VANCOUVER – Playing the first NHL game in your hometown is a special experience.
Montreal Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher gets to do it twice in three nights.
The 21-year-old, who was born in Edmonton, had a goal and an assist in Thursday’s 4-1 road victory over the Oilers.
His second homecoming goes Saturday night in Vancouver when the Canadiens visit the Canucks.
Gallagher’s family moved from Edmonton to nearby Delta, B.C., when he was 12 after his father got a job as the Vancouver Giants’ strength and conditioning coach.
The younger Gallagher, who later starred with the Western Hockey League club, said after Friday’s practice at Rogers Arena that he’s looking forward to the second half of this unique experience.
“I grew up watching a lot of games at Rexall Place (in Edmonton),” he said. “To walk out of that tunnel last night was pretty cool and it’s going to be the same thing here.
“When the schedule came out I definitely checked for it and now that it’s here it’s pretty exciting.”
Gallagher, who expects 10 to 15 family and friends to be in the stands Saturday and had even more supporters in the crowd in Edmonton, was drafted by Montreal in the fifth round in 2010 after being selected taken in the ninth round of the WHL draft by the Giants.
“When I first step on the ice it’ll to be pretty cool,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of people watching that helped me get to this point and sacrificed a lot so you want to play well and show them how proud you are of what they’ve done for you.”
The five-foot-nine, 180-pound Gallagher, in his second season with Montreal, plays a gritty style that has endeared him to his teammates.
“He’s an in-your-face little rat—one of those guys you want to beat up on the other team, but we love it on our side,” joked Canadiens forward Brandon Prust. “He doesn’t shy away from anybody. He goes to the net hard. He’s a guy that every team wants.”
Gallagher scored 136 goals and 280 points, both franchise records, in 244 career games with the Giants between 2008 and 2012, usually getting under the skin of opponents in the process.
“From when I was a young boy I played the same way and did the same things. The only way I can be successful is playing that style of hockey,” said Gallagher. “I know that if I’m not doing that I’m not a very good player.”
He had 10 goals and 10 assists in 36 games during the NHL lockout with the American Hockey League’s Hamilton Bulldogs before being called up to the Canadiens once the season started.
All he did in his first campaign with Montreal was score 15 goals and 13 assists to be named a finalist for the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie.
“He’s got an unbelievable work ethic. He’s very pesky around the net, very resilient. He gets knocked down (but) he’s right back in your face,” said Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban. “It’s that sort of determination that we’d like to see from everybody on every given night, but that’s just his makeup as a player.
“It’s no surprise to me he’s had so much success so early in his career.”
Fans of both the Canucks and Oilers have wondered aloud how their teams missed out on what both see as a “local product,” but Gallagher—who almost always has a smile on his face—is glad he found his way to Montreal.
“When I got drafted it was a tremendous feeling to go to an organization like the Canadiens. I was thrilled,” he said. “Since I’ve gotten there they’ve treated me so well that I’m happy (with) the situation that I’m in.
“I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
The Canadiens will be without captain Brian Gionta on Saturday. He returned to Montreal for family reasons.