Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017 | 2 a.m.
Gerard Gallant is walking through the Vegas Golden Knights’ practice facility when two fans approach him.
“Hey, Turk,” one calls out to him.
They ask to take a picture with the NHL expansion team’s first coach. He stands between the couple, puts his arms around them and smiles for the camera.
The photo is over, but the introductions are still ongoing, and Gallant is in his element sharing hockey stories.
Like Gallant, whose uncle gave him the nickname “Turk” as a child because he would chase turkeys in the basement, the couple are from Canada. They retired here a few years ago and say they can’t wait for the Golden Knights’ season to begin this week.
Gallant also is eager to get started. He, too, was dealing with a hockey void after suddenly being fired in November as the Florida Panthers’ coach.
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In 2014-15, Gallant’s first season coaching the Panthers, they won 38 games — an improvement of nine wins from the previous season. The following year, the Panthers established franchise records with 47 wins and 103 points to capture the Atlantic Division, and Gallant was picked to coach in the NHL All-Star game.
Then, last season, despite a respectable 11–10–1 record, Gallant was fired. He wasn’t even allowed to ride with the team after a game in Carolina, and photos went viral online of him returning in a taxi.
“That ownership wanted to go in a different direction. I understood that,” Gallant, 54, said. “Sometimes, things don’t work out. That’s fine. I am not mad at them. It’s just disappointing because we had a good group of players. I really felt we could win the (Stanley Cup) in the next two or three years.”
Five months later, the Golden Knights hired him.
“He is a great coach. He’s a players’ coach,” said Golden Knights center Jonathan Marchessault, who played for Gallant in Florida. “He’s not just a good coach but a good man off the ice, and he’s a guy that makes you feel comfortable.”
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Gallant says he learned at a young age the value of putting in work for the sport. He expects the same of his players.
When he was a child growing up in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, he spent countless hours at the local rink with friends, and would perform odd jobs there to get extra ice time. He became a top junior player — at age 16, he recorded 60 goals and 115 points in 45 games — and eventually earned a spot in the NHL with the Detroit Red Wings.
Gallant wasn’t a marquee player, but he was willing to do the little things. As his 1,674 career penalty minutes in 615 games attest, he became a rugged enforcer and, therefore, a beloved teammate.
Those experiences earn him instant credibility with players, many of whom he just met a few weeks ago when the Golden Knights gathered for camp.
“I’m a guy who is 80 percent positive. I am fair,” Gallant said of his expectation for players. “I expect you to work hard and compete every day to get better.”
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Golden Knights owner Bill Foley says he wants to win a Stanley Cup within six years. Gallant won’t look that far ahead.
“I don’t even think about the Stanley Cup. I really don’t go into a season thinking about that,” he says. “I go in thinking, ‘Oct. 6 — that’s our first game.’ Let’s compete and battle, and give ourselves a chance to win that first game. Then, we’ll worry about the second game and third game.”
Even if the team loses this year, that could actually benefit the Golden Knights in the long term. It would help them add to their impressive bounty of draft picks — they have nine extra picks in the next three years, including six in the draft’s initial three rounds.
Vegas made three first-round selections in June’s draft and is stockpiling quality younger pieces for future seasons. But these players are teenagers, not yet ready for the NHL. In three years, Golden Knights officials believe they’ll have one of the game’s best young rosters.
But what about this season?
“We want to do what is best for our team and organization in the long term,” Gallant said. “We want to be an organization that is respected, works hard, competes and battles.”
This isn’t a new position for Gallant. In the early 2000s, he was an assistant with Columbus when that franchise made its debut. Gallant was eventually elevated to head coach for parts of four seasons. Columbus never had a winning record while Gallant was there, and it took eight years for the team to reach the postseason.
While some will look at the struggles of Columbus, or other expansion franchises in recent memory, and assume the worst for Vegas, Gallant isn’t ready to make the comparisons. He believes they are building a winning franchise with sustainability.
Like Foley, he’s convinced free agents will eventually come here because of the warm winter weather and tax breaks. And the Golden Knights’ facilities — the City National Arena headquarters in Summerlin and the game-day home, T-Mobile Arena on the Strip — are second to none.
As Gallant’s already learned, there are plenty of great places for a photo.
“There’s a real good buzz around this community with our fans,” Gallant said. “We’re going to give them an outstanding year.”