- Scott Burnside, NHL
- 0 Shares
PHILADELPHIA -- It's about 10:15 on Wednesday morning and Hal Gill is the only person on the Wells Fargo Center ice.
Around he goes in full gear, stretching here, working his knees back and forth there, stopping on a dime in another part of the ice.
The solitary nature of the workout is in some ways the perfect metaphor for where Gill and many other NHLers find themselves on the eve of training camp. The big defenseman is here for the Philadelphia Flyers' training camp, which starts on Thursday morning, but he does not have a contract, no safety net, no guarantees of anything other than a few days in Flyer orange.
After 1,102 regular-season NHL games and another 110 in the postseason, a couple of trips to the Stanley Cup finals and a Cup ring to show for his efforts, this is where Gill is at, working out the kinks alone on the ice and hoping against hope this isn't the end.
"It's tough. You know there's a lot of guys that are on the outside looking in. I guess the whole thing is I can't really control that," Gill told a small group of reporters after completing his physical. "I feel like the NHL's always changed the rules to try and get me out of the league and maybe they did that, just for me, they lowered the cap just for me. They've been trying for years, they've been trying everything."
The 6-foot-7 Concord, Mass., native nicknamed "Skillsy" has always been blessed with a quick wit, and that hasn't diminished even his foot speed might have. And he's partially right in that, after the lockout ended in 2005, the subsequent rules changes that cracked down on players who held or obstructed opponents should have made players like Gill an endangered species.
But since that lockout, Gill has played the best hockey of his career. He went to the Stanley Cup finals twice with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2008 and 2009, winning the Cup in 2009 while playing an important shutdown role paired mostly with Rob Scuderi. He signed in Montreal that offseason and helped the Habs to a surprise berth in the 2010 Eastern Conference finals.
But after being traded to the Nashville Predators at the 2012 trade deadline, Gill suffered from injuries that limited his effectiveness. He was bought out of the final year of his contract this summer after the Predators failed to make the playoffs.
"The lockout was tough. I had ankle surgery the summer before. It was a tough summer anyway. You're trying to keep weight off your foot for a month, it was a kind of a pain in the neck, pain in the ankle. And then to have the lockout, it was a tough year all around," the 38-year-old said.
"That's why the buyout was tough, because I wanted to go to Nashville and do good things, and we didn't really get a chance to do that."
Now the clock ticks toward the end of a career that began with his being drafted 207th overall by the Boston Bruins in 1993.
Since 1997 -- his first NHL season -- Gill has always started training camp with a contract of some sort.
With the salary cap going down, NHL GMs have felt a squeeze, and there is an abnormally large number of proven NHL players without contracts as camps open around the NHL.
Brad Boyes is on a tryout contract in Florida. Ian White is trying to catch on in Winnipeg. David Steckel is trying out in Minnesota. Tim Thomas, a Vezina Trophy winner and playoff MVP, has no home. Neither does former Dallas captain Brenden Morrow. Or defenseman Ron Hainsey.
Gill is hoping to use the uncertainty as a motivator.
"I think this year I have a little chip on my shoulder. I'm a little pissed off and I want to get back to work," he said.
Still, the reality is that, while the Flyers have opened a door, it may not stay open for long. The team has nine NHL defensemen on one-way contracts and, barring an injury opening up a spot, it's hard to imagine he will be on the club's opening-day roster.
Gill knows that. He's hoping that he can play well enough to get someone to take notice. If there's not a home for him in Philadelphia, then maybe somewhere else.
"I think that's the idea. I can't control what people are going to do but I can try and control what I do and be positive," Gill said. "Go out, work hard. Kind of make a statement for myself and of course try and get on this team. I think this is a good team and I'd love to be a part of it, but I understand the numbers, I understand the business side of it. If it's not on this team, then hopefully you open someone's eyes and play well and go somewhere else and get a job somewhere."
Flyers coach Peter Laviolette has known Gill for years. The two were part of the U.S. Olympic team in 2006 in Torino, Italy, when Laviolette was the head coach and Gill part of the taxi squad of players named as injury replacements.
Gill's wife and their three children, ages 9, 6 and 2, remained in the Boston area to see how the Flyers camp experiment turns out.
If there is uncertainty, it is balanced in some respects with the excitement of wanting to prove that the end isn't at hand.
"I think I did well and I feel good. I feel better than I have in five years so I'm excited about it," he said.
"That being said, I don't have too long to do this. Everyone knows I'm getting older, but like I said, I kind of have that chip on my shoulder.
"My wife is great, she's really supportive of me going for it. At this point it's about winning, about being on a team and helping that team win and that's really what I want to do. I don't have too much time to do it and I want to do it right."
If there's advice Gill has been given from his former teammates who have hung up the blades, it's this: Play as long as you can.
That's certainly his plan.
Beginning Thursday, we'll start to find out whether anyone else shares his vision.
It's a long shot that Hal Gill will make the Flyers' roster, but the veteran defenseman is trying to extend his career for as long as he can, writes Scott Burnside.