© Guardian photo by Jim Day
Gerard "Turk" Gallant
Gerard “Turk’’ Gallant is guzzling a can of Zero Coke mid-morning moments after entering his home on the outskirts of Summerside.
He will likely have tossed back four sodas by day’s end, well down from the 10 or so daily pops he would drink during his playing days in the National Hockey League.
He has never been one for tea or coffee.
Gallant, 50, washed down a breakfast of steak and eggs with chocolate milk while speaking with The Guardian about his long career in hockey that now sees him readying for the 2014-15 NHL season as the Florida Panthers new head coach.
His tasteful personal hockey shrine in the room he describes as the “one we are never in’’ offers a snapshot of an impressive run in professional hockey that spans three decades and counting.
Two of his five framed jerseys adorning the walls are from his days with Detroit — Gallant’s team for nine of his 11 years playing as a leftwinger in the NHL, tallying 211 goals in 615 regular season games with the two teams. He also scored 18 playoff goals.
On Detroit, he played with legends like the late bruiser Bob Probert and Steve Yzerman, one of the league’s all-time top scorers.
Gallant always wore #9 during his junior career, but the number indelibly linked to former Red Wing great Gordie Howe was not up for grabs when Detroit drafted Gallant in 1981. He settled for seventeen.
Leaving Detroit was the toughest part of his career. He felt a strong tie to the Red Wings franchise.
“I’ll never forget the day that I signed with Tampa and I was devastated because I left Detroit,’’ he says.
“I was in a great place in Detroit for nine years. I loved every second of it. It was a great organization. Great people. Great team.’’
Gallant also laments how his playing days ended. He felt he should have played much longer than he did in the NHL but a bad back did him in. After surgery, he had no pain, but his mobility had been greatly reduced.
Suddenly, he was not the same player. He retired at 32.
“I thought I had some offensive skill, I had some talent,’’ he says reflecting back on his playing days with not the slightest hint of bravado.
“I could score some goals...a big part of my game was getting involved physically, whether it was fighting (he racked up 1,674 penalty minutes in the NHL) or playing the body.’’
His retirement as a player, however, did not mark an end to his days in hockey. He turned his attention to coaching.
He spent parts of three seasons as the head coach in Columbus before being fired from the Blue Jackets in November 2006.
He was stung by the firing delivered by good friend and then Columbus GM Doug MacLean, who made clear it was the organization not his fellow native Islander that was really firing him.
“It was tougher on Doug than it was on me that day,’’ he recalls.
As is the time-honoured tradition in hockey, Gallant was given opportunities to improve his coaching record after getting a pink slip.
He has gone on to shine behind the bench.
He coached the Saint John Sea Dogs to two Quebec Major Junior Hockey League championships, capturing the Memorial Cup in 2011 with the team.
“I wouldn’t give the three years back in Saint John for making a million dollars in the NHL,’’ he says. “Those three years were outstanding...we developed a lot of great young hockey players that are going to have great NHL careers.’’
Gallant spent the past two seasons in the NHL as an assistant with the Montreal Canadiens, a team that enjoyed a stellar season in 2013-14. He describes the Habs as one of the classiest organizations in the league, treating him and all others involved with the team extremely well.
Not one for celebrity status, particularly back home in P.E.I., Gallant quickly discovered how anyone connected to the Canadiens club does not go unnoticed in hockey-crazed Montreal.
“In Montreal everybody is recognized,’’ he says.
“It doesn’t matter — assistant coach, goalie coach, stick boy, whatever you are — I mean everybody (associated with the team) is recognized in Montreal.’’
Gallant is both nervous and excited about trying to coach last season’s near rock bottom Panthers to far greater success.
Yet he is very much in the moment, not fretting over whether he will remain a top bench boss with Florida or any other NHL team for years to come.
“I’m just going to go and coach the team the best I can coach the team,’’ he says.
“I’m not worried about two, three, four, five years down the road. I’m going to take this one year at a time.’’
Hockey, though, has been Gallant’s life. There never was a fallback plan.
He had a “quite modest’’ upbringing growing up in the west end of Summerside, one of 11 children to Rosie and the late Alfie Gallant.
Hockey was not something he would be denied. He played ball hockey in the gym of the Boys and Girls Club of Summerside almost every day from age six to 16. In the winter, he would skate for hours a day on community rinks in the city.
And he found his stride at age 12 or 13 in minor league hockey. He was pouring pucks into the net. He was one of the elite players.
At 16, getting the nod to play on a Charlottetown midget team in the Air Canada Cup in Ontario, Gallant believed for the first time that he had a real chance to be an NHL player. He performed well in the national championship, scoring three times in one of the games.
He was drafted the following year by Sherbrooke to play in the QMJHL.
Done with school after Grade 8, he was putting all his pucks in one basket. Hockey was going to be his thing. It had to be.
Fortunately, Gallant went on to a good career in hockey, both as a player and as a coach.
He has managed well, he believes, with a limited education.
“Do I wish I was a little more polished? Yes,’’ he says.
“But it hasn’t affected me in any area. I’ve been able to coach and talk with the media and do all the things you do. I mean I’m happy with the way things turned out. “You learn a lot of life skills just travelling, going to different cities, being around different people.”
— Gerard Gallant and his wife Pam have two children. Jason, 24, is studying at UPEI to be a teacher. Melissa, 27, is a dental hygienist.
— His nickname Turk was long ago shortened from Turkey, something one of his older brothers used to call him. Today, he estimates 90 percent of people in P.E.I. call him Turk rather than Gerard.
— In the summer, Gallant enjoys golfing a couple times a week with his buddies. A good round would be in the mid-80s. His best ever was 76.
— On his ongoing career as a coach: “I’m in a good place. I’m happy. I mean I’ve been coaching hockey for 18-19 years now and I’m finished playing. So hockey is all I’ve done all my life from the time I was 16 years old when I went away to Sherbrooke, Quebec.’’