Duthie: Mr. Kilrea's Opus

James Duthie
3/15/2009 8:27:41 PM
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Hmm, this is a problem.

How do you write an accurate Brian Kilrea tribute when all the good stories have too many expletives to repeat?

If they ever film "The Brian Kilrea Story", HBO will be the only option.

"I remember this one game we lost 7-2," says Brian Patafie, the 67's longtime athletic trainer. "I came home and my wife asked 'What did Killer say after the game?' I said, 'Do you want me to include all the expletives?' She said 'No.' So I said, 'He didn't say anything.'"

The punch line works because you know it's true. We just interviewed a dozen current and former Kilrea players for an upcoming piece on his retirement, and not one had a good yarn that could be told without editing to the point of distortion.

"There's nothing I can repeat on television," laughs Doug Willson. And Michael Peca. And Gary Roberts. And Brian Campbell. And Nick Boynton. And Brendan Bell. And... all of them.

So instead, we turn to the serious stuff, the What-Killer-Meant-To-Me material. And sometimes the words wouldn't come easy here, either. For a different reason.

Take goalie-turned-analyst Darren Pang, one of the most cheerful, chatty characters you'll ever meet. This is a man who frequently makes monkey faces on national television (Panger does a monkey better than...most monkeys) just to crack up the host. He has also done his hilarious Kilrea imitation every single time I have worked with him, which is now in triple digits.

And yet, when we asked him to send a message to his old coach on camera, he lost it. 

"Killer...I just can't say enough..." That's as far as Panger got before breaking down. And you know what? No more words were required.

Seeing Panger get that emotional, and hearing the countless other testimonials from Kilrea's former players this week, I keep thinking of Mr. Holland's Opus. 

I know, Killer isn't quite as warm and fuzzy as Richard Dreyfuss was in that tear-jerker, about a music teacher who finally realizes how many lives he has touched.

But as you sit and read the alphabetical list of every player who has come through Killer's dressing room, 500 strong, you realize: they are Mr. Kilrea's Opus.

"I can remember when Steve Payne was with the team, and in his last year we lost out in the playoffs in Peterborough," Kilrea remembers, sitting in the 67's empty dressing room.

"One of our guys came in and said 'Steve's Dad wants to see you.' So I went out and he said, 'I just wanted to thank-you. I gave you a boy and you are giving me back a man.'"

Killer's eyes well up. "That meant a lot."

And isn't that his true legacy?  Sure, we'll all remember the two Memorial Cups and the countless quality NHL players he has developed.  But in the end, it is the impact Kilrea has had on so many young lives that deserves the longest, and loudest round of applause as he exits.

Just ask Lance Galbraith.

You won't see Lance on TSN talking about Killer. It's our nature to go to the big names for the quotes. But you'd be hard-pressed to find a player Killer had a greater influence on.

Galbraith was a tough, talented hockey player coming out of Bantam, but already had a well-earned rep of being a bad apple. Kilrea took a chance and drafted him anyway. But he almost never made it to Ottawa.  

Galbraith had been arrested for stealing a car. Joyriding had overtaken hockey as his favourite hobby. He was likely headed for a juvenile detention centre.

So Kilrea found out who the presiding judge was in the case, and wrote him a letter.

"I guaranteed him that if he gave Lance a second chance, I would take care of him. I promised him the kid would leave here a better person."

Galbraith received a suspended sentence. He moved to Ottawa, in fact right into Kilrea's house for a while, and became one of the most popular 67's of his era. 

He is now 29, and still playing hockey, for the Alaska Aces of the ECHL. It's a life he loves. And one he is forever grateful for.

"I don't even like to think about what my life would have become if Killer didn't take that chance on me," says Galbraith. "He turned me around.

"He taught me about respect. Like how he always made us thank the restaurant owner or the cook after a meal. I always remembered that, and do it every time I eat somewhere. It was the little things like that. He made me a better person."

There you go. A great Killer story without a single expletive.

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