Gill, Tower of power for Habs

Top notch former high school quarterback and catcher gives Canadiens badly needed size on the blue line with his 6-foot-7, 250-pound frame

Into the early 1990s, Hal Gill was a quarterback, a very good one, for Nashoba Regional High School in Bolton, Mass.

With his prodigious height, he towered over his offensive linemen to read the opposition defence. With his strong arm, he could get the ball downfield. Way downfield.

So now, sitting in the Canadiens' dressing room in the last days before his first regular-season game for his fourth NHL club - having arrived in Montreal as a free agent in July - Gill considers how his life might have turned out had he pursued football instead of hockey.

"I like to think I'd be Tom Brady," he said of the three-time Super Bowl champion quarterback for the NFL's New England Patriots. "Pro Bowl and all that stuff."

Gill paused in almost dreamy thought, rubbing an enormous hand over his whiskered chin.

"But in all reality, I'd probably have gone to Boston College, where I'd have been fed some protein shakes, beefed up 60 pounds, converted into a blocking tight end and played second- or third-string until I graduated. With bad knees."

Gill chuckled softly at the thought.

He loved high-school baseball, too, a first baseman, pitcher and a catcher with legs so long that it probably took him half an inning to settle

into his crouch. A former Nashoba coach said Gill could throw out runners at second base from his knees.

"As catcher, I was involved in every play," he recalled. "I was always in on something."

Basketball? It loved Gill's height more than he loved playing hoops.

"I wasn't very good, just tall," he remembered of his days growing into his 6-foot-7, 250-pound frame.

With all this talent in so many sports, it is hockey that has made Gill rich and famous, a 931-game NHL veteran who became a Stanley Cup champion with the Pittsburgh Penguins last season.

Now he's a member of the Canadiens blue-line corps - to the chagrin of friends and at least some in his family back home in the Boston area.

Obviously, Gill brings great size to a roster that has need for every inch and pound.

But he is not a tank on skates.

Nor will he be an offensive machine who'll remind you of a rushing Larry Robinson.

What you will get in Gill is an excellent penalty-killer with good game sense, a seasoned veteran who can play huge minutes and use his albatross reach to pokecheck an opponent who's yards away and push an attacking skater into the third row of seats.

"I've gotten rid of all the personal goals, especially after winning the Stanley Cup," said Gill, 34, who shows a career-high 24-point season in 2007-08 split between Toronto and Pittsburgh.

"I couldn't tell you how many points I had last year (two goals and eight assists in 62 games), or what my plus/minus was (plus-11). But we won the Cup. My goal this year is to earn the respect of my teammates and to be solid.

"It would be nice to get a goal and assists here and there, but I don't need points to tell me when I'm playing well."

Gill was at home in 1993 when the phone rang, Bruins scout Joe Lyons calling to tell him he'd been drafted in the eighth round by his hometown team, 207th overall.

"I thought it was my brother calling, playing a joke," Gill said. "I didn't even know the draft was going on, and I certainly didn't know how everything worked. I was playing hockey for fun."

He attended Providence College on a hockey scholarship, then played four games with Providence of the American Hockey League in 1996-97. He arrived the following year with the Bruins, for whom he would play eight seasons; his final followed the 2004-05 NHL lockout.

From there, Gill settled in Toronto for nearly two seasons, signing as a free agent with the Maple Leafs, then was dealt to Pittsburgh in February 2008 for two draft picks.

Instantly, he went from chump team to near champ, the Penguins pushing the Detroit Red Wings to six games before finally bowing in the 2008 Stanley Cup final.

The near victory left Gill thirsting for the title. And then the champagne was poured this past June, the Penguins beating the Red Wings in a seven-game final.

The Stanley Cup almost grazed the rafters of Detroit's Joe Louis Arena when Gill took it in his fists and pressed it overhead.

"It's a moment no one can take away from you," he said. "You want to share this with a lot of the people who have been a big influence in your life. It's an experience like none other."

Gill had been close to the Cup once before, at the Stanley Cup party of his hero, Bruins legend Ray Bourque. But he didn't touch it that day.

"It wasn't mine," Gill said. "If it's not mine, then I didn't want to touch it."

Not so in Detroit. He carried the trophy through his fatigue, finally taking a seat on the back of a net from where he recalls his young daughter asking him: "What are you doing up there?"

"It's a good experience when you win Game 7," Gill said. "Win or lose, it's over. You know you're done. I was so exhausted. It was a numb feeling, having worked so hard to get there.

"Sometimes you think it's never going to happen. Especially after having been so close the year before. It's what you dream about."

He's still not watched video of Game 7, saying, "I'm sure I'd critique my game and that's a game I don't really want to critique. I'll let it be as it is."

Gill returned to Nashoba High for his day with the Cup in August, the $5,000 raised from what fans paid for photos earmarked for improving the school's athletic facilities.

"Anything is possible," he told adoring kids that day. "If ever there was a dark horse to make the NHL, it's me."

He had been inducted into Nashoba's sports hall of fame in June, but missed the ceremony to take part in the Penguins' Stanley Cup parade. Then on Sept. 10, Gill couldn't join teammates at the White House, invited by President Barack Obama, because he was playing in the Canadiens golf tournament in Laval.

"Missed all the fun things," he said, laughing. "I think they planned the White House visit so I couldn't attend. They knew I'd get in Obama's ear about health-care reform. I have some ideas he needs to listen to."

Gill had pulled the 'chute on his own summer of celebration after just a couple of weeks.

"I decided you can't live like that," he said of the parties, laughing again. "It's a great ride, but the best part of the victory was going through that battle every other night. That's what you want to get back at. Get the competition going with another team, with more expectations and refocused goals."

The Penguins weren't going to offer Gill the two-year contract he sought for the security of his wife, Anne, and their daughters, Isabelle, 5, and Sophie, 2.

Canadiens GM Bob Gainey made that offer, $4.5 million U.S. over two years, and here he is, having signed as an unrestricted free agent.

In Boston, Gill heard it - mostly in good nature - from Bruins fans who couldn't believe he had turned coat, from the black and gold he'd once proudly worn in Beantown to the detested bleu-blanc-rouge.

"Friends and family have been pretty good," Gill said. "They're happy that I've got a good contract, but at the same time a lot of my family are saying, 'I'll get a Canadiens hat, but that's it. That's enough.' "

He grinned. "I just hope they don't wear it to a game in Boston."

This will be a huge step for a young family, the cultures and languages hugely different from Boston to Montreal.

"And that's why I've come," Gill said. "My 5-year-old has been in school for just a short time and she's got French going constantly."

His wife of 10 years is of French descent, her parents from Lewiston, Me.

"Anne's got French in her back pocket and she's starting to pull it out a little more," he said. "I'm excited for her."

And Gill is excited for himself, having played for his hometown team in Boston, an Original Six club in Toronto, a champion in Pittsburgh, and now the NHL's most storied franchise.

"I think and hope that I fit in well with the Canadiens," he said. "I hope I can fill the role they want me to play.

"You expect a lot of hockey talk here and the fans were really into even the exhibition games. That's what makes it fun to play - every game is a big deal. It's a great atmosphere."

The attention will increase, of that Gill is certain. And he's eager for it, every experience adding to the welcome-to-Montreal moment he says he'll not forget.

"I met a couple of homeless guys on the street who know who I am," Gill said. "If a homeless guy knows his hockey, then you know you're in Montreal."

FILED UNDER: Hal Gill