‘Gilly’ begins last ride

People outside the Notre Dame hockey program might not know much about Dave Gilbert, its longtime equipment manager. But quietly the man known as “Gilly” has left an indelible mark. Now his tenure winds to a close.

Who: No. 10 Notre Dame (19-8-7) vs. Northeastern (18-13-5)
When: 7:35 p.m. tonight; 7:05 p.m. Saturday; 7:05 p.m. Sunday (if necessary)
Where: Compton Family Ice Arena; South Bend, Ind. (5,022)
Radio: 99.9 FM (WHFB)
TV: None
Twitter: @ND_hockey

Dave Gilbert is willing to concede something about his profession.

Hockey equipment manager is a niche within a niche, especially at the college level. It’s unique even to the wider world of managers. They sharpen skates, hang jerseys, order new sticks and coordinate travel. They put in 70-hour weeks during the season, usually in anonymity.

Sometimes they, as Gilbert has for almost two decades at Notre Dame, act as a liaison between players and coaches. They can be more “one of the guys” than authority figure.

But it’s rarely glamorous work.

Who’s willing to endure long bus rides to Marquette, Mich., where your team might be last across the Mackinac Bridge before a snowstorm shuts it down? Or better yet, flights to Alaska, where you have to change planes in Seattle, then take a bus to your final destination.

Some might be interested in doing that job for a couple years before finding something else. Not Gilbert. He’s been living the life of an equipment manager for two decades.

“It’s weird,” Gilbert said. “People would call us nuts. I think they would say all equipment guys are nuts. But you just do it. You don’t know any other way to do it.”

And that’s why it was so difficult when Gilbert, known to everyone around the hockey program simply as “Gilly,” chose to give it up.

Gilbert got into the equipment game in college. He went to Lake Superior State planning to become an athletic trainer. Turns out Gilbert arrived at the perfect time, given the Lakers hockey program was at its apex.

Head coach Jeff Jackson guided Lake Superior to a national championship during the 1991-92 season with Gilbert as a walk-on goaltender. Gilbert spent the rest of his undergrad career as equipment manager, including working under Paul Boyer, now the head equipment manager for the Detroit Red Wings.

The Lakers continued to dominate.

They finished as national runners up in 1992-93,  then won a second national championship in 1993-94. Consecutive quarterfinal finishes followed before Jackson departed to take over the fledgling U.S. National Team Development Program.

Gilbert graduated in 1996 and remained at Lake Superior State for a couple years before coming to Notre Dame, which was then coached by Dave Poulin. By then, the die had been cast.

“I didn't know he was gonna fall into that full time,” Jackson said. “Just like coaches, being a manager and handling that responsibility is similar to going into the coaching profession. It’s not just about your knowledge of equipment. It’s about your ability to deal with people, especially athletes and having the good communication skills.”

Poulin lasted at Notre Dame until after the 2004-05 season. When Notre Dame looked for a replacement, it turned to Jackson, who had been out of college hockey since leaving Lake Superior State.

Jackson reunited with his former student manager in South Bend. Gilbert helped his old friend and new boss find a home. Together they started building a program.

“Their familiarity with one another was key,” said Tom Nevala, senior associate athletic director at Notre Dame and hockey administrator. “Having people on the same page, you don’t have one hand saying one thing and the left hand saying the other. It’s people like (coordinator of hockey operations) Nick Siergiej and (athletic trainer) Kevin Ricks and Dave Gilbert that sometimes have more interaction time with these guys when their guard is down a little bit. They can really reinforce the culture.

“This is how you’re successful, this is why our team has been successful. Sometimes when you’re the coach it’s received differently. It’s always good to have that consistent message coming from all angles. Certainly, Gilly has been a part of that.”

Gilbert has been there for every achievement: Notre Dame’s first trip to Joe Louis Arena for the Central Collegiate Hockey Association semifinals, its first conference championship, first trip to the Frozen Four, playing Boston College in the national championship game, moving into the Compton Family Ice Arena, transitioning to Hockey East.

Players haven’t known anybody else. Nor has Jackson. 

Most have a sense of what Gilbert has meant before they departed the program. But a few years away from South Bend reveals true appreciation.

Former forward Christian Hanson put it together as his professional career peaked and then came to an end. Hanson never played in the new arena, which probably gave him an even better perspective.

Gilbert handled himself the same in the north dome of the Joyce Center as he has in the palatial Compton complex.

“Gilly pretty much did his job in a cupboard,” Hanson said. “It was unbelievable. And he never complained. It was amazing the job that he would do given the space he had to work in. It was amazing what he did. Once again, it really makes you appreciate how hard he worked and it showed how much he cared. To sum it up in one word, his workshop was miserable. Just the area he had to work in was absurd. I’m surprised he’s not actually the Hunchback of Notre Dame now because he had to duck underneath rows L, M, N, O and P to actually sharpen skates under a stairwell.”

Eventually, Gilbert moved into new digs, with his own office, in the team area at the Compton Family Ice Arena. It’s plush by any measure in college hockey, especially considering the previous circumstances.

He didn’t envision doing anything else, although it had come up in conversation before. Nevala and Gilbert talked about maybe a role as rink manager someday.

When Notre Dame went looking for someone to fill its operations manager job at the Compton last summer, Gilbert wasn’t ready to do anything else but be with the team. Other candidates came and went. Around Thanksgiving, they came to Gilbert again.

This time around, Gilbert, who’s married with two children, had some thinking to do. He described it as “soul searching.” 

“It was a lot,” Gilbert said. “Sleepless nights. The one thing that was difficult, I wanted to hold onto it. You know what I mean? Everyone, and I would say everyone, that I spoke with that I trust and that I was looking for their opinion was very supportive of the change. They thought that change would be perfect. People that I respect in the industry, to people here in the program, to family — everyone thought that I’d be a fool not to take the job.

“Then basically what it came down to, is if I think about today, I’m not ready. I don’t want to change. I still enjoy this job. I still enjoy working with the guys. I still enjoy being part of Irish hockey. But five years or 10 years from now, 10 years from now when I’m 53 years old, what do I do? How do I step out of this and do something else?”

Gilbert eventually decided it was time for something new. He talked it over with Jackson, who was supportive, and told the team before the holiday break.

So, when Notre Dame takes the ice tonight for a Hockey East quarterfinal series against Northeastern, Gilbert will begin the final stretch of his tenure as head equipment manger. He’ll move into the arena operations manager job this summer after helping find a successor.

Nevala, Gilbert and Jackson see it as a best-of-both-worlds solution: Personal career growth while holding on to a part of Gilbert’s life that has been so important.

“For good people like him you want to make sure they want to grow and there’s an opportunity,” Nevala said. “You certainly want to support them in that effort. He and his family have been key parts of our athletic department here for a long time. If we can match both of those things — an opportunity to keep them here and also an opportunity for him to grow professionally — that’s a pretty good combination right there.”

Gilbert, meanwhile, has deliberately tried to quit thinking about the future.

There are certain realities to face: Sometime this weekend he’ll have his last game at the Compton Family Ice Arena standing toward the end of Notre Dame’s bench, towel likely draped over his shoulder and eyes on the ice.

Weeks from now, probably in the NCAA tournament, Gilbert will take in his last game as equipment manager before doing a new job for the first time, basically, in his adult life.

Is he prepared to grapple with all that? No. But that isn’t the point, either. 

Gilbert has spent his tenure at Notre Dame with attention on the present, always trying to stay just a couple steps ahead of Jackson with day-to-day tasks. That alone has left an indelible mark on the program, so he’s just going to keep doing it for as long as he can.

“I’m ready for a long ride,” Gilbert said. “I’ll be honest, I’m not ready for this weekend. I had a conversation with our seniors because they’re calling it my senior year too. I joked that I’m gonna jump on their Vegas trip when this is all over. But we were talking about what’s tougher on us, Senior Night or is truly your last game tougher? Senior Night was tough, I gotta tell you. It was emotional hanging the jerseys up for the last time — knowing this is gonna be the last time you hang the green jerseys up. But I’m trying not to think about this weekend.

“It’s gonna be really weird for me to sit back in the (Zamboni) gate or up in the press box next October and watch somebody else standing on the end of the bench. That’s gonna be weird. But I’m trying to think about the now and the ride, knowing that we still have a lot of hockey left. Like I said, the seniors and I are gonna see if we can send this out the right way.”

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