By Doug Gilmour The playoffs were always my time of year. That’s because no matter what kind of a season you had, the post-season is what everybody remembers. Whether it was a good year, a bad year or an average year, it didn’t matter. You write your ticket in the playoffs. Make no mistake, there’s a huge difference between playing in the regular season and playing in the playoffs. Some NHL players raise their level of game at the most important time of year. Others who may star during the season disappear in the playoffs. It’s a time for desperation. You know if you lose, you’re going home. That’s what motivated me. We all play for the opportunity to win the Stanley Cup. It’s been a dozen years now since I last played in the NHL. But these are the things I still think about if you ask me about making a run for the title:
Mentally, your focus has to be so strong. Physically, you have to know how to take care of your body. You need rest. Rest, food and plenty of water. During the playoffs, I’d eat mainly chicken, steak and a lot of pasta to keep my carbs up. The biggest thing for me was hydration. I’d drink water until my pee was clear. No matter how much I ate, though, I could never keep my weight up. The problem is, I was not a big eater. You almost had to force-feed me. In the 1993 playoff run with the Leafs, we had so many games in so few nights, I just kept getting smaller and smaller. After a game, I’d lie on a training table and get hooked up to an intravenous so they could put fluids back in me. It helped. Sometimes after my treatment, I felt like I hadn’t even played because they got the electrolytes back in me.
• TRAINING I played at around 174 pounds during the season, but by the end of the playoffs I lost around 10 to 12 pounds. Even when I was lighter, I felt I had an advantage over many of my opponents because of my summer training. It was different from most other programs. I wasn’t big on lifting weights. I would do some lifting, but not to bulk up. My thing was cardio. I used to run hills. For me, it was about recovery time. If I took a 40-second shift I’d be ready to go again 15 seconds later. I knew I could outlast guys on the other team.
• INTENSITY The players who get their name on the Cup are those who will do anything to win. And by anything, I mean they’d carve you into little pieces if it meant winning. I always knew who I was playing against because guys would try to hurt you. One guy might try to take my knee out and another might attempt to take my head off. You have to be aware of who you’re playing against. If I was up against a guy like Bryan Marchment or Luke Richardson and I don’t have my head up, they were going to take me out. Every game of every series, guys were coming at you hard. I was no angel on the ice, either. Because I was small, I had to make opponents think I was crazy and if they messed with me, they’d pay a price. Thank goodness there weren’t many cameras around in those days. I liked to slash guys on the back of their legs so by the third period their calf was knotted up and I could take advantage. It was a brutal thing I did, but I had to survive.
• TRAVEL Some players are affected by the considerable travel in the post-season. Not me. You have to become numb to it. Travel can be used as an excuse, but it was never part of my vocabulary. You get on the airplane and you eat, you hydrate and you rest. Then you reflect on your last game.
• FOCUS In the playoffs, your world revolved around hockey. Family takes a backseat. It’s not a nice thing to say, but I wasn’t focused on family at all in the post-season. It’s almost like you’re in a daze when you’re around them. Sure, you get tickets for people, but all your focus is on winning the next game. That’s all. My grandfather passed away right before the ’93 playoffs and I wanted to go back to Kingston to be with my family, but our coach Pat Burns said, “Dougie, you can’t. You’ve got to stay here.” I turned it around into a positive and played my hardest for my grandfather. My family was very understanding.
• DISTRACTIONS One might think demands from the media – particularly in Toronto – intensify in the playoffs. Not for me. I was always available on game days, but on off-days Burnsie would tell the media, “He’s on his own planet today.” I was not available. I’d be at the rink if I needed therapy, but I wouldn’t see the media. Pat wanted me to get home and get rested.
• INJURIES Injuries in the playoffs can kill a team. Most players will do everything in their power to stay in the lineup even when hurt. In the first round of the ’94 playoffs against Chicago, I twisted my ankle and on the plane I’d wear a plastic boot. Game 7 in Chicago we won 1-0 and I had to get four needles to freeze my ankle before I could put my skate on. I didn’t even know how tight my skate was. I had to keep an eye on it to make sure it didn’t come loose. By the third round against Vancouver, I was down to taking one or two needles before the game.
• PRESSURE The pressure to win goes through the roof. In the regular season, if you lose Game 38, there’s always Game 39. Lose in the playoffs and you might be going home. For me, the first series was always the toughest one. It doesn’t matter if you are the favorite or underdog. In 1989 when we won the Cup in Calgary, we won Game 7 of our first series in overtime in Vancouver on a goal that bounced in off Joel Otto’s skate. We got a lucky break. Then we beat Los Angeles in four, Chicago in five and Montreal in six. I got my name on the Cup with the Flames. I experienced what it’s like to make the playoffs and survive four rounds. It is the ultimate goal for every player and believe me, every player had better be ready to sacrifice his mind, body and soul to win it.
– WITH MIKE BROPHY
This is feature appears in the Playoff Preview 2015 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.