Former Lynx Trevor Gillies takes his Never Quit attitude to Russia
At 6’3”, 240 pounds, Trevor Gillies seems like a mountain of a man as he moves about our world, the real world, eating a chicken breast lunch special at one of the picnic tables inside the Washington Road Rhinehart’s. But in his world, the pugilistic world of heavyweight hockey enforcers, he’s really not all that big, which is why he prides himself on being a fight technician. What he lacks in size and youth (he’s 33) he makes up for in technique. Where he once might have been content to duke it out, he now strategizes, breaking down fights by learning different blocks and angles with his fight coach, Chris Elms.
As he eats, the little white plastic fork looks ridiculously small in his hand, which is scuffed and bruised from fight training at Greubels Mixed Martial Arts, where he works out nearly every morning. Later in the day he’ll continue his workout at Quantum Fitness, and then he’ll make dinner at home with his wife and kids, maybe capping off the day by watching a movie with the family on their big, L-shaped couch.
He’s making the most of these last few days because, by the end of the week, he’ll be halfway around the world, once more pursuing his dream.
That dream has changed since the Spirit profiled him last year. Then, he was up to his mouth guard in the dream. After 12 years bouncing around hockey’s minor leagues, including two stints with the Augusta Lynx, he had just finished his first full year with the National Hockey League’s New York Islanders and was looking forward to another season.
Thanks to a groin injury and a changing game, however, that was not to be. After only three games, the Islanders sent him back down to the minors. Though the move caught him a little by surprise, Gillies says it wasn’t hard to see it coming.
“The writing was kind of on the wall,” he says. “All the other heavyweights were getting sent down around me and then my name got called. It wasn’t really that much of a shocker — once you get rid of all the nuclear weapons, you don’t really need to have a nuclear weapon.”
The nukes, he says, are being replaced by more tactical weapons.
“With the NHL, I think that you need to be a guy who can play 10 or 11 minutes a night and score 10 goals a year, where I scored 10 goals in my career,” he says. “I’m an energy player who skates well and hits well, but I don’t fill the back of the net.”
Despite the blow, he remained upbeat.
“My time up there was nothing but awesome and positive,” he says. “As an athlete, you need to have tough skin and be mentally ready for the next challenge, and for me the next challenge was to go down and be a great enforcer at the AAA level. I embraced that role, and I’d like to think that I’m kind of an inspiration to a lot of guys because I kind of have that N.Q. Attitude — never quit.”
After the injury-filled season, Gillies returned to Augusta, where he lives with his wife and kids, to regroup and consider his options.
One thing was for certain — he wasn’t going to be one of those guys who made it to the big show and then kicked back. The NHL was the goal, but not the finish line. He knew he still loved the game and felt he still had something to contribute — if not here, than perhaps overseas.
After talking with his best friend, hockey player Jeremy Yablonski, he began to consider packing up his skates and heading to Russia.
“He had a great experience there last year, and obviously we talked a lot with me being in the minors.”
So, Gillies’ agent got in touch with a Russian agent familiar with the team and the league, and now Gillies is about to join Yablonski to play for Vityaz Chekhov in Russia’s Kontenental Hockey League (KHL).
“It’ll be a great opportunity,” Gillies says. “I’ve never really seen the world, and there’s a team in Belarus, there’s a team in Latvia….”
The KHL is Russia’s NHL, which means lots of travel and lots of fans. Chekhov, a small city about a two and a half hour drive from Moscow (45 minutes if there’s no traffic, which is practically never) has a 6,000-seat stadium that they pack just about every night with a weight room better than anything Gillies has seen in the NHL.
The move made sense for a lot of reasons, most of them financial.
“I’m 33 years old and I’m not getting any younger,” he says. “As much as I loved playing in the American League and getting to the NHL — that was the dream — if I’m not going to be at that level, and my type of player is fading away in the NHL, I might as well go to their NHL and make a lot more money than I’d make in the minors.”
The fire is still burning in his belly, he says. He wants to continue playing hockey and being an enforcer, and he thinks he’ll be able to play longer if he makes this move now rather than later.
And did he mention the pay?
“It’s way better,” he says. “It’s as much, or more, after tax money, than I would make in the NHL, so it was really a no-brainer decision for us.”
Though NHL players receive pensions, Gillies didn’t play there long enough to earn one, and when you’re in the minors, he says, retirement is on you.
Another perk is that he’ll be reunited with Yablonski, who he played with in Peoria. The living conditions, however, will be a whole lot better.
“It’s kind of hard not to be excited about a four bedroom house with an indoor pool and a sauna,” he says. “It sounds pretty good to me, though honestly, they could put me in a little apartment and I’d be fine. We’re there to play hockey.”
Times have been tough for enforcers. Not only is the modern game leaving them behind, there were three notable off-ice deaths last year that raised concern about the physical and mental demands made on the men who exist mainly to fight.
Rick Rypien, Wade Belak and Derek Boogaard all died during the summer of 2011.
“I’d rather not comment too much on everything,” he says. “It’s really sad for all their families, and my heart goes out to them all. But I can only speak for me personally, and I’m in a good place. I’m a happy man.”
He says all the negative attention has simply reinforced the idea that enforcers are nothing but unskilled hired guns.
“It’s just unfortunate that the media spins stuff the way they want it to go,” he says. “I’m not in the NHL anymore, so I can kind of tell you what I think — it’s unfortunate that they’ve taken these deaths and tried to knock that job.”
That job, he says, is deeply rewarding.
“It’s a great feeling to be the guy that’s willing to sacrifice himself for your band of brothers,” he says. “It’s like people who are in the military. It’s the same type of scenario for the enforcer.”
They fight, he says, not for the name on the back, but for the crest on the front.
Though heading to Russia is allowing him to defend a new band of brothers, he realizes that his days in hockey are drawing to a close.
“I keep adjusting my goals as I get older,” he says. “When I first started at 20-years-old, I was hoping I’d play 500 pro games, which I surpassed years ago. Then, I wanted to play until I was over 30, and now I’m 33.”
Having consistently outskated his goals doesn’t mean he’s going to be one of those players who holds on too long, however.
“I’ll know when I’m done,” he says. “I’m not going to need someone to hold my hand and tell me I’m done.”
Which is probably good, since as long as he’s in Russia, he probably wouldn’t be able to understand them anyway. You Might Also Like: