If I presented Gabriel Vilardi’s NHL debut story as a script to a Hollywood producer, I would get laughed out of the room.
I think it would go like this:
“There’s this kid named Gabe, he was born to Italian immigrant parents in Canada, he has chronic back issues…” The Hollywood producer looks bored and I see an eye roll, so I skip ahead, “He steps on the ice for the Los Angeles Kings and just seconds into his first NHL shift he scores!”
“Get out,” yells the producer, throwing my script back at me.
“Wait it gets better,” I plead, “He also had an amazing no-look pass to get his first assist – in the same game!”
The producer is clearly dumbfounded by my storytelling, “you’ll never make it in this town.”
In reality, it’s a true story. It happened just beyond the Hollywood Hills and it was at a perfect time: a Kings organization in full rebuild mode, a locker room that has had to say goodbye to several teammates and a fan base that is looking for something good to get behind in the coming years. While this season has been hard enough for the LA Kings (they’re dead last in the Western Conference) the past weeks have been even worse as fan favourites and veteran members of past championship teams have been traded away (Martinez traded to Vegas, Toffoli traded to Vancouver, Clifford and Campbell traded to Toronto).
When Vilardi stepped on the ice on Feb. 20 for the warm-up it wasn’t just another call-up filling a roster spot. As the kid from Kingston, Ontario took his rookie debut, he was left alone to practice stickhandling and taking shots. All eyes were on him, not just fans, but management and teammates wondering if this guy will be a big part of the Kings’ future.
Draft Day Drop
Vilardi is the first draft pick ever made by Kings general manager Rob Blake during the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. Vilardi was touted as a first-round, top-five pick putting him in the same company as Nico Hischier, Nolan Patrick, Cale Makar and Elias Pettersson.
He was described as a big centre who is a great shooter, is composed with the puck, has excellent vision and playmaking ability, and uses his size and reach to dictate play.
The list of highly desirable qualities continued. Yet, on draft day, the first 10 teams passed on Vilardi, until the Kings finally picked him at No. 11.
The reason those other 10 general managers passed on Vilardi may have been his chronic back problem that delayed his American Hockey League debut with the Ontario Reign. But the Kingston kid kept working on getting stronger and faster with the Reign, putting up 25 points in 32 games this season. He finally earned his NHL call-up and hit the ice in blockbuster style.
First Game, Hollywood Style
At 1:19 into the game, the 6-foot-3, 201-pound 20-year-old steps on the ice. He gains control of the puck at the blue line, takes a stride and lets it go at the top of the circles. There it is – 6.8 seconds into his first NHL shift and Vilardi has his first NHL goal with his very first NHL shot.
“Yeah, it was pretty crazy,” Vilardi described the play during the first intermission interview. “It wasn’t even that good of a shot, I just put it on net and it went in, it was really exciting.”
In the second period, Vilardi took the puck behind the net and quickly made a precision, no-look pass to Martin Frk for an easy goal and his first assist. Vilardi also won 13 of his 16 faceoffs in the Kings’ victory.
“To have him score eight, 10 seconds in was remarkable,” said Kings head coach Todd McLellan. “The enthusiasm was contagious. I thought we carried over with it and played after that. So, a good spark. We needed it, and great for the kid. I’m so happy for him.”
That’s only the first act of Vilardi’s rookie year. Just imagine what the kid from Kingston will do next!
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.