Former Lynx Trevor Gillies fought his way out of the minors all the way to the New York Islanders, where he and his stache are living the dream
by Eric Johnson
(Originally published July 21, 2011)
Depending on who you talk to, Trevor Gillies is either an awesome hockey player or a thug.
Part of that disparity comes from a general misunderstanding of the sport he plays. Most people — especially here in the South — don’t really “get” hockey — so when they hear the guy racked up, like, a million penalty minutes and got suspended well over a dozen games last year, they’re willing to write him off as nothing more than a troublemaker. A brute.
For those who understand hockey, however — its history, its complicated, absolute codes and its mystique — what he does is a noble thing of beauty and therefore represents all that the sport is supposed to be.
And then there’s the stache. It’s big and gaudy and it’s taken New York, where Gillies plays for National Hockey League team the New York Islanders, by storm.
“I’ve got a Rock the Stache shirt and they sell mustaches at the games,” he says. “A lot of women and kids wear them. It’s pretty cool.”
The stache even has its own Facebook page.
Gilles’ trademark handlebar mustache started out as a bet with a couple of buddies in the minors, one of those who can grow the biggest
kind of things. It was just boys being boys in a city (Bridgeport) where nobody really cares about renegade facial hair.
And then he got the call.
“They called me up on my 31st birthday,” he says. “I’m kind of superstitious and didn’t want to mess with it. Now, the fans wouldn’t recognize me without it.”
In deference to his wife, who he met on his first stint with the Augusta Lynx back in the 2001-02 season, he shaves it off during the summers, which he spends here in his Columbia County home.
“I love it here,” he says. “I just sweat it out in the summer. It helps me stay trim.”
Though he grew up thoroughly immersed in Canada’s pervasive and sometimes spartan hockey culture, where the best players are often sent to live with surrogate families while they practice to become the hockey stars they dream they’ll become, he says he quickly and easily took to Augusta’s southern hospitality.
“I grew up not having to say ‘yes, sir’ and ‘yes, ma’am,’” he says. “I just think that’s the right way to raise your kids, so our kids do it. I think that shows great respect.”
You don’t have to be with him long before you realize Gillies is all about respect. Respect for his sport, his teammates and the effort it takes to achieve success.
Charting his 12-year pro career, which includes two appearances with the Lynx (2001-02 and 2006-07), takes a map with a lot of thumbtacks. And it takes stable full of team mascots. As a pro he was a Sea Wolf, a Lock Monster, a General, an IceCat, a Lynx, a Bruin, a Riverman, a Falcon, a member of a Wolf Pack, a Pirate, a Mighty Duck, a River Rat and a Tiger before finally becoming an Islander.
“My goal was always to keep hockey a big priority,” he says. “I always tried to go to a different place, because my goal was to play in the NHL. Even though I was way down there, I still believed. Believe it to achieve it.
That slogan is really true.”
Even if he liked a place or a team or an organization, he wouldn’t stay just because it was comfortable. That kind of thinking is fine for some, he says, but it probably won’t get you to the NHL.
“It was an absolutely amazing feeling to get the call at 31,” he says. “It’s a really late age to get a chance. I was just fortunate enough that [owner] Charles Wang and [General Manager] Garth Snow gave me a shot with the Islanders and that I did pretty well.”
It was more than good fortune, however. Once he got there, he stayed there, even after the suspensions some commentators suggested would be enough to send him spiraling back down to the minor. In June, he signed another one-year contract with the Islanders.
“Every day you put on an NHL jersey is a great day,” he says. “There’s never a bad day, and it’s an absolute honor to play at the highest level. That was always my dream as a boy. I’m just fortunate to live up to that dream.”
In many ways, that childhood dream started at hockey camp in Canada, when he was 15 and hitting everything that moved.
“One of the toughest guys in the league grabbed me early on in one of my first games,” he says. “He got the first punch off and bloodied my nose after he ripped my helmet off. I did real well, so after that he said, “Kid, you can fight — this might be something you want to add to your arsenal.’”
That insight turned out to be prophetic.
“I knew I could fight, but I wasn’t really branded as a heavyweight until that point,” he says. “I ended up that year as a 15-year-old playing with men.”
He ended the season with two goals, six assists and 286 penalty minutes.
“I did a lot of fighting,” he says.
For the uninitiated, fighting and penalty minutes carry a stigma, while the hockey community makes no such moral judgment.
Gillies is an enforcer, which means it’s his job to be tough and get in fights. Such behavior is actually considered good for the game.
“If you don’t have guys like me, you pretty much have a bunch of skill guys who can’t take out their frustrations or settle the score, so they’ll whack each other with sticks and there will be absolute mayhem,” he says. “You’ve got men who are skating up to 30 mph out there with a weapon in their hands.”
If you do have guys like him, scores can be settled by those who know how to do it the bare knuckle way.
“A guy like Derek Boogaard or a guy like Steve MacIntyre — these guys are like 6’6 or 6’8 and they weight 285 pounds and pretty much their sole job is to make sure their teammates are safe and can skate freely and confidently out there,” he says. “And that’s exactly what I do. I’m one of the average-size guys who do it, but I’ve been doing it since I was 15.”
Gilles may be average-size by hockey standards, but at 6’3, 235 pounds — and with arms like tree trunks and dusky fists gnarled from fighting — he can go toe-to-toe with just about any of the MMA guys who train with him at Greubel’s Mixed Martial Arts.
At Greubel’s, he works with Chris Elms on fighting techniques and building the core, which is considered key for hockey fighters, since fighting on blades requires a lot of core strength.
“He took grabs that will work and certain other things and tweaked them,” Gillies says of Elms. “I owe him a lot of credit, because usually when a fighter in hockey gets around 30 he starts to go downhill, and he can go downhill fast.”
The business of fighting in hockey — Gillies calls it leveling the seas — is a sensible and exciting way of policing the game that has its own code.
“You always want to fight a guy man to man,” he says. “You want to look him in the eye. That’s kid of how the code goes. You don’t want to jump him unless he does something stupid. And you don’t want to fight angry. If you fight angry, you can get hurt.”
He brings up MMA fighters, who are often defeated once they lose their cool.
“It’s the same thing with hockey,” he says. “It’s all calculated.”
And it’s not just used as a way to get even when somebody does something to a teammate.
“If we were playing terrible to start a game — say they pop two quick ones on us and suddenly they get a third — you’re like, ‘Man, I’ve got to do something,’” he says. “So I might go out there and ask their heavyweight for a fight.”
That’s right. He said ask for a fight.
That’s part of that code he was talking about. You hit the skill guys clean and heavyweights fight heavyweights.
But what happens if the other guy doesn’t accept?
“Well, at that point you’re having a nice, polite conversation saying, ‘Well, I’m supposed to ask you,’” he says. “Then, I just tell them ‘Fine — but just so you know, I’m going to run around and hit your best players.’”
That’s just one of several scenarios for a fight. If you go to the Trevor Gillies page on hockeyfights.com, you can see some others, like the time he fought Jered Boll.
“I just happened to be getting on the ice and I see him crush one of our guys,” he says. “I know he’s probably not going to fight me if I ask him, but he took out our best guy, so I just go over and get it going with him.”
He says this all very casually and watches the video of the very fight he’s talking about with cool detachment.
“You never fight for yourself,” he says, watching himself land a series of jersey jabs followed by some devastatingly solid blows to the face. “When you’re in the lower leagues, you might try to fight just to get noticed and get out of those leagues, but when you’re at this level, you have to fight at the right time, because if you fight at the wrong time, you could hurt your team. You need to know when and where to do it because of the penalty minutes that will follow…”
Last year he spent 165 minutes in the penalty box, which means the Islanders spent that many minutes skating one player down. But when it’s done smart, leveling the seas is worth it.
The small fraternity of enforcers is a violent but accessible bunch.
“If the guy wants to come talk to me after the game — after he beat me up or I beat him up — I’m going to talk to him because that’s part of my job. I fought six of the eight guys in my wedding.”
As much as he talks about the dispassion that comes with fighting, he also says that occasionally, the need to “man up” comes at a cost.
To some fans and several commentators, Gillies’ pummeling of Pittsburgh Penguin Eric Tangradi last February crossed the line.
Gillies elbowed Tangradi in the face, then punched him several times when he was down on the ice. Then, on his way to the locker room, Gillies taunted the fallen player.
Gillies received a nine-game suspension by the league and the team was fined $100,000.
“Not getting into it too much because obviously I’ve paid my penance with my fines, but there was some stuff that lead up to that,” he says. “Our goalie got knocked out by their goalie and their whole bench was laughing about it. They thought it was real funny and kind of bullied us all year.”
Tired of their skill players taking hit after hit, Gillies and a couple others had a team meeting and decided they weren’t going to take it anymore.
“We had guys fighting who had never fought in their lives,” he says. “It’s a band of brothers. You see one of your guys go down or getting hurt and you’re going to do something about it. That’s just the way hockey is. A lot of people don’t understand it, but those five guys on the ice are going to stick together.
“A lot of people don’t agree with what I did, which is fine,” he says. “But people who know me here in town or back home or on my team or in my family know that I’m a good guy and I don’t try to hurt anybody. But emotions escalated and, at the end of the day, those 24 guys in that locker room love me. And so does my coaching staff and ownership, or I wouldn’t have gotten another contract.”
That other contract allows him to stay in New York, where he lives during the season with his wife and two kids. The kids love it because of all the snow, and he’s happy to give them that.
“Someday, there’s not going to be any more snow,” he says.
He’s not talking global warming, he’s talking the end of his career, which at 32 he knows can be as soon as the next faceoff.
“My saying is that I’m going to play until they take my skates away, and I still feel that way,” he says. “Whether I’m in the NHL this year all year or another two years or I go back and drop down to the minors and be that high-paid babysitter and look after the kids and make sure they’re okay — I’m not going to be one of those guys who made it to the show and says, ‘Okay, I made it to the show, now I’m done.’ I love the game. I’ve loved it all my life. I want to play it as long as I can.”
But what happens when the end finally comes?
“I’m kind of undecided,” he says. “When I was first here I had to do a lot of landscaping to be able to stay here, because you don’t make a lot of money if you play in the ECHL. I really enjoyed that, so that’s an option. And I always wanted to be a firefighter when I was a kid — I want to take the schooling for that just to have it.”
But before he’s ready for that, you get the feeling the ice won’t be through with him even after they take his skates away.
“I really want to coach and help some guys make it up,” he says. “I’m a student of the game and had to do a lot of it myself, so I’d like to pass that on and help some guys.”
Currently, he’s working with Augusta Riverhawk’s heavyweight Kevin Fukala.
“I’m just trying to help him,” he says. “I don’t normally do that, but I thought this could be awesome. A young, hungry guy to push me…”
When he’s ready for the traditional working world, though, it’s not like he’ll enter it without experience. During off seasons in the minors he did a little bit of everything to make ends meet, including being a brick laborer and selling knives.
“A lot of the stuff sports teaches you — hard work, punctuality — a lot of it relates to the business world.”
And while he’s making good money in the NHL, money has never been a motivation when it comes to hockey.
“I thought I was doing well when I was making $550 a week here with the Augusta Lynx,” he says. “I loved my life, but fans look at that and think that’s not all that much money for a professional athlete, and they’re right, but you’re living the dream. You’re one of the lucky few who had a dream as a boy and gets to live it out. You can do something for money, sure, but you’re getting to play the game you love. People need to remember that.”
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