MINNEAPOLIS — Like many Canadian kids with some talent on the hockey rink, Bert Gilling faced an important choice when he was a teen. If you have designs on a career in hockey, you can either get an education and play NCAA hockey in the United States, or play major junior hockey, which negates your NCAA eligibility.
Gilling chose the southern route, playing four seasons at Minnesota Duluth and serving as the Bulldogs’ captain in the 1998-99 season. Now the head coach at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Gilling also was an assistant coach at Bemidji State for more than a dozen seasons before returning to his home and native land in 2014.
After playing several games there as a Bulldog, Gilling will be behind the visitors bench at 3M Arena at Mariucci on Sunday evening, Oct. 6, as Mount Royal visits the Minnesota Gophers for an exhibition game.
The Canadian college programs provide a kind of Plan B for kids who have chosen major junior hockey; they decide they want a college education if it looks like a pro hockey career isn’t going to happen. As a result, most of the Cougars are older than the average American college hockey player.
“I’ve got the (NCAA) background so I know both sides of it, but I think the unique thing is the fact that our team is primarily made up of guys that played major junior hockey,” Gilling said. “We have a lot of guys that when they were 14, 15, 16 years old they had to make a decision of whether to keep NCAA eligibility or go play major junior hockey.”
A perfect example Gilling cites is Cougars freshman forward Keegan Iverson, the team’s lone American. Originally from St. Louis Park, Minn., Iverson signed with a major junior team after two seasons of prep hockey at Breck. After seven years of pro hockey, Iverson has gone back to college and will face the Gophers on Sunday.
“We’re going to be (the) older, thicker, stronger and bigger team,” Gilling said. “We’re not going to have that high-end skill, and the western Canadian pace isn’t nearly as high as what you see on a game-by-game basis down there. The contrast in styles will be the high flying Minnesota Gophers versus the thicker, stronger Mount Royal Cougars.”
While the Gophers get a chance to face some real competition before their real season begins, Mount Royal and other Canadian colleges come to the U.S. for these exhibition games for money. Gilling wouldn’t offer numbers, but said the guarantee they get to help offset travel costs makes the trip worthwhile.
Gophers coach Bob Motzko developed a friendship with Gilling while the latter was an assistant coach at Bemidji State and had nothing but praise for his first foe of the season.
“All indications are he’s very organized, professional and dilligent at what he does. He’s going to do all the right things to run a program,” Motzko said. “They’re going to be a first class group because that's what Bert is.”
For Gilling, who spent nearly 20 years in the state and still has a cabin near Bemidji where he spends much of the summer, the trip clearly means more than money.
“Coming back to Minnesota is always special for me,” he said.