As told to: Victoria MatiashVictoria Matiash sits down with former NHL player Gilbert Dionne to talk about winning a Cup with the Habs, Boston fans, his famous older brother and going his own way.
I had a wonderful junior career – which was shortened – I didn’t play the full five years in the OHL, but I ended up playing two solid years, and luckily, we ended up going to the finals in 1990 – the Memorial Cup Final – against the Oshawa Generals. Eric Lindros was on that team at the time. We lost in double-overtime in the finals at Copps Coliseum in Hamilton, but without playing that tournament, I wouldn’t have been as noticed, and the Montreal Canadiens just took a shot with me. (On draft day), I was playing baseball outside the front of my house with my best buddy, playing catch, and my mom was watching the draft on TV. And sure enough, my name came up – she overheard my name – but the Buffalo Sabres sign was in the background, so she thought I was drafted by the Sabres. But then, André Boudrias, the scouting manager for the Canadiens, gave us a call at home and advised us that I was drafted in the fourth-round, fifth overall by the Canadiens. So that was pretty exciting.
You weren’t expecting to be drafted?
No, not really. Because I was turning 20, and by the time I was playing junior there were kids already 16, 17, 18, with agents, playing at the World Juniors – I’m talking about Steven Rice and the guys during that time in the league – Todd Harvey and others – I was not expecting it. At that time, my junior career was over and I just thought “well, hopefully, there’s a shot at (being drafted),” and wondering what’s going to happen in September. But also thinking “it is what it is”. Now, in today’s game, everyone has agents at a very young age and there are already scouting reports. At the age of 14 or 15, agents are hungry for money, so they’re trying to lure you into their system and help you out.
At that time, my junior career was over and I just though “well, hopefully, there’s a shot at (being drafted)” and wondering what’s going to happen in September.
Grateful you played pro when you did?
Absolutely, I played in the 90’s and … well, you hit a nerve with some of the money players are making today. I had three good, full seasons in the NHL: a 21-goal season, a 20-goal season, and a 19-goal season with over 70 or 80 points a year. So, in today’s game you’d make over three- or four-million dollars per season. So that kind of bothers me a little bit. But playing in the 90’s was awesome. We had a lot of fun – the camaraderie; you could see it in the old tape of those games, on the bench, everyone’s talking, we’re bickering at each other, we’re in the game. Now, in today’s game, there are all of these cameras after them, the players know their actions can get tweeted at any time, or Facebook’ed at any time. It looks like more of a business than a sport.
Still have good friends from your playing days?
We’ve got the NHLPA alumni, and it’s nice we can make contact again if we need. I’ve crossed paths with Mathieu Schneider and Vinny Damphousse, who were my roommates throughout the Stanley Cup playoffs. You can go three or four years without talking to each other, and then send a quick email and catch up. Paul DiPietro was overseas and I got his text number and we start bickering back and forth, texting. It’s nice to see how everyone’s doing – I’m still in touch with Brian Bellows in Minnesota. And, thankfully with the Montreal Canadiens Alumni, guys still get to catch a few games here and there in the Alumni lounge in Montreal. As for keeping in contact though, everyone’s moving on and doing their own thing. I got out of hockey, so it’s a little harder to keep in touch with everyone. Some players go to the media, or take part in sports radio, but I decided to completely disappear from hockey. I had my time – I had a lot of fun – and am now moving on, raising my kids. I’m very happy with my nine-to-five job.
But I didn’t forget (my experience), and I’m grateful for hockey fans. I feel blessed that I’m invited as a former hockey player, representing the Montreal Canadiens and the NHL Alumni Association through hockey tournaments, games, and fundraisers across Canada. So that’s fun. Also, to be Marcel Dionne’s younger brother, that means something the older groups that saw my brother play … I have all kinds of stories to tell, and share how hockey was back then, and how it is today.
And that’s when it started that the rookies would buy dinner for the team. One time, luckily, there were three or four of us (rookies) and the bill came out to $40,000. It was pretty crazy.
On rookie hazing and team jokesters:
When I got to the leagues, the hazing part – shaving hair and eyebrows – the league stepped in and decided not to do that anymore. And that’s when it started that the rookies would buy dinner for the team. One time, luckily, there were three or four of us rookies and the bill came out to $40,000. It was pretty crazy. And at that time I wasn’t making much money, so our captain Guy Carbonneau had to pay for it, and the amount was to be deducted from my paycheque. That’s how small credit I had available on my credit card. The big jokesters on our team were Mike Keane and Lyle Odelein and Shayne Corson. We had a divide of French guys and English guys in dressing room, and I was pretty much in between because I spoke full English and spoke very well in French. The camaraderie, we had a lot of fun, played a lot of jokes. Sometimes we got on each others nerves, but to become a Stanley Cup Champion, you have to set your differences aside and go along with it. The experience was very memorable for me.
More on that English/French divide in the dressing room:
Absolutely. You’ve got your 10 English guys, 11 French guys. The reporters would protect their own guys. There was a little bit of bias (amongst English/French reporters), but that was normal. The English reporters would try to protect their players and the French reporters would try to dig up dirt, to stir the pot, so they could make the front page. And that hasn’t changed. The Toronto Maple Leafs are going through this every day now. I feel really bad for them. You need to support your team. Like in Montreal, if you win, you get the key to the city. And if not, they boo you and try to chase you out of town. But that’s what hockey is all about.
So you wouldn’t want to play pro in this day and age (social media, etc.)?
No, I don’t find it as personal as we were before. I just find it very sad. I was fortunate, when I was playing at 20 years old, Mr. Bell would walk into the dressing room, Maurice Richard, Rejean Houle. I knew who these guys were. Because I watched these guys at a young age. Today, these kids don’t know who the former players are. I was talking to some junior kids and I was talking about Bob Probert, and how he used to fight. And these guys were like “who is Bob Probert?” I was really shocked. (Interviewer’s note: I, Victoria, literally spit out my coffee at this point) These kids now are too busy now with their iPhones and iPads, worrying about their own stuff. Not all of them, of course. But when I was young, I couldn’t wait to go home and watch hockey games – or grab a beer and some wings during my junior years – and go watch the Leafs or whoever was playing. Thinking “the NHL is the next step, this is what we need to do guys.” There’s no way these kids are sitting at home and watching hockey on TV. There’s no way.
On serious injuries:
The touchy subject now is obviously concussions. Me, personally, I believe I sustained two or three concussions. But it’s not something I’m going to be worried about. Broken jaw, I had a bulging disc, many, many lacerations in the face, being knocked out, and so on. But right now my body’s hanging on – it’s been pretty good – I’m really lucky. I’ve seen worse injuries than I have. So I’m pretty fortunate to get out of the NHL without being really, really hurt.
More on concussions:
The sad part is these stories are in the media. What I’m trying to say is, it wasn’t so much the effect of the concussion but more the pressure of – if you told someone you were hurt, you would have been pulled out of the lineup and were not coming back. And that was a lot of pressure back then. If you think you can’t play hurt, there are three guys, four guys, lined up to take your spot. So …
So did YOU hide injuries?
Absolutely! Absolutely I did. Like I said, you’re a rookie, you come in on fire, and the coach can’t wait to send you back to the minors because you’re too good. You get knocked out – you get your bell rung – from a nice elbow in the chops and it’s the old story: “how many fingers do you see?” And you see three or four, but you say “two, and I’m good to go and give me two Tylenols,” and you get back out there. You know, that was the pressure we had back then. Not taking any chances to be a healthy scratch.
So you appreciate protocols recently brought in by the NHL re: head injuries?
Yes. The game is so fast now. I played the game where we could clutch and grab a little bit so we could slow the speed down while having my teammate into the corner and try to retrieve the puck. Now it’s kind of a free-for-all. You can’t even touch anybody – you just got to let them go and these guys are killing each other. Somebody’s going to get killed. Someone’s going to have a massive injury soon. Regardless of the amount of fines you’re throwing out there – the suspensions – it’s still a man’s game and you just want to play. Your mentality changes. I’m happy-go-lucky off ice, but once the stick’s in my hand and skates are on – look out. I just totally turn psycho. It’s just the way you’re built. The aggressiveness you get playing hockey, that’s just the way it is. After playing for 15 years, you can’t change. It’s like riding a bike.
You still feel the competitive burn, playing now (in alumni events)?
Oh absolutely. I’m dreading to put hockey equipment on. The good part about retirement – I was so happy – I grabbed my equipment and threw it in the garbage and said “I’ll never wear this stuff again.” I was so happy. Now, if I’m going to put it on, it takes me 20 minutes to tie my skates, it’s killing me. So when I have my equipment on, I want to go out there and win.
The English reporters would try to protect their players and the French reporters would try to dig up dirt, to stir the pot, so they could make the front page.
On difficulties with some coaches:
A little bit, at a young age (in the NHL). My personality – I was a happy-go-lucky kid, I took hockey as a sport and not necessarily as a job – and that offended a few coaches. Considering I was a young, cocky kid – I’m proud to say – watching P.K. Subban, I was a little like that. I was really enjoying myself and having fun and that offends some coaches. My personality is what it is. I told everyone I wasn’t going to change my personality. Why would I fake or lie or try to be something I’m not? Personally, a coach didn’t like me for my personality, but when he wanted me to get some goals , I’d go out and score some goals for him. And I wanted to score for him. So it was a love/hate relationship.
Really, even at the NHL level?
Definitely was at the pro level. In the NHL, that’s where it started. There was more competition, and the coaching staff and the coaches had a lot at stake – especially going on their third or fourth year as a coach – there’s pressure, they want to win a Cup. Management puts pressure on the coaches and coaches put pressure on the players and you just gotta live with it.
Did you get a rougher ride because you’re Marcel’s little brother?
Not necessarily. Maybe when I was at a younger age in the minors. Wearing the last name “Dionne”, you know, but we’re so many years apart (19), so many people might have been confusing us. Maybe we’re not brothers, maybe cousins.
So the gap in age helped?
Oh, it sure did. I moved from Quebec to Ontario for that reason. To make a name for myself – which worked.
On playoff superstitions:
I wasn’t really into that, but you got your great leaders like Patrick Roy – during warm-up, everyone had to be in a certain place. At dinner, everybody had to sit in the right place, order the same meal. We’re together for three months, so it’s unbelievable. I started to feel a bit stupid, like “what’s going on here?” Everybody is sticking to the same routine, but we were winning (in the 1993 Cup run) – including 11 overtimes – we’re winning 10 in a row, so why change that little routine? So, drinking out of the same cup, or eating the same breakfast – what you had yesterday. It was getting absolutely ridiculous, but we had to do what we had to do, so it was kind of fun.
The big superstitious thing we broke – and I wish I could tell Don Cherry this – all the players today, they win their conference and they don’t want to touch the trophy. Well, I have pictures at my house of us touching the Prince of Wales trophy. We asked captain Guy Carbonneau and he said yes, so we’re celebrating and drinking beer out it. I’ve got pictures of me and Patrick Roy holding it. Superstitious or not, we won the Cup that year.
With Guy Carbonneau in ’86 winning the Cup, we asked him in ’93 if we could touch the trophy and he said “well, this is probably the closest you’re going to get Gilbert, so …” And he was being honest. He was saying “enjoy it, because we don’t know what’s next.” There’s a long road ahead for us to win the Cup. So that was very nice of him – you could tell his experience stepped in, he was classic. And I’m holding that picture, really proud, of me and Patrick Roy.
You won so early in your NHL career, did you think that would be your only Cup?
No, I thought I was going to win four, five, six of them. I knew to win it was very hard, but I was young. It was so overwhelming that we won – especially at the Forum – in front of our fans. I grabbed the Cup for barely 10 seconds and raised it to show Marcel, saying “we did it, we did it!” Then I passed it to the next guy and couldn’t wait to get into the room to drink champagne because I was so exhausted. Losing 20 pounds during the playoffs – just exhausted. But then, realizing the following year, it’s harder and harder – being Stanley Cup Champions, but also going through a lockout, and the trades are coming in – and they next thing you know, it’s like “wow, it was hard.”
I thought I was going to win four, five, six of them (laughing). I knew to win it was very hard, but I was young.
How difficult was it to leave the NHL, so early in your career?
Well, it was a little frustrating because I was leading the league in the AHL after that, and in the International Hockey League. You’re watching the NHL games and thinking “man, I should be out there, this guy’s awful playing for so-and-so.” I was really down on myself for a little bit, then realized after two more training camps, and making the last cuts for Florida and Carolina and the Pittsburgh Penguins, I just said “you know what, the dream’s done, it’s over. There’s no room and the market’s too big now.” I just decided to establish myself and ended up going to Cincinnati for the Cincinnati Cyclones. I ended up playing four great seasons there.
Where you’re a legend …
They have Gilbert Dionne Day and retired my jersey there – that’s how popular I am. They have people sending me pictures of fans in the stands, watching the east-coast teams, wearing my number 21 Dionne jersey proudly. That’s pretty warming. That’s awesome. Then I finished my career in Germany.
On playing in Germany:
English was tough, but the transition was okay for me, I’ve been doing this since I was 14 years old. When I went there the good thing was we were allowed 13 imports, so we had 10 Canadian players either from the NHL or guys I played against in the minors. So we really developed a great camaraderie. It was a great mix of players, and we were all we had – it was just us – so we hung together for six or seven months and tried to take a run at the cup and win a championship.
But, you know, you leave your family behind. The second year, I was there seven or eight months by myself, and it was very tough leaving my three children (at the time) and my wife back home in Cincinnati. So that’s when I decided it wasn’t healthy with the relationship. When looking back, my wife says “that was a great experience with the kids,” – going to a German school because it was mandatory. So my kids are what they are today thanks to that, having traveled around the world. And I enjoyed playing hockey.
On perhaps cutting the career too short?
I cut it short but then I was happy. At 32 years old, you don’t know what you’re going to end up doing. So I was very healthy, still in great shape. I might have to do some manual labour someday – might end up in construction – who knows? You’re not prepared for what’s happening – I didn’t have a college degree and I didn’t want to start doing a desk job or anything like that. So at first I thought I was kind of young, but I was done. I didn’t want to go back and travel and ride the bus, it was getting too hard. And training was harder with so much fierce competition and all these young kids coming in. All around, looking back, I’m pretty happy. That’s the time I took and then I ended up having two more children.
On bad experience with fans:
I will never forget: Our biggest rivalry was with the Boston Bruins, the Big Bad Bruins. Every time we went to the Boston Gardens, back in the day the plexiglass, or the hard glass around the boards, wasn’t that high. So I was lining up for the faceoff in the offensive zone, and the commercial timeout light was still on and I’m facing off along the boards and I’m getting punched by fans over the glass and they’re yelling at us to “go home frogs, you don’t belong here,” and taunting us. I’m telling the linesman “DROP THE PUCK, PLEASE!” and he says “I can’t, the light is red.” So I try to move closer inside the circle but then the linesman says “get out of the circle!” and I say “I’m not going back out towards the boards, I’m going to get choked here!” I’ll never forget that. Right after the game, out of 18 players we had 11 to 12 guys with an ice pack somewhere on their body because the rink was so small. And the games against the Bruins were so rugged. We had ice packs all over our bodies, trying to recuperate from the injuries.
What is it we, as fans, don’t appreciate about living the pro-hockey life?
Some fans would say “you spoiled brat, you make lots of money, drive fancy cars,” stuff like that. But what I want to tell the fans is – while that part of the game is great – you know what? I missed a lot of birthday parties, a lot of what my kids were doing. Thanksgiving? Christmas? Holidays? We couldn’t travel, we were restrained from doing a lot of things. Back then I would go on a 21-day road trip – to have a strong wife at home and leave two little kids – those are the little things that maybe the fans don’t quite get. And living in hotel rooms, catching flight after flight, staying up late – it was tiresome.
Some fans would say “you spoiled brat, you make lots of money, drive fancy cars” stuff like that.
I never regretted it. It was part of the game, but riding a bus, being stuck at the airport, all kinds of stuff. But then again, we also had great experiences because of the fans. In Montreal, it was great – you win games – you’re the first star of the game, they give you a key to the city. To this day I still travel to Montreal, they always welcome me, they know who I am, and there’s no such thing as waiting outside in a lineup. Straight to the front and “how are you doing Mr. Dionne?” I enjoy that.
What don’t we appreciate about the action on the ice?
It’s rough. Back in my time, when I was scoring goals, I was getting hacked, slashed, cross-checked – like you wouldn’t believe. I had to earn my goals. And the defensive players had to defend their goaltenders because of the rules back then. It’s different today – you’re allowed your ice position – you’re not allowed to touch goalies. Kind of looks like a basketball game out there. No offense to the rough players out there, but the era is totally changed. But I’ll never regret the time I played in the 90’s in the National Hockey League.
On favourite linemates:
Well, the biggest time in my career was with Denis Savard and Mike Keane, we played so well. Savard was doing his dipsy-doodling, and I asked, “Denis what can I do?” and he said “stay out of my way, keep your stick on the ice, and go to the net.” And Keane was a rugged, kind of grinder of player that would go the corners and dig pucks out for us, and we clicked very well. We gelled. Denis said thanks to me, he ended having two more years in his career, and I really appreciated him. He made me sign another two years for the Canadiens, so it worked out pretty good.
Who did you hate playing against?
Oh man, Mike Ricci. Don’t forget, the Nordiques were still in the league and they were coming up and they were the team to beat. Going over there was very tough to play. Just the young grinders – you’ve got the third and fourth line that works real hard, you’ve got your tough guys. But anywhere around the league that had a small rink was tough to play in. So I have a few memories, but in my head right now, it was always against the Nordiques, with that big rivalry we had. That was tough to handle. And all the French media across Quebec was all over it.
Did it ever become personal for you, with another player, off the ice?
Short answer: no.
Good for you – let’s move on, man. But in some states, they’re living backwards and can’t move on and it’s a religious thing.
How would players have the leagues have reacted to gay players back then?
Not sure I can be politically correct, but back then there was calling each others all kinds of names. “Gay” and all the different, or worse, words. We would call them those names on the ice. It’s hard to explain. It’s funny, when I grew up, they were saying “there’s always one gay guy on the team.” And we’d look at each other and try to figure which one was the gay player. But whoever comes out now, good for them, I don’t see what the issue is, what the problem is, we’re more educated. Back in the olden days we thought you see blood and you catch AIDS, right? We weren’t well educated that way. I just can’t imagine a gay person right now – how they’re feel inside – without telling what’s happening. I feel for them. From what I see today, the slander stuff, I’d rather someone who loves somebody – with everything that’s happening with war and guns and people shooting each other – they’re not harming anybody, they just love each other. I got five kids, you never know what could happen in my own family. And there’s no way I would let them bottle that up inside. But back then we were all macho – a lot of players put on a fake face. But no one has come out from then – there were rumors, rumors of names out there. But it went over our head and we carried on. Me personally, this issue has becoming so boring. Who cares? Good for you – let’s move on, man. But in some states, they’re living backwards and can’t move on and it’s a religious thing.
Best memory (other than winning the Cup):
My first game. I got called up Christmas Day from Fredericton. My family just moved back to Fredericton to visit, spend a couple of days off, and I got the call Christmas Eve to meet the team Christmas Day in Quebec. With no hesitation I left a newborn and my wife, I said, “I got to go, I’m catching a flight tomorrow.” I Spent Christmas day alone in Quebec, waiting for the team to come on Boxing Day to play the Nordiques. I was a roommate with Guy Carbonneau and couldn’t sleep worth a crap and in the afternoon, getting ready for the game. I didn’t do well but I was so excited to be playing in front of over 50,000 people. Crazy fans, yelling. And doing the warmup without the helmet on and the TV’s on you and the little attention you get at being called up – I’ll never forget that. Having a tough coach like Pat Burns – you just didn’t want to get scored on, you wanted to make a good impression and not make too many mistakes. And get the ice time you can and get out of there.
How was playing for Pat Burns?
Throughout my career, he kept me on my toes. “You can score a 100 goals for me but don’t forget where you came from. I can send you back to Fredericton as quick as you came up here.” He was honest and I wanted to play for him. I wish I could’ve been traded to Toronto when he was there but unfortunately he was looking for a centreman. I get really bitter about that because I could have ended up in Toronto, but he wasn’t looking for a left wing. They ended up getting Paul DiPietro – my centreman. So Paul went and he wanted me to come with him because we were clicking in the playoffs but it didn’t work out . They needed a centreman more than a winger so I ended up staying with Montreal and then got traded to Philly. But that would’ve been fun.
VICTORIA MATIASH is a rec. league hockeyist and acclaimed author (ESPN.com) and broadcast anchor who lives in Toronto.
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