Whether it’s fixing up his old, beloved 1965 Chevy II or finishing renovations at home, Greg Gilbert has always had the acumen and patience necessary to rebuild things.
The former NHLer is a big believer that there’s a greater sense of accomplishment when you’ve had a hand in creating a finished product from scratch.
“I think you appreciate it more when you do things yourself,” said Gilbert of his penchant for building things during a 2005 interview.
At the time he was in the middle of salvaging the then-Mississauga IceDogs – a complete mess of a franchise he took over in 2003 as head coach. In his first season there, he took the franchise to their first Eastern Conference title and a berth in the OHL final. He built that team with a focus on discipline and a tight-knit atmosphere where the players – not exactly a star-studded cast – were held accountable. Colorado Avalanche defenceman Kyle Quincey was the only member of that team to go on to become a full-time NHLer.
“What we try to get across is that what we are doing is to benefit them, not benefit us,” Gilbert said at the time about the IceDogs. “We don't want to develop robots here, we want people who want to think for themselves and make the right decisions in certain situations.”
He left that team and the OHL in 2006 to take a head coaching job in the American Hockey League where he spent parts of the next five seasons coaching the Toronto Marlies and Adirondack Phantoms. After a sabbatical of almost a year, Gilbert, who turned 50 on Jan. 22, is back in the game with his latest restoration project housed in Saginaw, Mich., home of the OHL’s Spirit.
The Spirit are more of a fixer-upper than a complete tear-down.
“It’s going to take a lot of work, there’s no question about it,” said Gilbert, who was hired as Spirit head coach on Dec. 10. “We’re starting to build and guys are starting to see that when we do play our style we win hockey games.
“Even if you lose and you’re competing and working hard – that happens. The thing we can’t accept as an organization is laziness, complacency and things that are going to hurt the team, so we’re trying to instill those morals and ethics in our club.”
Since predecessor Todd Watson was dismissed, the Spirit have gone 10-4-0-3 despite new GM Jim Paliafito moving big names like Florida Panthers draft pick John McFarland and Canadian junior team defenceman Jamie Oleksiak at the trade deadline to bring in younger talent and stockpile draft picks. On Thursday night the Spirit picked up a 5-4 shootout win over the Windsor Spitfires to bring them back to .500 – the first time since the early days of the OHL season. And after spending most of the first half on the outskirts of the post-season, they have since moved up the Western Conference standings into sixth place with 47 points. More importantly, Saginaw is back in the hunt for a playoff berth.
“There were some things that we had to do – I don’t want to say to clean things up – but there were some moves that we had to make to help solidify our dressing room and build for the future,” said Gilbert. “We want to be competitive this year and get into the playoffs and do some damage there. I think with the deals we’ve made, you’ll see some of the kids we’ve brought in are (1994 or 1993 birthdates) so they’ll be around for two or three years and that’s what we want to build for – down the road. They’re getting the experience and the opportunity to play now and that’s how they’re going to grow that much quicker.”
Entering the 2011-12 season, many expected the Spirit to be front-runners for a Western Conference title with a number of core players – including six NHL draft picks – returning from the squad that finished 40-22-4-2 the year previous. In the off-season, they bolstered an already strong lineup by adding Oleksiak, a first-round pick of the Dallas Stars, who gave up an NCAA scholarship at Northeastern University to join the Spirit.
But it didn’t take long to see that the team was floundering; rumours of egos running amuck and dressing room discord spread through the league.
“It was definitely a tough start,” said Brandon Saad, who was named Spirit captain earlier this month. “We came in thinking we had a good team – and we did have a good team – but sometimes good teams on paper aren’t the best teams in the locker room or on the ice.
“It just didn’t work out that way so we had a coaching change just to mix things up and we’ve done pretty well so far. It’s nice to be in the playoffs now, earlier in the season that was definitely disappointing – not even being in the running for the playoffs.”
Like he did with the IceDogs, Gilbert set ground rules early and, along with Paliafito, made sure the players knew they would all be starting with a clean slate in the second half of the season.
“It takes a lot of people, it’s not just one person,” said Gilbert of the culture change. “It takes a lot of people who are on the same page and want to go in the same direction. Mississauga was no different… we knew what we wanted and how we wanted to put our team together and what we wanted to instill in our players. First and foremost was discipline and accountability, and that’s the same thing we’re trying to do here. When your top players aren’t playing well you’ve got to sit them and move them down the lineup that’s what accountability is and they get the message pretty quick.”
Saad, a first-round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks who started the season with the NHL club before rejoining the Spirit, said he and his teammates hear their new coach loud and clear.
“Guys know that he means business,” said the 19-year-old. “We’re young, but we’re not that young, so we know we have to be accountable for ourselves.
“They way he runs thing, I think we just gel more as a team now. We’re playing more for each other.”
Gilbert, who won three Stanley Cups during his 15-year NHL playing career, said he’s still assessing all facets of the team – including the coaching staff – for the future. The former coach of the NHL’s Calgary Flames is in Saginaw for the long haul having signed a contract for the rest of this season plus three more.
“My first priority was to decide what direction we were going to go in to implement slowly some of the systems we want to put in,” said Gilbert. “You don’t want to try to do too much at once because that only adds to the turmoil and the kids become confused.”
The father of three children now all in their 20s – daughter Lauren and sons Dylan and Brendan – believes that coaching junior hockey is particularly rewarding when you’re able to help put players on the path to reaching their full potential.
“You’re getting kids at the ages where you can mold them and teach them how to play the game and think the game for themselves,” said Gilbert. “They’re making the decisions and learning what it takes to be a pro, so that’s the most gratifying thing for me as a coach is to see those kids go on and have successful careers or have the opportunities to have successful careers.
“It’s a lot of fun – it’s a challenge obviously – but I love it.”