The Toronto Maple Leafs added some much-needed grit by signing free agent Kurtis Gabriel. He is a heavyweight grinder who plays a straightforward game and has no problem causing chaos. However, that type of player doesn’t match the makeup of the Maple Leafs’ roster for the past five seasons. That fact alone is enough to make Gabriel a welcome edition, but he’s going to have to fight his way onto a team loaded with talent.
Despite the track record of going for skill over physicality, Toronto signed Gabriel for a reason. “It’s not hard to know what teams are going to want from me,” said the 28-year-old during a recent Instagram Live. “I’m just a north-south simple hockey player. I’m heavy, heavy on the forecheck, whether I have to make a hit or just get in there to make the right play to turn the puck over.” It just takes a quick YouTube search of his name to find the other reason. “Obviously, the physicality part. I’m not taking crap from anybody. Win, lose or draw, I show up and fight anybody I have to, anything the team needs.”
Return of the Bay Street Bullies
For fans who have begged for a tougher team, reading those words must be a relief. Gabriel also lists Wendel Clark and Darcy Tucker as his favourite Maple Leafs. “You can look up their videos, and they are just crushing guys, especially Wendel Clark,” said Gabriel. He grew up in New Market and watched a lot of Maple Leafs’ hockey games. But, even he gets excited thinking about playing alongside Nick Ritchie and Wayne Simmonds. “It would be pretty cool if we were all there, all Ontario boys, grew up close to Toronto, and bring that physicality and toughness.”
The 6-foot-4, 216-pound winger is on a strict diet, clocking in with 8.4% body fat, which is incredibly low for a guy who is considered a heavyweight when he drops the gloves. Gabriel was drafted by the Minnesota Wild in the third round of the 2013 draft. In Minnesota, he used his time to develop his aggressive style honing his grappling and boxing techniques with renowned coach Jeremy Clark. Clark trained legendary enforcers, Derek Boogaard and John Scott. “Sometimes I get in trouble trying to have fights get too exciting, and I’d rather lose and try to win than just stand there. That is why the damage is kind of adding up,” explained Gabriel while pointing at numerous scars on his face.
Changing with the Game to Stay in Demand
But the game has changed since the days of Boogaard, Tucker and Clark. The NHL has all but removed the old-school enforcer role from the competition. “You’ve got to be willing to adapt; I’ve got to be willing to adapt to the game. So I’ve really been working on my skills. I’ve really been working on the simple part of the game.” Ironically Gabriel sees this shift in the NHL as an opportunity. “If the game keeps getting more skilled and obviously guys come up that haven’t played this role as much as me, then there should be a lot of room for me to make a big impact.”
He’s been at the Maple Leafs’ performance centre five days a week, developing skills and trying to adapt. “I’m working on scanning before I get the puck. All these drills we are doing are how to make decisions really quickly and know what you are going to do quickly. You get the puck and knowing where everybody is on the ice. Those drills are really helping me.” He believes these skills are the most important to work on due to Toronto’s style of play, and he has met head coach Sheldon Keefe.
Learning Skills from a Skilled Player
He found another advantage; his locker area is beside Jason Spezza’s at the practice facility. “I’m always picking his brain, and he loves to talk hockey. So, it’s a lot of fun. Never a dull moment. We pretty much talk about hockey the whole time,” said Gabriel, who also admitted Spezza is keeping him on his toes. “The first game we played, he picked my pocket twice… just lift my stick like it was nothing on the backcheck. So, it was a little wake-up call to get ready for the season, but he’s been awesome.”
Gabriel is doing his best to not get caught up in the excitement of playing for a team he grew up watching. However, he admits he stared at a display in the training facility that has all of the franchise’s logos and explains some of the club’s history. “Well, I not a Maple Leaf yet, that’s for sure. I’ve got a lot of work to do. I don’t want to put the cart before the horse,” said a smiling Gabriel. “I’ve got to make sure that wherever I am playing, I’m ready to go. It doesn’t matter. I’ve got to approach it the right way. I love to play, so it doesn’t matter, but obviously, the goal is to be up with the boys on the big club.”
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The hometown boy says there is no lack of motivation to make the team he grew up watching. He wants to play on Hockey Night in Canada and participate in the battle of Ontario with the Ottawa Senators. If that wasn’t enough, his mom has already put a Maple Leafs bumper stick on her car. After meeting her son, I don’t think she is alone in rooting for him to make the team. In fact, I learned so much about Gabriel, that I’m writing a second story about his fight on several other fronts and how he interacts with young people.
Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.