GLASGOW, Scotland – Kate Gillis says it was difficult to block out the noise.
The energetic 24-year-old is the captain and inspirational leader of Canada’s women’s field hockey team at the Commonwealth Games. She’s also the daughter of former Vancouver Canucks president and general manager Mike Gillis, who was fired in April after the team missed the playoffs for the first time in six years.
Gillis and soon-to-be ousted head coach John Tortorella took most of the criticism for the Canucks’ struggles as media and fans alike dissected what had gone so horribly wrong for a team that came within a game of winning the 2011 Stanley Cup.
Having your feet held to the fire is part of being an executive in professional sports, but that doesn’t make it any easier for the families. It’s something the younger Gillis learned first-hand this spring.
“I think it’s always hard for people to say those things about your father. With the Internet these days, you can just have a free-for-all,” she said this week. “It’s tough to kind of differentiate between the truth and the fiction, but I just keep my head down. He definitely doesn’t let us get affected, but in the long run it’s hard.
“It’s your dad.”
Kate Gillis grew up in Kingston, Ont., but moved to Vancouver after being scouted by the national team when she was still a teenager. That cross-country adventure was coincidentally part of the reason Mike Gillis, an NHL player agent at the time, was hired by the Canucks in the first place.
“I was 17, finishing high school by correspondence and my parents didn’t feel quite comfortable with me living out there by myself,” said Gillis. “They moved just for the year until I went back to school, but ended up staying because my dad got a job.”
Despite all of the heartache in recent months, she said one of the positives of her father losing that job is that he can spend more time following her career.
“It was definitely tough, but we’ve been able to spend so much more time together as a family,” said Gillis, who has two brothers. “I actually just celebrated my 100th cap in England, which is a huge milestone, and my dad was able to be there.
“He will be here for the whole tournament, and that normally doesn’t happen because it’s (NHL) free agency, or the draft or pre-season or something. It was a very difficult circumstance when it happened but now we’re seeing him more relaxed, he has more time, and he’s able to capitalize on these sort of events.”
Canada’s women’s field hockey team has not made the Olympics since 1992 and is using the Commonwealth Games in Scotland as a measuring stick ahead of next summer’s Pan American Games in Toronto, which will serve as the qualifying event for Rio 2016.
“We’re a young team. We’ve made lots of progress over 12 months and the opportunity to play in a tournament like this definitely gives us an idea of where we’re at,” said Canadian head coach Ian Rutledge. “We want to make sure we give this event the respect it deserves. We’re obviously looking to do our best and play as well as we can and finish as high as we can—that’s the objective. But thinking longer term it’s also an opportunity to gauge where we’re at ahead of Toronto 2015.”
Canada currently ranks 22nd in the world and has lost its two opening matches at the Glasgow National Hockey Centre, 4-2 to No. 13 India on Thursday and 2-0 to No. 11 South Africa on Friday. Next up is No. 31 Trinidad and Tobago on Sunday, and the biggest test of the group stage on Wednesday against fourth-ranked New Zealand.
Meanwhile, the 16th-ranked Canadian men lost their opener 3-1 to No. 6 New Zealand on the first day of competition and will tackle No. 13 Malaysia on Saturday, No. 29 Trinidad and Tobago on Sunday and No. 5 England on Thursday.
Rutledge said Gillis sets the tone for the country’s women’s team with her passion and dedication to a sport that she hadn’t even heard of until making her varsity team in Grade 9.
“Her work rate is immense—one of the best I’ve seen from any athlete in the world,” he said. “But more importantly it’s the quality she brings off the field. She’s a natural leader. She’s very aware of what’s going on around the team and in the team. She backs up what she says. Her actions often speak louder than her words.
“She’s the hardest trainer, the most committed, the most dedicated, and I think the rest of the team finds that inspiring. She sets standards. It’s easy to talk a good game, but she shows what a good game looks like. She’s a fantastic role model.”
Gillis said she and her teammates want to help grow the sport in Canada, especially with the Pan Am Games on home soil just 12 months away.
“What most people don’t know is field hockey is so popular almost everywhere else,” she said. “We’re really looking forward to bringing our sport home and letting people see what we play and how intense our game is.”
And despite a trying couple of months for her family, Kate Gillis can still lose herself in the sport she has grown to love—something she learned from her father.
“Once you step onto that field nothing else matters,” she said. “That’s what he’s taught me.”