Doug Gilmour made everyone better

Doug Gilmour served as team captain in Calgary, Chicago and Toronto. Claus Andersen/Getty Images

Doug Gilmour had to wait a few years to get into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

And that was fitting, really, given how it all began for him.

"Very much so," Gilmour told ESPN.com last Friday.

Undrafted in his first year of NHL eligibility -- teams were worried about his size -- Gilmour spent his entire career having to prove people wrong.

So the fact he had to wait eight years after his retirement from an All-Star career certainly fits the story of a never-say-die player who showed, in the end, that he belonged with the very best in the game.

"You look back at my career, and I'd like to say thanks to the naysayers," Gilmour said. "They just made me work harder. I had a grudge, a chip on my shoulder. All I wanted to do was prove everybody wrong that I wasn't too small and I could play."

He proved that and then some with 1,414 regular-season points (450-964) in 1,474 games, plus he showed how clutch he was with 188 playoff points (60-128) in 182 games.

Dougie, can you check?

Despite putting up 119 points (46-73) in 67 games with Cornwall of the OHL in 1981-82, Gilmour wasn't drafted until the seventh round (134th overall), when the St. Louis Blues finally came calling.

And that's after he went undrafted the year before in his first year of eligibility. Too small, NHL teams feared of the 5-foot-11, 175-pounder.

In his final year of junior hockey, Gilmour exploded for 177 points (70-107) in 68 games, and even still, he showed up to the Blues' training camp next year needing to make the team as a checker.

"I came out of junior with a lot of points but in St. Louis they had Bernie Federko, Guy Chouinard, Blake Dunlop, Alain Lemieux," Gilmour recalled.

" [Head coach] Jacques Demers says, 'Can you check?' And I said, 'Sure,"' Gilmour laughed. "Demers said, 'You want to go to the minors or you want to play in the NHL?"'

And so Gilmour made the jump from junior to the Blues in 1983-84 as a checking-line center.

In the end, Gilmour figures it was a blessing in disguise, because it developed his 200-foot game, not to mention it allowed him ice time against the opposition's best players.

"You look back and realize that having to check against the likes of Marcel Dionne, Denis Savard or Wayne Gretzky -- you knew you would get a lot of ice time, and it taught me the other side of the game," Gilmour said.

The offensive opportunity

The Blues had key injuries heading into the 1985-86 playoffs, and that opened the door for Gilmour to take on a more offensive role. His career never looked back. Gilmour put up 21 points (9-12) in 19 playoffs games in the spring of '86 en route to becoming a prolific offensive player.

That was a key moment in his career.

"Very much so," Gilmour said. "We had injuries, Bernie was hurt. I got more power-play time. It was a great experience. I had great support there, too. Guys like Bernie wanted you to succeed. There was a great support system."

The '87 Canada Cup

Gilmour was part of the Team Canada squad led by Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. In some of the greatest hockey games ever played, Team Canada outdueled the former Soviet Union and its famous KLM line in the three-game final of the '87 Canada Cup.

It was a tournament that made Gilmour realize he belonged among the game's elite, even if his role was more limited than others'.

"That was amazing," Gilmour said. "Because the speed was a such a step up from just the NHL in general. You came back from that tournament and you felt 10 miles faster than everybody else."

The first trade

In 1987-88, the Calgary Flames won the Presidents' Trophy as regular-season champions but were knocked out in the opening round of the playoffs.

"Naturally no one was happy," former Flames GM Cliff Fletcher recalled in a conversation with ESPN.com last week.

Fletcher targeted Gilmour in St. Louis.

"It wasn't until Labor Day weekend, just before the '88-89 season, that we were able to make the trade with St. Louis," Fletcher said.

On Sept. 6, 1988, the Blues dealt Gilmour to Calgary along with Mark Hunter, Steve Bozek and Michael Dark in exchange for Mike Bullard, Craig Coxe and Tim Corkery.
Score another one for "Trader Cliff."

"He came in and immediately took charge on the ice," Fletcher said. "It was a great 1 and 1A combination at center with both he and [Joe Nieuwendyk]."

The Stanley Cup

Fletcher matter-of-factly says the Flames never would have won the Stanley Cup in 1989 without Gilmour.

"No, we don't," he said. "Doug was the difference. We won the Presidents' Trophy again in '88-89, but he was the difference in the playoffs. Al MacInnis won the Conn Smythe Trophy [as playoff MVP] -- and deservedly so, but Doug was the key guy. He just dominated."

Gilmour put up 22 points (11-11) in 22 playoff games and was clutch throughout with his two-way play, culminating with his Cup-clinching goal in Game 6 at the Montreal Forum.

"He was a great teammate and great competitor," fellow 2011 HHOF inductee Nieuwendyk told ESPN.com when asked about Gilmour's '89 playoffs. "He played the game so hard. I don't know how to put it into words, but we really needed him. He carried the mail on that team in a lot of ways. He just a treat to be with."

Gilmour deflected any personal praise for that '89 Cup but talked about how talented that Flames team was.

"It was a great experience with the depth and leadership we had on that team," Gilmour said. "You look back at it, Theo Fleury was the fourth-line center. That's a pretty good hockey club."

He didn't know it at the time, but Gilmour was holding up the Cup that night for the last time in his career.

"It was amazing," Gilmour said of hoisting Lord Stanley's prize. "I didn't hold it very long; I was exhausted. But you reflect back and we had such a good hockey club we thought we'd do it again. For some reason it didn't work out that way."

The second trade

Fletcher bolted to Toronto to take over the sagging Maple Leafs in the summer of '91. What he never possibly imagined is that he would have a chance to bring Gilmour with him half a season later.

"Not a chance," Fletcher said. "He was a great hockey player, and in my mind there would never be a reason why Calgary would let him go."

But as the Flames -- like some other Canadian clubs -- began to experience economic hardship in the 1990s, the rise of player salaries made for tough times.

Gilmour had a salary arbitration hearing in the summer of 1991 that clearly left both camps unimpressed with each other.

"Then one day we were on the road, in San Francisco, I got up to go the bathroom around 8 a.m., and I could hear something through the adjoining doors," Gilmour said. "Believe it or not, it was [then-Fames GM] Doug Risebrough beside us in the other room, I could hear him on the phone talking about trading this guy and trade that guy. … I was a fly on the wall. I figured out what was going on. So I knew right then and there that I was eventually going somewhere."

Fletcher, of course, was keeping tabs on his old team.

"They had mentioned his name to me as far back as training camp in September," Fletcher said. "They were having issues and talked about maybe trading him. Then it went back and forth, it went quiet for a while, but it started to pick up around Christmas again."

On New Year's Eve, Gilmour was named first star in a win over Montreal and he then promptly packed his bag. He decided he wouldn't play again until he was dealt.

"The next morning on New Year's Day I went in about 8 a.m., grabbed my equipment and went upstairs to see Doug Risebrough," Gilmour said. "I told him I was done. I had it set up that I was going to play with Team Canada. He said, 'If you walk, I'm trading you.'

"The deal was done 24 hours later."

On Jan. 2, 1992, Gilmour was traded to Toronto with Jamie Macoun, Ric Nattress, Kent Manderville and Rick Wamsley in exchange for Gary Leeman, Alexander Godynyuk, Jeff Reese, Michel Petit and Craig Berube.

In short, one of the greatest fleece jobs in NHL history. And a trade that changed the fortunes of the foundering Leafs.

"To be fair, the Flames thought they were getting a 50-goal scorer in Gary Leeman, and he was at the time," said Fletcher, always the classy one. "But he was never able to get it together in Calgary."

Fletcher was to trade for Gilmour a second time in his career, plus add in four more players he knew.

"It was a funny situation because I knew the players from Calgary better than the players I was trading away from Toronto because I had been with them for so many years," Fletcher said, laughing.

Gilmour was stunned when he saw the magnitude of the deal.

"When I saw it was five for five, I remembering going, 'Whoa, that's different.' But going with guys I know was amazing," Gilmour said.

The Kingston, Ontario, native was headed home.

"I was excited and a bit overwhelmed," he said.

Superman in Toronto

From his arrival in January 1992 through back-to-back conference finals appearances in the springs of '93 and '94, no forward not named Gretzky or Lemieux dominated like Gilmour.

"The first 2½ years that Doug was with us in Toronto, he was arguably the best player in the NHL," Fletcher said. "He just carried the Leafs on his shoulders."

Gilmour put up 350 points (90-260) in 245 games (playoffs included) in that time period.

He was Hart Trophy runner-up in 1992-93 when he put up a career-high 127 points (32-95) in the regular season, which remains a Maple Leafs franchise record.

Fletcher traded for Dave Andreychuk from Buffalo, and once he arrived on the scene midway through the 1992-93 season, he connected for 25 goals in 31 games playing alongside Gilmour.

The next season Andreychuk would score 53 goals as the chemistry with Gilmour worked its magic.

"You never really know how good a player is until you play with him," Andreychuk told ESPN.com last week. "There was chemistry right off the bat. It was perfect timing on both our parts. The team had just turned the corner. It was a special time for me. We did some good things together."

Gilmour said it was simple: Just get the puck to Andreychuk.

"He had that big body, that compete level; he's a guy you just wanted to get the puck to in front of the net because he could score," Gilmour said.

With the fiery Pat Burns behind the bench, Gilmour and his lunch-bucket teammates gave Leaf Nation lifetime memories with back-to-back conference finals appearances. The '93 run was especially memorable. The Leafs knocked off favored Detroit in the opening round, survived a seven-gamer with Curtis Joseph and St. Louis in the second round and pushed Gretzky and the Kings to seven games in the conference finals. The city of Toronto was electric.

The Leafs didn't win a Cup in those two years, but their fans still reminisce to that time as if it were a championship run.

"There was a lot of frustration from previous years here before Doug got here," said Fletcher, who today is again an executive with the Leafs. "What it did was give the Leafs' franchise its credibility back, that was the most important thing. The subsequent excitement that came with it, in my mind I've never seen anything like it. Unfortunately, we didn't get out of the conference finals either in '93 or '94 but there was some tremendously exciting hockey played by the team."

Gilmour gave it his all. It's what endured him so much to Leafs fans. And to his teammates.

"His intensity flowed over on the rest of us," Andreychuk said. "That's what makes a great player. Do they make other players around them better? He definitely did that. And I'm a direct result of how good he played and how much he made me play better."

Gilmour had nothing left to give at the end of the night in those two playoff years. Burns -- who brought out the best in Gilmour -- had played him a ton.

"To be honest with you, we really never saw him in the room some nights," Andreychuk said. "He went directly into the medical room almost every time. The way Dougie plays and his size, he definitely wore down. But there was never any doubt he'd be there the next day, and that's what made him special. Whether he was 140 pounds soaking wet by the end of that run that we had, he was still going to be there the next day."

Forever a Leaf

Gilmour would make NHL stops in New Jersey, Chicago, Buffalo and Montreal before making one final appearance in a Toronto uniform in 2002-03 -- he suffered an injury in his first game back, and that was it for his career.

The connection he made with Leafs fans during those magical seasons in 1992-93 and 1993-94 remains to this day.

"It's something I'll never forget," Gilmour said. "Some great memories. Walking out on Maple Leaf Gardens ice, the fans would just give you another boost. It was really surreal. I loved every minute of it in Toronto. There were disappointments, sure, but it was a great experience in my career."

He was reminded how special it was to be revered in Toronto when he arrived in New Jersey for his next NHL stop.

"I remember driving my car to the players' lot in New Jersey and the guy says, 'What's your name?' I said, 'Doug Gilmour.' He said, 'Never heard of ya, park over there,'" Gilmour mused.

The jokester

Gilmour is remembered by many fans for the intensity with which he played and the perma-scowl he sported on the ice.

But for former teammates, there was also the off-ice Gilmour.

"He was a jokester and a prankster," Fletcher said.

"Dougie was at the rink at 4 p.m. putting shoe polish on the toilet seats," Nieuwendyk said, laughing. "That's the way he got ready for games."

Gilmour also showed his sense of humor when Burns was hired as Leafs coach in 1993.

"I remember at this first media conference, Patty said, 'We got a pretty good team here; I like that Daryl Gilmour,"' Gilmour said. "I got a call from a media person who told me Burns called me Daryl."

Not missing a beat, Gilmour responded to the writer: "Don't worry about George; he'll be fine."'

Back at work today

Gilmour is currently the GM of the OHL's Kingston Frontenacs. He says his love is more in coaching, but he enjoys the GM challenge.

"It's a big chess match," Gilmour said.

Whether a return to the NHL in either coaching or management is in the cards, Gilmour did not know.

"I'm focused on this right now," he said.

And when Doug Gilmour is focused, you know he's giving it everything he has.

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.