By Ryan Dixon in Montreal
By Ryan Dixon in Montreal
He’s small. He doesn’t have an elite skill. He was a late pick in both the WHL and NHL. No matter. Brendan Gallagher has become a cornerstone for the Montreal Canadiens, and he’s done it through ceaseless effort, on the ice and off.

One game is every game for Brendan Gallagher. It’s almost as if the Montreal Canadiens right winger skates in front of a green screen, performing the same actions over and over while the images change behind him. It doesn’t matter whether he’s playing in Boston, home of a blood rival, or in California on a once-a-year trip. Or if it’s in front of empty seats in Arizona or at home in the ever-humming Bell Centre. To No. 11, every sheet of ice is the same and the job he has to do doesn’t change. The offensive zone — for Gallagher’s purposes, anyway — really consists of the space from the top of the circles to the end boards. He caroms around that area like a tiny rubber ball whipped into a concrete shoebox. Back and forth, a perpetual commute from the boards to the front of the net, sliding into a shooting position in the high slot, then starting all over again. He tends to skate more hunched over than most, and by the end of a shift he’s often bent all the way over, gliding to the bench. Gallagher’s hustle, however, wears most deeply on others.

“He just works so hard that it drives you crazy,” says one-time teammate Josh Gorges. “Especially as a defenceman, you stand in front of the net, you try to box him out, you try to push him out of the way and he just doesn’t stop. You give him the hardest [cross-check] and he pops back up with a big smile on his face. You want to believe that you’re getting under his skin and you’re pushing him around, but nothing fazes him.”

Creating bursts of chaos is something Gallagher has long excelled at. Since his first NHL shift, though, he’s also been a steadying influence for the Canadiens. That’s never been truer than in recent times, as the organization passed through a “win now” mentality to “what now?” mode. With pillar players like P.K. Subban, Andrei Markov and Max Pacioretty departing in the past few years, Gallagher has pushed his game to another level. He registered a career-high 31 goals last season and is right back at it this year, scoring at a nearly 35-goal pace. And while his lack of size gives Gallagher’s story strong doses of the classic underdog tale, his deep-down drive almost makes it seem like big-time success was inevitable.

It would be folly to predict what’s next for a five-foot-nine player who has recently battled through two serious hand injuries and, in general, has made a point of exploding his perceived limitations. That said, even if he never punches through another barrier, Gallagher has given Montreal everything it could have hoped for and more.

Gallagher spent his formative years in Alberta and B.C. before becoming a fan favourite in Montreal.

There’s something sort of amusing to Ian Gallagher about the fact his son’s football idol as a teenager was No. 85 on the Cincinnati Bengals, Chad ‘Ochocinco’ Johnson. The wide receiver with the self-appointed Spanish nickname very much lived up to the diva reputation his position is known for, which — on the face of it — seems to be at odds with how a “just happy to help the team” hockey guy like Brendan Gallagher would look to comport himself. But his dad has a theory. “Everything he can’t be, I think he appreciates in [flamboyant performers like Johnson],” Ian says with a chuckle.

While we won’t hold our breath on Brendan ‘Unouno’ Gallagher making an appearance any time soon, the ‘Gally’ his teammates know and love — the guy who remains a huge Bengals backer and chatted with Cincy QB Andy Dalton on an episode of Road to the Winter Classic in 2016 — was grinning after a Saturday night home win over the New York Rangers on the first day of December. This was one of those contests where Gallagher being Gallagher didn’t result in any goals, his closest call coming when he drove the net on a two-on-one rush with linemate Tomas Tatar and chipped a rebound off the right post. He shook his head several times following that near miss, but Gallagher had clearly forgotten it by the time he reached the dressing room.

It’s tough to ignore the cut on the bridge of his nose and easy to assume it’s just a permanent fixture of the landscape, like a little fence-line tear kids use as a shortcut from one place to the next. The entire time he talks, Gallagher holds a pair of running shoes in his right hand and, given his reputation for uncontained energy, you wonder if — the moment he slips out of sight — the footwear will go on and he’ll just start burning laps.

“You stand in front of the net, you try to box him out, you try to push him out of the way and he just doesn’t stop. You want to believe that you’re getting under his skin, but nothing fazes him.”

There’s certainly been no shortage of track time in Gallagher’s life, dating back to his childhood in Northern Alberta. He’s the second-oldest of four kids born to Della, a physiotherapist, and Ian, a man whose worn several hats in the education and hockey fields. When the family lived in Sherwood Park, just outside Edmonton, Ian was a biology teacher, area scout for the Western Hockey League’s Tri-City Americans, and a strength and conditioning coach who worked with players in the summer. Instead of seeing a babysitter, Brendan would tag along with dad to workouts, watch people get pushed to the point of puking and think it looked like great fun. When Ron Toigo sold his interest in the Americans and formed the Vancouver Giants around the start of this century, Ian became the team’s strength coach and the family moved to Tsawwassen, B.C. Through his minor-hockey days, Brendan always hung around the Giants, enthusiastically embracing whatever training his dad thought best for him at that period in his physical development.

Twenty-four hours prior to facing the Rangers, Gallagher was at the Canadiens’ training and practice facility in Brossard, reflecting on a unique journey. “I’m pretty lucky to have my dad do what he does,” says the 26-year-old member of a team that has outstripped expectations this year. “When we were at the rink, he was my strength coach — he wasn’t my dad. And then when we went home, he was just [my] dad. We were able to separate those relationships and I think that was really important.”

In the minds of Ian and Della, allowing Brendan to indulge his various sporting passions — namely golf and baseball in addition to hockey — was paramount. The primary parental motivation was surely to allow for a rounded existence, but an objective observer might have looked at a 15-year-old kid who was five-foot-two and 130 pounds and wondered if a non-contact sport was the way to go. Ian and Brendan, however, put great stock in the outlook of another B.C. boy, Paul Kariya, who always maintained a small frame was his advantage. They would talk about how that was especially true when the game contracted along the boards or in front of the net.

Gallagher was a ninth-round pick of the Giants in the 2007 WHL Bantam Draft, lived at home during his major-junior career and put up 81 points in 72 games facing an endless stream of punishing Western boys during his NHL draft-eligible season of 2009–10. One such bruiser, Milan Lucic, missed playing with Gallagher by a couple years in Vancouver, but got to know him well through workouts with Ian. Lucic leaned on his Bruins to pick Gallagher in 2010. Instead, it was the Canadiens who took a fifth-round flyer on a guy who, to this day, is filed under “average skill” in one pro scout’s spreadsheet, but scores off the charts in terms of self-awareness.

“I don’t think I had a choice,” Gallagher says of his unending work ethic. “I’m an undersized player who doesn’t skate the greatest, who doesn’t shoot the greatest; no real skill is going to jump out.

“The one thing [I’ve always said] is I’ve just had to out-work people. When you can do that, you kind of treat it like a skill. I’m fully aware of what I’ve got as a hockey player. I can be effective, but I have to go out there and work. When I’m not working, I’m not a very good player.”

Despite a lack of size, Gallagher excels at physical play around the net, with most of his goals coming off tips and rebounds.

The Gallagher smirk that could trigger steam to puff out of Gorges’s ears used to be on display in the defenceman’s own house, albeit in a much less antagonistic form. While NHLers were locked out during the 2012–13 season, Gallagher was in the AHL getting his first taste of pro hockey. When the labour dispute was resolved, Gallagher arrived at a quick-and-dirty camp already on his toes and cracked the Canadiens roster. He was a healthy scratch for the home opener, then scored 15 goals in 44 outings en route to a second-place finish in Rookie of the Year balloting behind Florida Panther Jonathan Huberdeau. During that year and the next, Gallagher lived with Gorges and his wife, Maggie. “We used to laugh at him a lot,” says Gorges, a Kelowna resident who still visits with Gallagher in B.C.’s warmer months. “Even to this day, he’s just kind of a goofy soul.”

If Gallagher has a kindred spirit in Montreal these days, surely it’s butt-busting Finn Artturi Lehkonen. The two live almost side-by-side in Old Montreal, drive to the rink together every day and have a mutual respect for each other’s game. “[He’s a] ferocious player, for sure,” Lehkonen says.

They also — independent of each other — make the same “I spend too much time with this guy” crack. Still, Lehkonen opts to log a little more time with his pal after practice, making a point to cross the room to stand as close to a sitting Gallagher as the latter does to opposing goalies, just to mess with him while he’s in the middle of a conversation. Picturing Gallagher and Lehkonen in a car together, the engine under the hood almost seems redundant given their own combined horsepower.

The fact he can downshift so easily helps make Gallagher an even more cherished part of the Canadiens room. His linemate, Phillip Danault, lists Gallagher as one of the biggest fun-drivers on the Habs, and Ian — paternal bias notwithstanding — has been watching his son in group settings for Gallagher’s entire life. “Brendan is somebody who, generally, people like to be around,” Ian says of the young man who loves playing slow-pitch every summer in Tsawwassen and lives in a house on a golf course.

For that reason and more, the Canadiens were without a major cog when Gallagher was felled by serious hand injuries in consecutive seasons. In late November 2015, he blocked a shot from bomber Johnny Boychuk of the New York Islanders. Even in the mild hysteria of the moment, Gallagher looked down, saw fingers bending ways they shouldn’t and figured he’d sustained a broken hand that would heal up relatively quickly. “Surgery never even crossed my mind,” he says. Instead, he was immediately told he’d be going under the knife and wound up missing about six weeks of action.

Thirteen months later, Gallagher was — surprise, surprise — lurking in the low slot during a Canadiens power play when teammate Shea Weber, King Slapper himself, unloaded a shot that fractured the same hand. “I looked down and it was the exact same, and I knew right away,” says Gallagher. “I didn’t need anyone to tell me I was going to be out the same amount of time.”

Gallagher’s $3.75-million AAV makes him a huge bargain as the Canadiens look to add pieces and return to contention.

Gallagher’s honest self-assessments aside, it’s important not to overlook what his hands can do when healthy. Most of his goals come from tips and rebounds, but the top of the circle is still a place he can strike from. Ryan Olsen, an AHLer with the San Antonio Rampage and 2012 draft pick of the Winnipeg Jets, is two years younger than Gallagher. They met as students at the Delta Hockey Academy Ian co-founded when the family moved to B.C. Both players are part of a sizable group that spends summers training at Delta, and when Olsen isn’t marveling at how much weight Gallagher squats, he’s taking stock of the on-ice tools — specifically, an ability to wire the puck — that have helped him break into fairly exclusive goal-scoring company. “He knows where to go and he’s always played with pretty good players in the NHL,” says Olsen. “[If they] find him, he’ll rip it.”

Quality players have both entered and exited Montreal during the past 24 months, as the Canadiens sandwiched bottom-tier finishes in 2015–16 and last season around a division title in 2016–17. Gallagher’s growth from a 20-goal guy to something more has been a notable positive for a team trying to pivot toward youth without taking a big step backward. The 35 even-strength goals posted by Gallagher since the start of last season represents a higher total than all but 11 NHLers. Of those skaters ahead of him, Minnesota’s Eric Stall is the only player — not including youngsters on cheap entry-level deals — whose average salary ($3.5 million) counts for less of a cap hit than Gallagher’s $3.75 million.

“I’ve just had to out-work people. When you can do that, you kind of treat it like a skill.”

For a guy sometimes unjustly slapped with the ‘agitator’ label, it’s important to note that Gallagher — signed through 2020–21 — has never been suspended in a seven-year career or surrendered a single penny of his earnings through fines. (He was, however, awarded the Jean Beliveau Trophy earlier this month for his charitable work around Montreal.) Gallagher’s on-the-edge style can make for contentious dealings with referees as well as players, but that aspect of his craft is improving, too. “There are still times when it’s not so good,” he laughs. “[But] for the most part, it’s getting better and [if you] talk to refs around the league, I think they’d probably say the same thing about me. They probably think I’ve changed, I think they’ve changed and [it’s all] part of the working relationship.”

Human connections are a bit of a specialty, after all. When Gorges’s world was rocked by a trade to Buffalo early in the summer of 2014, it wasn’t until the pieces started to settle again that Maggie got the sense something was still a bit off.

“[She] came to me and [said], ‘I miss having Brendan around,’” Gorges recalls.

A feeling the Canadiens never wish to experience, no doubt.

Edited by Craig Battle
Photo editing by Evan Rosser

Photo Credits

Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images; Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images; Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images (2)