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Bucky Gleason: Former St. Joe's star Dennis Gilbert gets last laugh after signing with Blackhawks

Rewind the clocks 10 years. I'm behind the wheel with smelly hockey equipment in the back seat and my 11-year-old, Sabres-loving, hockey-playing son in the front. It was the same year Buffalo became the first team to miss the playoffs after reaching the conference finals in consecutive seasons.

We were driving home from a spring clinic at Hockey Outlet when he started telling me about the funniest kid on the ice, Denny Gilbert. He explained how players and coaches from his Amherst youth team called him "Issues" because he humored them by saying or doing things that were out of the ordinary. Therefore, they joked, he had issues.

It was all in good fun.

Ten years later, Gilbert's only issue, after he helped Notre Dame to its second consecutive Frozen Four and first national championship game in a decade, was deciding whether to stick around for his final season and earn his degree or sign the maximum rookie contract with the Chicago Blackhawks.

"At the regionals, I was asked, 'Are you going to stay or leave or what?' " Gilbert said by phone this week. "I really wasn't thinking about it a whole lot. I was thinking about what was important now, that day, whether it was a day of practice or class or playing in a tournament game. I really didn't know."

Gilbert signed with the Blackhawks, who selected him in the third round of the 2015 draft. Their AHL affiliate in Rockford was preparing to open the Calder Cup playoffs Friday night against the Chicago Wolves. Despite a long season and an emotional loss in the title game, Gilbert was ready to join the IceHogs for the postseason.

Nobody would have blinked if he left campus. If he doesn't play a single shift in the NHL, he's guaranteed to make $162,500 for each of the next three years. He'll make $925,000 for every 82 games he plays in the NHL, well within reach considering the Blackhawks' needs and his ability.

But after taking five classes every semester and attending summer school, he was four classes shy of earning a degree in political science in three years. If he left school, he would be short nine classes. Last week, with the Blackhawks' blessing, he remained at Notre Dame and hit the books knowing he could play in an emergency.

"I'm going to earn my degree," Gilbert said. "I'm going to need that one day. Hockey doesn't last forever, you know?"

You want to talk issues?

This kid was so off his rocker during his childhood that he refused to play hockey year-round because he also loved other sports. For years, he rotated helmets and footwear from hockey to lacrosse to football without losing an ounce of passion for any of them. In a world of specialization, who does that?

Gilbert did, and it allowed him to press the reset button three times a year while keeping his body strong and his mind fresh. He excelled in all three sports and never came close to burning out.

In high school, he had hockey coaches pulling him in one direction and lacrosse coaches pulling him in another. Rather than surrender to the idea that Division I scholarships would slip away in both sports if he didn't pick one, he took the advice of his high school football coach.

When the time came for him drop a sport, his football coach made the decision for him. He cut the kid, who happened to be his starting quarterback and linebacker. I should probably mention HERE that Dennis Gilbert Sr. was the St. Joe's football coach. Yes, he cut his son for his own good.

Young Dennis was a terrific youth hockey player but remained mostly on the outskirts of conversations about can't-miss kids, college prospects and future NHL stars. He wasn't thinking about Division I scholarships as a teenager, never considered leaving his home in Clarence for better hockey and didn't obsess over where sports would take him. His daily goal was improving and – get this one – having fun.

"I've always believed in myself," Gilbert said. "I wasn't an arrogant kid, I don't think, but I had confidence. A lot of that came from having confidence from having success in a variety of sports. I feel like having success on the lacrosse field or playing quarterback, each moment doesn't seem that big and doesn't seem that crazy."

And he worked. He lifted weights and added muscle to his frame and eventually grew to 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds. The three sports worked in concert and made him a better all-around athlete. Staying at St. Joe's allowed him to hang out with his friends and experience a normal childhood.

If you want to argue that made him a late bloomer, fine, but there's no disputing how much he blossomed. He remained under the radar while he played for the Junior Sabres. He lacked confidence early before coming around. After a while, when you're working to improve every day, the days start adding up.

"I had a goal, play in the NHL, and a dream, win a Stanley Cup, Olympic gold – all those things," he said. "Everyone thinks about it, but you have to have a process that you're focused on. I know the Bills coach talks about 'The Process,' and people joke about it a little bit, but you have to have a plan or your chance will pass you by."

Gilbert made a verbal commitment to Niagara before jumping to the USHL's Chicago Steel. Bigger and better colleges quickly discovered him, which prompted him to vacate his scholarship offer. He had numerous options before Notre Dame invited him to campus.

For an intelligent Irish Catholic kid, Notre Dame was a no-brainer. Gilbert would have signed in a split-second with his father at his side but instead asked Irish coach Jeff Jackson for 24 hours before making a decision. Why? Because he wanted his mother, Kim, involved. What a weirdo, right?

When he committed the following day, he asked Jackson to wait before making the announcement because he had another issue: He wanted to personally thank every coach who offered him a scholarship. He also wanted to include his USHL team to share in the announcement, knowing it would help its cause.

Jackson told Gilbert's father it was the first time in his coaching career that a player made such requests. It was no surprise Gilbert logged major minutes right from the start. He did everything asked of him at Notre Dame. He sacrificed offensive flair to become a shutdown defenseman. He blocked 236 shots and became a leader. He evolved into a better all-around player who was ready for pro hockey.

By now, you've learned what I've known for years. Gilbert was, in fact, a different kid in many ways. He wasn't coddled. His parents supported him without spoiling him, making sure he was a better human being than hockey player. And for that he's eternally grateful. He said as much no fewer than a half-dozen times in 25 minutes.

"I know I keep saying this, but I'm going to say it again," Gilbert said. "I really thank my parents for raising me the right way and being my rock through everything. No matter what happens, my dad is my best friend. I can talk to him about anything all the time. It’s great having people like that in your life."

Let's add up everything: Three-sport athlete, priorities in order, hockey scholarship to Notre Dame, NHL draft pick, committed to earning college degree, hard worker,  well-spoken, treats people the right way and loves his family. There are no issues with this kid, and the fun is just beginning.

As for the other kids, well, the joke is on them.

 

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