Small Giant Brendan Gallagher rises, shines in The Bigs

 

Often told he was too small to play in The Show, a Hab returns to Vancouver tonight with a starring role

 
 
 
 
Brendan Gallagher of the Canadiens is introduced to Montreal hockey fans during National Hockey League pre-game ceremonies at the Bell Centre on Oct. 1 in Montreal. Gallagher, who played for the Vancouver Giants, will face the Canucks Saturday night at Rogers Arena.
 

Brendan Gallagher of the Canadiens is introduced to Montreal hockey fans during National Hockey League pre-game ceremonies at the Bell Centre on Oct. 1 in Montreal. Gallagher, who played for the Vancouver Giants, will face the Canucks Saturday night at Rogers Arena.

Photograph by: Richard Wolowicz, Getty Images

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For four seasons, Neil Manning was Brendan Gallagher’s teammate on the Vancouver Giants. The two played together, carpooled together, hung out in the summer together and bonded like only teammates can.

But Manning knew a little something about Gallagher, the Montreal Canadiens’ dynamo, even before they met at the Giants’ 2007-08 training camp. His initial Brendan Gallagher moment occurred years earlier.

“The first time I saw Gally, I was playing against him in a peewee spring hockey tournament in Winnipeg,” recalled Manning, now 22 and a business student-hockey player at UBC. “I was on the Junior Canucks and he was playing for the Northern Alberta all-stars. He was playing a year up and I remember thinking, like: ‘Who is this tiny kid?’ I think maybe he was in the four-foot range but he was playing on their No. 1 line.”

Not much has changed for Brendan Gallagher. He is still diminutive — the Habs list him at five-foot-nine although he may be smaller — and he is still producing. He has three goals and five points in four games this season, had 17 goals in last season’s lockout-shortened campaign and was a Calder Trophy finalist.

Born in Edmonton, Gallagher moved to Delta at age 12 when his dad, Ian, was hired by the Giants to be their strength and conditioning coach. So he has two places to call home and he’s hitting both on the Habs’ swing through Western Canada.

He played in Edmonton on Thursday and things went well. Gallagher scored once, assisted on another and the Canadiens prevailed 4-1 over the Oilers. Now he hopes his night in Vancouver will be just as rewarding.

“I think when I first step on the ice, it will be pretty cool,” Gallagher, 21, said Friday after the Habs practised at Rogers Arena. “I mean, there are going to be a lot of people watching who helped me get to this point and sacrificed a lot. So you want to play well and show them how proud you are of what they’ve done for you.”

With most of his relatives still in Edmonton, Gallagher had a bigger entourage there than he’ll have at Rogers Arena on Saturday. Many of his Vancouver connections are based around hockey and they’ll be busy with their own teams and games. Gallagher had more than 20 people as his guests in Edmonton. He has 14 listed for the Canucks game, including his mom, dad and his two sisters. His younger brother will be away at his own hockey game.

“Thursday night in Edmonton was a really fun experience,” Gallagher said. “Obviously I grew up watching a lot of games at Rexall Place so to walk out of that tunnel was pretty cool. It’s going to be the same thing here. When the schedule came out, I definitely checked for it and, now that it’s here, it’s pretty exciting.”

As for the reception he might receive in Vancouver, that remains to be seen. He was a darling of the Vancouver Giants’ fans but he’s a Canucks’ opponent now.

“I don’t think Canucks’ fans will be rooting for me,” Gallagher said, chuckling. “I mean, that’s what you expect in any enemy arena. You play hard and you expect to be hated.”

Manning will be among those missing tonight’s game at Rogers Arena due to his own CIS game in Calgary. But he doesn’t need to be on hand to know that success hasn’t changed Gallagher. The two pals went kayaking this past summer in Nanaimo, Manning’s hometown, and their friendship was as solid as ever.

“He is the same guy,” Manning said. “He hasn’t become cocky at all. He went from being a 16-year-old junior getting scratched a couple of games at the start of the year to an NHL player and he’s the same guy then as he is now. He was a runner-up for the Calder Trophy but he hasn’t changed just because he’s suddenly in the spotlight.”

To Manning, it is no surprise that Gallagher has been able to take his game from junior, where he scored a franchise record 136 goals for the Giants, to the NHL.

“I think one thing that makes him stand out — and there are a lot of really good skilled small players — is his willingness to go to the net,” Manning explained. “From the time he was 16 to now, he has become a very strong little bundle of muscle.

“His determination is as good as anyone in the NHL, or as good as anyone in pro hockey.

“So when you have that little bundle of muscle that is so willing to go to the net, it’s pretty hard for a defenceman, no matter what kind of defenceman you are, to stop someone that determined.”

Gallagher’s determination became obvious to dad Ian at a young age.

“It didn’t matter if it was playing soccer in the backyard, or just street hockey with friends, Brendan liked to be in the middle of the action and he liked to be involved,” Ian Gallagher said. “That trait demonstrated itself early on. But one of the things we didn’t do is let him be successful just because he was young. It was something that he generally had to work for and still does to this day.”

As a youngster, Brendan also played soccer and baseball. According to Ian, it wasn’t a given that Brendan was immediately headed for hockey stardom. Brendan wasn’t put on a pedestal and coddled like some child prodigy.

“I don’t think that when you enter minor hockey, you start looking at the end result too aggressively too early on,” Ian Gallagher explained.

“I think you can get lost quite easily doing that. All the way along, all we tried to do is let Brendan have a good, positive experience each year and set the stage for his next challenge.

“All along the way, we wanted him to go from his atom experience to his peewee experience as a capable contributor, and the same from peewee to bantam and bantam to midget. The midget to junior thing was something that was less predictable.

“When you become part of a major junior program like the Vancouver Giants, it’s really dependent on day-to-day success and not so much year-to-year. The closer Brendan got to the goal, the more he believed in it. And it was the same for all of us in the family.”

Brendan scored just 10 goals in his first junior season with the Giants and then exploded for 41 the following year. It was also his NHL draft year. But teams apparently weren’t sold. Four rounds went by and 146 players were taken before the Habs selected Gallagher in the fifth round.

Both of his hometown teams, the Oilers and Canucks, passed on him.

“I didn’t really care where I went,” Gallagher said. “I just wanted to be picked and have an opportunity to make the NHL one day. When the Habs selected me, I was honoured. It’s something I wouldn’t change for anything.”

Another former junior teammate, Wes Vannieuwenhuizen, wasn’t surprised that Gallagher was able to make an impact at the NHL level so quickly. Vannieuwenhuizen played two seasons with Gallagher and then succeeded him as Giants’ team captain last year. He also met him as an opponent in minor hockey when Vannieuwenhuizen was at Chilliwack and Gallagher was with South Delta.

“Growing up, I hated playing against him,” said Vannieuwenhuizen, also a UBC Thunderbird. “He’s such a talented, skilled and hard-working guy and I believed that he would make it. Obviously he did, too, and he’s doing great for himself.

“I remember watching him last year in the NHL and he went to the net with full force. He’s obviously a smaller player but he’s not afraid of anybody and he does it consistently every night. It’s something that you love watching.”

epap@vancouversun.com

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Brendan Gallagher of the Canadiens is introduced to Montreal hockey fans during National Hockey League pre-game ceremonies at the Bell Centre on Oct. 1 in Montreal. Gallagher, who played for the Vancouver Giants, will face the Canucks Saturday night at Rogers Arena.
 

Brendan Gallagher of the Canadiens is introduced to Montreal hockey fans during National Hockey League pre-game ceremonies at the Bell Centre on Oct. 1 in Montreal. Gallagher, who played for the Vancouver Giants, will face the Canucks Saturday night at Rogers Arena.

Photograph by: Richard Wolowicz, Getty Images

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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