Doug Gilmour is sitting in his backyard.
Keeping him company is the fresh air, a little propane fire and a small television.
“It gets me out of the house anyway, so that’s good,” says Gilmour, when we dial him up. “Not much to do.”
The TV usually airs one of his wife’s shows or — increasingly, these days — replays the greatest performances of Killer’s Hall of Fame career, triggering a volcano of standard-definition memories.
These are heroic, gritty efforts the 56-year-old centre lived through, lived for, but is finally watching for the very first time decades later. The differences between hockey then and now are easy to spot. More whistles. Less speed. More chip-ins. Less possession. Blame the red line.
But Gilmour loves how aggressive the game was 30 years ago. “You had to compete,” he says, injecting the word with the same ferocity he played.
During our half-hour chat about Toronto’s opening-round epic against the Detroit Red Wings in 1993, Gilmour explains why he wanted to quickly break away from the Maple Leafs days before the series began, the devious tactics of Scotty Bowman and why that particular roster is bonded for life — ’93 till infinity.
Sportsnet: Have you caught any of these classic games Sportsnet is running these days?
Doug Gilmour: I never watched highlights like this before. I’ve seen a couple things, like the high stick, but I’ve never watched a game from start to finish. And the way it is now, there’s really no commercials and stuff. It’s quick. I’ve been watching like, ‘OK, I don’t really remember … Oh, I do remember that now!’
To have these classic games on, and for us to be in lockdown, it’s fun to watch for me. Calgary’s (1989 Stanley Cup) game was on the other day, and I was talking to some buddies and said, ‘You guys watching this game right now? Twenty bucks, I’ll take Calgary here.’ They laughed, ‘You’re an a——.’
SN: OK, 1993, Round 1. What was the mood heading into that Red Wings series as underdogs?
Gilmour: You know what happened? We went to Collingwood, Ont., to train about three or four days before the series. And my grandfather passed away. So, I asked Burnsy (coach Pat Burns) if I could fly to Kingston, Ont., real quick — just one day and come back. He more or less said no. So, I called mom and dad up, and I said, ‘You know, I can’t make it. We’re starting playoffs.’ And they said, ‘We don’t want you here. Don’t worry about it. We know you’re busy.’
So, they sent me four or five of my grandpa’s T-shirts. We wore pyjamas pretty much under our hockey equipment in those days, right? Long underwear. I would change my shirt after every period because it was soaking wet and heavy. But over top of that I had my grandfather’s shirt on as well. Just for his memory. I think he brought us in luck. I had those on for all three playoff rounds.
SN: Tell me about your grandfather. What kind of man was he?
Gilmour: Jack, his parents were from England. He married my grandmother, Annie. Jack was probably a six-foot guy. He was in the army. He moved here as a kind of a salesman, but he always had jokes. Like, when I was in St. Louis back in the day, they would send me a cassette every year at Christmastime with jokes. That was my gift from them. Great people. What can I say? It was hard not to say, ‘bye,’ but at the same time, we had to work.
SN: You were double-shifting against the Red Wings in that series. Was that something new for you at that time?
Gilmour: Burnsy just looked and said, ‘OK, I’m gonna throw you out there on the fourth line sometimes. If you’re out there on the fourth line, we might get something happening, get some chances.’ That whole playoff round was crazy. Seven games in 13 nights. Travel wasn’t too bad, but the games take a lot out of you.
SN: How did Pat Burns go about motivating you guys?
Gilmour: After (losing) Game 2, you get up in the morning and you’re disappointed. He didn’t look ahead. He said, ‘Let’s just focus on Game 3, guys.’ Preparation was intense. He had us ready. Plus, we were at home. If we could win one, maybe we could change the momentum a bit. That’s how his thought process was. We end up winning that game. Game 3 was the most important game in that series, other than Game 7.
SN: You racked up 12 points in seven games. You were a plus-5. Both were the best marks on the whole team. Personally, what was clicking so well?
Gilmour: Playoffs are a different breed. I learned a long time ago that it doesn’t matter what you do in the regular season. It matters what you do in the playoffs. If you had a half-decent year and then you got beat out in the first round, you had a bad year. We don’t get paid anymore in the playoffs. Everybody’s at the same point. I’m tied in scoring before that first playoff game with Felix Potvin. So, it’s a thought process when you go in, ‘OK, let’s get ready for this. You gotta be hungry for this.’ Again, Burns kept us up.
SN: You mention Potvin. This guy had no NHL playoff experience, only 52 games total in the show. You look at his save percentage in that series — .863 — and it isn’t very good. What allowed a young guy to win four games under such pressure?
Gilmour: Dino Ciccarelli was in his face all the time. They tried to get under his skin a little bit, but Felix had a lot of composure for a kid. We saw it during the regular season. He didn’t say much. He just focused on what he had to do. He was one of the playoff MVPs for us. He made saves when it counts. That’s the biggest thing with him. You look at all the Cups that Edmonton won. You look at all the saves Grant Fuhr made. The score might’ve been 5-4 or 6-5, but when they needed that save, he was there. That’s how Felix was. He really stepped up when we needed him.
SN: When people remember that ’93 roster, they think of you and Wendel Clark, and that Dave Andreychuk trade was big. But who gets overlooked?
Gilmour: You have some guys with playoff experience: Glenn Anderson, Mike Krushelnyski, Mike Foligno up front. Look at guys on the back end: Dave Ellett, Bob Rouse, Todd Gill. It was a pretty good setup for us. We just needed the game to be close.
SN: Describe the mood in the two buildings, the Joe and Maple Leaf Gardens. Home ice played a big role, at least in the beginning of the series.
Gilmour: Oh, big time. Our fans were awesome. Detroit fans are the same. Scotty Bowman has his own tactics, right? The day we’re coming in for the game, he’d make sure there was new paint in the visitors’ showers, or he’d have one stall built like at least 20 feet by 10 feet. So, we get in there and we’re sniffing paint. Like, c’mon. They said they had to do it ’cause they wanted it to look clean and everything. Yeah, OK. Good one.
SN: That’s hilarious. How much does a stunt like that throw you off?
Gilmour: Well, you gotta stand outside. You can’t even stand in the dressing room because you’re sniffing paint that was painted that morning. We were pretty quiet in the dressing room, too, because we were getting a little crazy, thinking, ‘OK, they’re bugging us in here. They’re listening to what we’re saying.’ You get paranoid (laughs). They want to know everything that we’re gonna do. Back in those days, you’d watch video on power play, penalty kill and 5-on-5 — that’s about it. So, meetings weren’t too long. We knew how good they were, we knew what they had, so we had to contain them in different ways.
SN: Game 7, you score the tying goal with under three minutes in regulation, then help set up Nikolai Borschevsky’s OT winner. What do you remember from that four-point night?
Gilmour: We got back into it. I was worried about going offside, I made a pass to Glenn Anderson and he scored (the opener). The tying goal, I was coming through the slot, the puck came out, I took a shot quick. It went underneath Tim Cheveldae’s glove. It was a late celebration by me because I didn’t know if he stopped it or it went in. I saw it go in and put my hands up. We get back in the dressing room, and it’s ‘Shoot the puck from anywhere — you never know! Make sure you get the puck in! Don’t make bad changes!’ All that stuff that you say to get ready for overtime.
In overtime, I came over the blue line, gave it back to Bob Rouse. Rouse made a great play to Nicky high in the slot, and it’s over. I think everybody remembers Burns looking up to Cliff (Fletcher in the GMs’ box) and (trainer) Brian Papineau spraying the water bottle.
SN: What does that feel like? Elation? Relief? Or you quickly think, ‘Oh, no, this is just Round 1?’
Gilmour: You’re hugging everybody. You get in the dressing room. It’s exciting. But at the same time, you get on the bus and get back on the plane. You’re mentally drained from the first series, now we’re getting ready for the next one.
SN: Dave Andreychuk told me he still feels an incredible bond with that ’93 team, like nothing else. Why did you guys gel so well?
Gilmour: For sure. You look at our checking line with Zez (Peter Zezel), (Bill) Berg and (Mark) Osborne. Bergy was a pain in the butt, Ozzy was a pain in the butt, Zez was a strong faceoff guy, just a shutdown guy. When we had a reunion seven, eight years ago, maybe it was longer than that, Burnsy went through his first bout with cancer. He came in, and he said, ‘Know what? Winning the Cup, it’s unbelievable.’ He’d won it in Jersey. But he goes, ‘This is my favourite team, by far.’ I think we all felt that way.
Just all the friendships that we had, the run, how everybody paid their dues to get to the next round. That was Burnsy’s thing. We all talk about it all the time, Dave Ellett, Wendel, me, the guys that come around here. It was so much fun. The excitement. Obviously, we lost to L.A., but what a year. It’s not about what you did during the season. It’s what you accomplish in the playoffs. It was a pretty good run. Andy’s right there. We’re a team that’s bonded forever together.
SN: When did that lesson first sink in for you — that the regular season doesn’t matter much?
Gilmour: Brian Sutter was my roommate for five years in St. Louis, and he was our captain. He was probably the most intense guy I’ve ever played with. He taught me how to compete. Yeah, you take the game home with you sometimes. You take losing home sometimes. But you just had that gut feeling for the playoffs, ‘This is something special.’ I lived for that, honestly. It was so much fun. Good times, bad times, but to me, it was the best hockey. You heard (Flames GM) Brad Treliving say the other day, ‘What the hell were the rules back then?’ Obviously, he’s watching the (classic rerun) games.
Nobody knows. Like, we don’t even know now. How much can you hook? How much interference can you get away with? How much slashing is too hard? How much can you cross-check in front of the net? Back in the days, playoffs were like Hudson Bay rules — anything goes. That excitement. That adrenaline when you get onto the ice and that first game starts.