and where the sport began (there were certainly roots on the East Coast, and the ﬁrst indoor game is said to have been played in Montreal), Kingston is home to the longest ongoing rivalry in hockey. Back in 1886, students from Queen’s College (now Queen’s University) challenged a group of students from the Royal Military College to a game on Kingston Harbour. The students had been playing shinny on the lake for a while, but this was the ﬁrst ofﬁcial match. The annual meeting between the Queen’s and RMC varsity teams continues to this day, when the two meet to play for the Carr-Harris Cup. Although, these days they play indoors.
Over the decades, many great hockey players came from Kingston. And when I was growing up, they all seemed to play for the Boston Bruins. Hometown guys Wayne Cashman and Rick Smith both played for the Bruins in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when the franchise was anchored by the great Bobby Orr. Back then, the Bruins always had their training camp in Kingston — and the team’s Senior A affiliate, the Aces, played out of the Memorial Centre on York Street. Seeing the team come through town every year built a strong connection between the city and the franchise. There were certainly a lot of Montreal and Toronto fans in Kingston, which sits almost exactly between both cities. But even today you’ll find holdover Bruins fans from the days when Kingston was the team’s training camp home. On top of that, in 1974, another well-known local man entered Bruins lore, taking over as the team’s coach: Don Cherry.
My dad, Don, and mom, Dolly, were both raised in Kingston. We’re a “corrections family.” Dad spent 32 years of his life working in the prison system in Kingston, and Mom spent 28. Dave and Debbie would later work in corrections as well.
Dad worked at the Kingston Penitentiary, which was the oldest prison in Canada at the time of its closure in 2013. (It ﬁrst opened in 1835 and was once visited by Charles Dickens.)
My father worked incredibly hard. And because he worked hard, he loved his weekends. On Saturday evenings, it was always Hockey Night in Canada — that’s when he and his buddies would get together. We usually hosted the house parties. Dad’s friends would bring their kids and we’d all watch together in the living room while they had a few beers. It could be Montreal, Toronto or Boston playing. It didn’t matter to us. It was hockey, so we didn’t care who was on the ice. The kids would play hockey in the basement with mini-sticks between periods. The Saturday night games in those days weren’t over until close to 11 p.m. Halfway through the third period, we kids were usually all out cold, asleep on the floor.
While I loved baseball, too, hockey quickly became my life. I started playing as soon as I was old enough, and it was pretty much an everyday thing. There were pickup games all over the place, whether you were lacing up the skates or just playing with your boots on. There was a school within 15 yards of our house, and all the neighbourhood kids would meet up there. We’d play for hours. Sometimes we’d turn on the taps outside the school to try to get a drink of water; when they were shut off, somebody would go home and get a jug for everyone. We’d forget about eating. We’d just be out there, running and playing and not caring about anything else in the world. Games involved a lot of offence and very little defence. It wasn’t competitive. It was just fun.
Dad coached me in minor hockey, just like he did with David. He made me a defenceman because they always get more ice time. Back then, we usually had only four defencemen on a team. If one of us got a penalty, a forward would have to drop back to the blue line. That was the old days.
We used to play out of Cooks Arena, north of Kingston’s downtown. Back then, rinks didn’t even have glass; just chicken wire around the boards. Game days were always a family affair. My dad behind the bench, and my mother and sister Donna in the stands. Even though my mother was a kind and gentle person, especially with her kids, she became something else entirely when one of us was being targeted.
In fact, my mom was something of a local legend at the rink. There are several tales about Dolly Gilmour. One time, when my brother was playing in Kingston’s Memorial Centre, she got mad at a referee who called a bad penalty on him. She expressed her anger by grabbing a stick from the team’s bench, walking to the edge of the boards and hooking the referee as he skated by. Another time, when David was playing midget, the story goes, he was sent to the box after drilling an opponent into the boards. The team’s coach went after my brother and grabbed him by the shoulder. Dolly didn’t like that very much. She took off her shoe and threw it at the coach, hitting him right in the head. The next day, when my dad was at work, he received a package full of mismatched women’s shoes. An attached note, signed by a co-worker, read, “Now your wife doesn’t have to throw her own shoes around.”
Mom was actually a great athlete herself. She played basketball at Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute, where she went to high school in downtown Kingston, next to the Queen’s University campus. She was also a ﬁgure skater.
Between my parents, she was the softy. Dad could be hard on us. He was less patient and pretty strict. If we had to con- fess to something we’d done, we’d go straight to her. “Okay,” she’d say. “Don’t tell your father.” Whatever it was, you never told Dad ﬁrst, because he’d get friggin’ mad. If we needed anything, Mom was the one to go to. If we needed money or wanted something, she said, “Here — but don’t tell your father!” Dad believed in tough love. If we were playing catch, he’d throw a baseball at us. He didn’t care if it knocked the wind out of you or hit you right in the face. You had to get right back in there and try it again. It sounds mean, but I think it made us stronger. And I was a stubborn little guy. I could have tears running down my face, but I wasn’t going to admit that it hurt. I’d want Dad to throw the ball even harder. I wanted to prove how tough I was. If we ran into a schoolyard bully, Dad wanted us to ﬁght it out. He didn’t want us to come home crying.
“Go stand up for yourself,” he’d say.
That might have been the beginning of the determination I’d carry with me through life. Faced with a challenge, I was going to ﬁnish it. From that age, all the way through to the end of my hockey career, I’d keep going until I couldn’t possibly go anymore.
Excerpt from Killer: My Life in Hockey by Doug Gilmour with Dan Robson ©2017. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.
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