He is a smallish, narrow-shouldered man with dark eyes that peer from sockets ringed by subtle scars. His hands are callused, his fingers perpetually swollen, and when he walks, there is a hitch to his gait. This is Chicago Blackhawks star Doug Gilmour on the eve of the regular-season opener, before subjecting his already battered body to another grueling year.
Even by hockey's suck-it-up standards, Gilmour has an uncommon pain threshold. Over the course of his 15-year career he has returned to the ice after suffering a shattered orbital bone; played in a postseason game after four injections to kill the pain in his right foot caused by stretched ligaments and tendons; and set the pace at practice with a wide-gapped grin the morning after his front teeth were knocked out by a stick. "Look," he says, "when it's little stuff, you play."
Little stuff? Gilmour is a two-time All-Star center, a Stanley Cup champion, a playmaker and a penalty killer, but first and foremost he is a warrior. If you're anointing the NHL's Prince of Pain, Archduke of Agony, Sultan of Silent Suffering, Gilmour is your man.
Gilmour, 35, was given a three-year $18 million free-agent contract by the Blackhawks this past summer not just because he has scored 1,176 points in 1,125 career games, but also because he's the type of player who once had bone spurs shaved off his insteps and within days crammed his feet into his customary half-size-too-small skates so he could suit up for a scrimmage. "He is the best competitor I've ever played with," says Tampa Bay Lightning left wing Wendel Clark, Gilmour's teammate on the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1992 to '94. "You know he's played through everything, but he'll never complain. He just puts his body on the line and doesn't miss a beat."
Barely 5'10" and 170 pounds, Gilmour will smack an opponent with his glove, jab him in the gut with his stick or give him a knee where he wants it least. He consistently barrels face-first into the man with the puck, even if that player is a head taller and 50 pounds heavier. "You don't stop to think that you're not as big or as strong as another guy," Gilmour explains. "You figure you are, and you go after him."
As a member of the St. Louis Blues in 1988, Gilmour smashed into 6-foot, 200-pound Detroit Red Wings defenseman Lee Norwood and suffered a concussion. Seven years and countless knocks to his noggin later, he still hadn't learned to pick on guys his own size. Trying to ignite the languishing Leafs during the '95 regular season, he crashed into 6'4", 210-pound Edmonton Oilers defenseman Luke Richardson—a granite slab with a pulse—and was knocked unconscious. "Doug gets a lot, but he gives a lot," says Blackhawks defenseman Chris Chelios. "He's fun to watch."
You've got to love Gilmour's game, but imagine if you were married to him. Amy Gilmour, Doug's second wife, received fair warning on their wedding day, Aug. 4, 1995, when Doug needed a cortisone shot to reduce the swelling in his chronically swollen fingers so that he could get the ring on. A few months later Amy was home watching the game against the Oilers in which Gilmour hit Richardson. All she remembers seeing was her beloved being helped off the ice. "I hated that," Amy says. "But with Doug you have to handle those things and not kill yourself worrying."
Gilmour's parents, Don and Dolly, came to the same conclusion soon after Doug began playing hockey at age three. Doug was raised in Kingston, Ont., a bare-knuckle town of 61,000 on the northern edge of Lake Ontario, the place where hockey was born in the 1800s. At six he was whupping 10-year-olds on the pond. When Doug was nine, he was bedridden with a severe ear infection and a high fever. Don was coaching Doug's team at the time, and as he began to pack the car for practice, suddenly there was Doug, out of bed and in the frigid air, saying he planned No practice that night. "That's how he always was," says Don.
Brian Sutter, Gilmour's line-mate When he broke in with the Blues in 1983-84, says that Gilmour "gets through on straight Heart, and you come out of the cradle that way." Gilmour doesn't know why he subjects himself to such punishment. After pondering for a moment, he shrugs and says, "I guess it's just what you have to do." Then le tells a story about his dad.
One summer afternoon in the early '70s, Doug was playing football on a neighbor's lawn. Carrying the ball, he stopped in front of a would-be tackler and gave up because they were nearing the road. Moments later Don, home from his shift as a storage keeper at the Kingston penitentiary, summoned Doug inside "What are you doing?" Don't asked. "It's a tackle game—you're supposed to get tackled."