The following is an excerpt from the upcoming book, Killer: My Life in Hockey, by Doug Gilmour, with Sportsnet’s Dan Robson. You can order a copy at DougGilmourBook.ca.
That was the underlying context that followed me throughout those two seasons leading up to my trade out of Toronto. I did my best to ignore the talk and maintain my focus on hockey, but finally my temper boiled over. We were practising at St. Michael’s Arena and assistant coach Mike Kitchen said something to me I didn’t like. It was something harmless, like “We’ve got to get better.” But I was already on edge because I knew I was likely to get traded. As soon as he made the remark, I hurled my stick across the ice. It helicoptered about 30 feet through the air. Everyone just stopped. It didn’t go near Mike, but it was certainly aimed in his direction. I felt badly. It wasn’t his fault I was so upset. He didn’t even know what I knew about the possibility of getting moved. He was just trying to generate some motivation.
When I skated over to pick up the stick, he looked at me said, “That’s how you shoot these days. You know that, right?”
I could only shake my head. “Yeah,” I said. “You’re right.”
That’s what assistant coaches are great at. They’re like buffers. They’re the ones you can get mad at, without it going all the way to the head coach. Sometimes, you just have to vent. You have to show a little emotion. Guys like Mike could handle it. I could curse at him, let off steam, and just as quickly calm down and apologize. He’d understand. We’re all on the same page. We’re all frustrated. The coaches want to win as much as the players do.
A couple weeks later, while we were in Vancouver in the middle of February, Cliff called me. The trade deadline was just a couple of weeks away. He said he needed to talk to me in person. I went over to his hotel room and sat down. He and I had a great relationship, and I always knew he was being straight with me.
“Here’s the deal,” Cliff said. “They’re not going to re-sign you. And I’m pretty much on the outs as well.”
Once again, he said he didn’t want to trade me. But there were already offers on the table.
“Cliff, if the ownership doesn’t want me, then it doesn’t make any sense to keep me,” I said. “Try and salvage your job. Trade me for some young players.”
I told Cliff I wanted to play for a team that really wanted me. One with good management and good coaches, and a chance to win the Stanley Cup. I also told him I wanted to play somewhere in the States, but close to Toronto. After spending so much time away from home for so many years, I hadn’t had the chance to be the kind of father I wanted to be to Maddie. Now, with a new young family and Maddie close by, I didn’t want to jeopardize that again.
In hindsight, my request probably cost the Leafs the best deal they could have made for me. Cliff told me which teams were interested, and the first one was Vancouver. The Canucks’ general manager, Pat Quinn—Cliff ’s old friend—was considering sending young prospect Markus Naslund to Toronto for me. At the time, he was only 23 years old and was really just coming into his own, in only his fourth season in the league. He would go on to become a focal point of the Canucks franchise—a team captain, a first-team all-star, and even a Lester Pearson Award winner as the players’ choice of MVP. In 2002–03 he put up 48 goals and 104 points.
Naslund would have had a big impact with the Leafs.
I told Cliff I didn’t want to go to Vancouver. It wasn’t because of the team, but because of the distance from southern Ontario and the long flights. It was just too far from away where I needed to be in my life.
Cliff understood. He said there were three other teams interested in me: the Florida Panthers, Philadelphia Flyers and the New Jersey Devils. I told him I was okay with any of the three, and then left him to do his job. I didn’t know where, but I knew I was going somewhere soon.
My time as a Maple Leaf was done.