Promoting the post-secondary puck
From Bemidji Beaver to Mount Royal Cougar, men’s head hockey coach Bert Gilling is rallying alumni and taking Mount Royal’s men’s hockey team to new heights
In two decades of involvement with post-secondary puck, Bert Gilling doesn’t recall an atmosphere quite like it.
The head coach of the Mount Royal University Cougars men’s hockey program, Gilling stepped behind the bench at the Scotiabank Saddledome, home of the NHL’s Calgary Flames, for the 2015 Crowchild Classic game in mid-January and could hardly believe his eyes — in a good way.
A Canadian Interuniversity Sport record-shattering crowd of 8,882 spectators showed up that night, including thousands of Mount Royal University students who cheered loud and proud as the Cougars’ women and men each scratched out game victories over the cross-town rival, University of Calgary Dinos.
“Everybody on our team, they had goosebumps when they took the ice. The entire side of the Saddledome was blue and white,” Gilling says. “That was as good of a college hockey or university hockey environment as anything that I’ve ever been a part of. This is my twentieth year of college hockey, either playing or coaching, but I’ve never seen so many students at a game before. It was electric. Somebody in the media says to me after the game, ‘The only thing missing was cheerleaders and a band.’ It just reinforces to me, and to everybody who is a part of this, what could be.”
Crowchild Classic induces goosebumps
"To see the pride, the excitement, the networking of different generations of Cougar hockey and to see our administration with their eyes sparkling as they were meeting people ... Again, that’s the vision of what it could be. That was the first victory of the night for me. Everything that happened on the ice was just icing on the cake."
Bert Gilling, head coach of the Mount Royal University Cougars men’s hockey program speaking about a recent alumni gathering at the annual Crowchild Classic event
Gilling is in his first season as the Cougars’ head coach after a 15-year stint in Minnesota as an assistant for the Bemidji State University Beavers, and his long-term vision for Mount Royal’s men’s hockey squad goes well beyond scoring more goals, winning more games or even claiming a Canada West conference crown.
In fact, the top priority on Gilling’s five-point plan of attack is to “Become relevant.” That might sound strange considering the Cougars’ past successes, but if you have an opportunity to sit down with the new skipper, you soon realize that it simply speaks to the even greater potential he sees in his program.
“Outside of the Calgary Flames, CIS (Canada Interuniversity Sport) is the best hockey in the city,” Gilling says. “Our Flames Community Arena, I call it the Cougar Blue Arena, I envision it being full. I envision a mass of students being there every game in their Cougar blues. I envision that arena just being electric to watch Cougar hockey on any given night. I think the on-ice product is there. It’s just the continual fight to become relevant.”
“Become relevant.” That’s what Gilling wrote on an easel board in a pre-season sit-down with assistant coaches Trevor Elias and Chase Fuchs and hockey operations co-ordinator Nathan Higgins. It was a key point in a slide-show he presented at the Cougars’ first team meeting. He showed the same slide at his first alumni meet-and-greet.
“He really wants Cougar hockey to mean something,” says Mount Royal men’s hockey captain Matthew Brown, a third-year forward and Bachelor of Business Administration student from Truro, N.S.
“We have an opportunity to build something special. I feel like everybody has bought into that vision and that idea. We want to mean something. We want to be the talk of the town here in Calgary and push for a national championship,” says Brown.
The Cougars men’s hockey program already has a history of on-ice success, having celebrated a dozen championships during their reign in the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference (ACAC) and four national titles in the Canadian Colleges Athletic Association before joining the CIS ranks for the 2012-13 season as part of Mount Royal’s transition to a university.
Of utmost importance to 40-year-old Gilling is connecting with the alumni who helped build that tradition and raise all of those championship banners. On weekends last summer, the incoming head coach would pick up a coffee from Starbucks and then work his way through old ACAC rosters, searching the web and social-media sites in an effort to connect with players from years past.
Gilling discovered at least two former Cougars had skated in the NHL, a piece of trivia that would likely stump anybody on campus. Skilled centre Peter (Silky) Sullivan donned Mount Royal’s colours during the 1971-72 campaign and would later spend six seasons with the Winnipeg Jets, including four winters in the World Hockey Association and two in the NHL; while defenceman Mike Heidt suited up for six games with the Los Angeles Kings before joining the Cougars for the 1985-86 slate. Heidt later represented Team Germany at the 1992 Albertville Olympics.
Even when the puck dropped on the Cougars’ third season in Canada West, Gilling continued his work to welcome back anybody who was a part of the hockey history at Mount Royal. He booked an alumni room for every home game at Flames Community Arenas, inviting former players to root for the current cast of boys in blue. There was a pre-game social at the Scotiabank Saddledome on the night of the Crowchild Classic, with about 40 alums — nearly enough to fill out two team rosters — in attendance.
“That was a victory for Cougar hockey before we even took the ice,” Gilling says. “To see the pride, the excitement, the networking of different generations of Cougar hockey and to see our administration with their eyes sparkling as they were meeting people ... Again, that’s the vision of what it could be. That was the first victory of the night for me. Everything that happened on the ice was just icing on the cake.”
“The thing about alumni is you need someone to spearhead it,” says Scott Salmond, a centre for the Cougars for two seasons in the early-90s and now Hockey Canada’s vice-president of hockey operations and national teams. “Everyone has the connection and wants to remain connected to their alma mater, especially if they played hockey or played sports. It’s just a matter of spearheading it. When Bert came in, he did that.” When you consider his background, Gilling’s passion for alumni involvement is no surprise. He was raised in Alexander, Man., but was recruited to play National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) hockey, patrolling the blueline for the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs for four seasons and serving as team captain in his senior year. He would spend the next 15 years as a member of the bench staff at Bemidji State, where former players are never far removed from the action.
“I don’t know what it’s like everywhere else, but at Bemidji, it seemed like there was alumni around every weekend. Even if you’re alumni, you’re still part of the team in some way,” says Philadelphia Flyers right-winger Matt Read, a standout during Gilling’s tenure at Bemidji and one of two Beavers alumni currently earning an NHL paycheque. “It’s a big family, I guess, and I think if (Gilling) continues that there in Calgary, that’s something to build on and build tradition as a university hockey team.”
Some folks argue it’s a stretch — a pipedream, even — to compare CIS sports to NCAA athletics, but Gilling doesn’t buy that. In fact, his blueprint to build the Cougars’ program is based largely on what he experienced south of the border.
When Gilling arrived at Bemidji State in the fall of 1999, starting out as a graduate assistant while working on his master’s degree in Sport Studies, the men’s hockey team was transitioning from NCAA Division II to Division I. After what he describes politely as “a couple of modest years,” the Beavers started to rack up wins. They claimed a couple of conference crowns. They earned invites to the NCAA Championship tournament. During the 2008-09 season, led by Read and current Edmonton Oilers defenceman Brad Hunt, the Beavers advanced all the way to the Frozen Four national semifinals.
“We started to build a buzz in the community. People started wearing Bemidji State clothing around town. We were able to recruit better players because of the excitement about our program, and it all came to a head when we went to the Frozen Four. We were the Beatles in Bemidji then,” Gilling recalled with a grin. “So when people say, ‘You’re a dreamer. You can’t make it happen,’ well, I’ve already been through the evolution of a hockey program and a university. I think Mount Royal is further ahead, in some aspects, than Bemidji State was in 1999 in terms of really doing something special.”
The Flames will always be the main act in Calgary, but Gilling has grand plans for the future of the men’s hockey program at Mount Royal. The Cougars have already established themselves as a contender. In fact, they made school history by winning their first Canada West playoff series in February, ousting the University of Saskatchewan Huskies in the opening round before being eliminated by the Dinos in a three-game conference semifinal series.
And that’s just the beginning. Gilling’s expectations are lofty. His enthusiasm is infectious. The attendance record-setting night at the Scotiabank Saddledome only added to his optimism.
Whatever lies ahead, Gilling wants every Mount Royal student — past or present, hockey player or not — to feel like a part of the team.
“We had a saying at Bemidji State that I think is a great saying for alumni — ‘When you play for us, you play for us forever,’” Gilling says. “That’s a Bemidji State thing. We’ll come up with our own slogan, I’m sure, but that one is very important to me, and I think it’s true. That’s always in the back of my mind here — when you play for us, you play for us forever. That’s the culture we’re trying to create with athletics.”