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The Enforcer

Long before being the New York Islanders’ go-to enforcer, Trevor Gillies was a typical Canadian 5-year-old. Waking up every morning and going to the hockey rink. According to Gillies, it was around that age that he fell in love with the game of hockey. “Like any Canadian kid, you fall in love with the game around age 5” Gillies recalled. Little did Gillies know, all of the early mornings spent at the local rink in his hometown of Cambridge, Ontario would make him one of the few to play professional hockey. Gillies’s road to the NHL began in 1995, when a then 15-year-old Gillies left home to play junior hockey for the Caledon Canadians. The team was owned by Scott Abbott, co-inventor of the popular board game “Trivial Pursuit”, which gave the team an upper hand on funding. As Gillies recalls, “we were treated like NHL players”. The team was the best in tier-2 junior hockey in Canada, having some of the top prospects in the world on their team. “7 or 8 guys on our team got full Division 1 scholarships and quite a few of us went in the first couple rounds (of the OHL draft)” said Gillies of the team, “we were a stud team”. Caledon would go on to win the 1995-96 Metro Junior Hockey League. 

This success opened the eyes of scouts from both the National Hockey League and Ontario Hockey League to the young enforcer. Gillies’s hard hitting and gritty style of play would lead him to be drafted 19th in the 2nd round of the Ontario Hockey League Draft in 1996. Gillies would play 3 years in the OHL before his first opportunity to make the NHL came. In 1997, an 18-year old Gillies was invited to the New York Rangers rookie camp where he made his way to participate in the main training camp alongside Rangers greats Wayne Gretzky, Jeff Beukeboom and Adam Graves. 

Gillies would return to the OHL with the Oshawa Generals, with the hopes of being drafted to the NHL. However, draft day came and went, but Gillies’s phone never rang. In 1999, Gillies would travel to Thunder Bay, On. to take part in the rookie camp for the Los Angeles Kings. Just like a year prior, Gillies would make the roster for the main training camp, however unlike a year prior, Gillies would get his first opportunity to play professional hockey, being assigned to the Kings’ American Hockey League affiliate in Lowell, MA. “I was doing pretty well, I had 3 fights in my first AHL exhibition game”. But there was not enough space for the 20-year-old Gillies. The head coach of Lowell at the time was Bruce Boudreau, who a year prior had won the East Coast Hockey League’s Kelly Cup with the Mississippi Sea Wolves. It was Boudreau who would offer Gillies his first professional contract. “They signed me to an AHL two-way contract, $40,000 on top and $200 a week in the (East) Coast (Hockey League). The ECHL affiliate for Lowell at the time was in Trenton, NJ, but Boudreau felt that his former team in Biloxi, MS would better fit the young enforcer under head coach Marc Potvin. Potvin himself was a fighter and as Gillies recalled, Potvin helped him improve his skills as a fighter. “He was really tough, he would teach me when to fight and when not to fight” said Gillies.

 It was during his time in the ECHL that Gillies would realize the best way to make the NHL was to be a tough guy, a role he had already settled into. “The real way to make it out was by being a physical role player which is what I was,” Gillies recalled.  In 2005, Gillies would get his first chance at the NHL. Gillies was playing for the Anaheim Ducks AHL affiliate, the Portland Pirates, when he was called to the front of the bus by head coach Kevin Dineen and told he was going to Anaheim. The Ducks were taking on the Minnesota Wild, the team with one of the toughest players to play the game of hockey, Derek Boogard. Boogard had already damaged the Ducks, taking out both of their enforcers in Todd Fedoruk and Kip Brennan. It was the job of Gillies to be the enforcer for the Ducks and at his first chance, he would challenge Boogard. Boogard was taller than the 6’3” Gillies, standing at 6’8” and would knock Gillies out cold in his first NHL fight. “He caught me, I couldn’t tell you if the punch was hard, it was perfectly placed and I lost a couple minutes of my life” Gillies recalled. Gillies would be diagnosed with a concussion as a result of the fight, yet he stayed optimistic about the experience, saying “if you’ve never been knocked out and you call yourself a tough guy, you probably aren’t”. 

Following the Boogard fight, Gillies would return to the AHL, his main goal being to develop his fighting skills. Gillies would train with MMA fighters and coaches. “I learned the hard way” Gillies remarked. According to Gillies, had he not changed his fighting style, he likely would have suffered from long term effects, “but i’m feeling great and healthy” said Gillies. 

What Gillies is likely most known for is the February 11th, 2011 brawl between Pittsburgh and the New York Islanders. Gillies, now 31, had just been called up to the Islanders, when on the night of February 2nd, Matt Cooke of the Penguins would crash the net, protected by Rick DiPietro, a close friend of Gillies, setting off a chain reaction that would carry over to their next meeting a few weeks later. Penguins goaltender Brent Johnson would skate the length and challenge DiPietro, who accepted the challenge. “It was a fair fight” Gillies recalled. Johnson falters DiPietro with just one punch, which Gillies said would have been fine if they hadn’t shown it constantly on TV. Gillies recalled that “they showed it over and over again on Sportscenter and TSN of their team laughing at our player”. The next game between the two teams, on February 11th, the Islanders had opened up a sizable lead, scoring 3 goals in the first period alone. Enter Eric Tangradi. The young Tangradi had recently been recalled from Pittsburgh’s AHL affiliate. “He was running around like he was the champ, and he was warned many times about me”. At the 15:13 mark of the third period, Gillies would hit Tangradi up high, throwing several punches on the injured Penguin in the process. The hit would spark an all-out line brawl. “I wish he had never been hurt on the play, but we stuck together like a band of brothers” Gillies said of the incident. Gillies would be suspended for the hit in what would be his final appearance in the NHL. 

The next 9 seasons of Gillies’s career were spent between the ECHL and AHL, with a 3 season stop over in Europe, which according to Gillies is the coolest fan environment to play in. “They have songs and chants and flags, it was super cool” Gillies remarked. Before retiring in 2018, Gillies had played a total of 19 seasons of professional hockey. In that time, the game has changed significantly. The role that Gillies once embraced and was famous for faded away in favor of more speed and skill. According to Gillies, this is what is causing more head injuries in hockey today. According to Gillies, “guys keep getting faster and guys keep getting stronger, there’s no ultimate deterrent anymore, which is the fighters, so guys aren’t afraid anymore of repercussions of big hits”. When asked if he had any regrets from his career, Gillies remarked “not a whole lot”. As for what Gillies would tell his younger self, the same thing that Adam Graves told a then 18-year old Gillies in a Barnes and Noble at Rangers training camp, “if you like it, keep doing it kid”.

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