KOSICE – How did a guy born in Beverly, Massachusetts, just outside Boston, go from playing with Mark Messier and Mike Gartner with the Cincinnati Stingers to coaching the Austrian national team here in Slovakia? Well, as Ring Lardner used to say, a story goes with it.
“I went to Brown University [in Providence, Rhode Island] because I wanted a place that was both good academically and also had hockey,” the 56-year-old Bill Gilligan explained before the team’s most important game in the relegation round battle against Slovenia.
He was never drafted into the NHL, but after three years at Brown he decided to give the WHA a try. “We had some pretty good seasons at Brown,” he explained, “and I think some WHA scouts watched me play at the Final Four. It’s not like it is now where college is heavily scouted. Cincinnati showed interest, and I played there for two years until the WHA merged with the NHL and the Stingers weren’t one of the teams to join.”
A right winger who was neither particularly big nor physical, Gilligan managed 17 goals with the Stingers in his second season, 1978-79. “The WHA was different because they weren’t just trying to sell the game but also the show. They encouraged a lot of crazy stuff. And they tried to sell the game in non-traditional places like Birmingham and Houston and Cincinnati. There were also a lot of characters who helped sell the league as well.”
After the merger, though, he left North America behind to play in Austria for three years. “I was always a third-liner, a marginal player, and at the end of my second year I was wondering why there were some young guys who were making more than me even though I was scoring more goals. One guy was Mark Messier, and the other was Mike Gartner. Messier had one goal that season. Most people knew Gartner was going to be a good player, but not many could be so sure of Messier then.”
“I realized they were the future of the NHL, and there wasn’t going to be much room for me. Maybe I should have waited it out and tried to play a few years in the NHL, but I had a couple of friends who had played in Europe, and I ended up signing a contract pretty early. I didn’t wait for the Dispersal Draft or the Amateur Draft to see what might happen. No regrets.”
So many North Americans who go to Europe get on plane telling themselves they’ll give it a year or two and then come home – and wind up staying much longer. Ditto for Gilligan, who chose Austria as his destination for no particular reason.
“It was pretty accidental, really,” he said of signing with Vienna for the ’79-’80 season. “I liked the country and the people, but it could have been anywhere. I went there, things went well, and one year became two, then three. I stayed 19 years.”
Of course, those 19 years weren’t all as a player. He skated for five years and then in 1984, at age 29, he retired to start a career coaching. “I had a couple of injuries, my eye and a knee, and I’d always been thinking of coaching. Even when I was playing, and as far back as college and high school, my coaches would say I thought like a coach. That was probably a bit of a pain for them, but I always felt I could coach.”
He started in Klagenfurt and took the team to the league championship in each of his first four years. He then went to SC Bern in Switzerland where he had almost parallel success, winning the title three times in four years. Gilligan didn’t return to the U.S. until 1998, where he became an assistant coach with the University of Massachusetts-Amherst for several years.
“I became an assistant coach hoping to get a head coaching job in college. I had a couple of interviews and offers, but sometimes life gets in the way of what you want to do professionally, with a wife, family, kids. My wife sometimes didn’t want to do what I wanted to do. We went back to her home town for a year, just outside Boston, where I’m from as well. I did some scouting for the L.A. Kings, a regional scout on a part-time basis, but then I told myself that I had to get back to coaching.”
Gilligan is philosophical about his comings and goings, realizing they can’t go on forever, but equally happy in life. “Sometimes it’s hard to go to one place, then back to where you want to be. But I thought I’d go home, coach college, and that would have been fine. There wasn’t any particular reason why Austria in the first place or why I returned to Austria.”
Nevertheless, the college coaching gig never happened, so another trip across Davey Jones’s locker was imminent.
“I had to figure out what to do, and I was constantly talking to European teams,” he admitted. “I went to Switzerland for a couple of years, then back to the States, trying to find the right job, but there was that problem of being split between two continents.”
But what coaching in college or with some teams in Europe had in common was security. “I was talking to Andy Murray the other day about how long a coaching life is in the NHL,” he said. “Is it two years? He said it might not even be that long. There aren’t many coaches who stay in one place, and that’s what I like in a job. And there are the family considerations about going back to Europe or the States.”
Gilligan is first to admit he’s neither here nor there, not quite an Austrian who started life in America and not quite an American merely working in Europe. It’s in a complex place somewhere in between.
“I’m comfortable in Austria, and it’s part of my life, but it’s not my home,” he said. “It’s not where I’m from. At some point, I’m going to have to make that choice. Am I going to stay here or move to the States for the rest of my life? For me, I think if you spend enough time in one place, you can make anywhere your home. I feel that I can go any place and be comfortable, but my wife might not be able to do that.”
A significant part of his decision to stay in Austria might or not might be predicated on the federation’s ambitions with its hockey program. He doesn’t see much of a challenge or point in staying if nothing is going to change.
“Look at the Swiss. They have become much, much better. It used to be 20 years ago they played as if they were afraid to win. They don’t have that mentality any more. Austrians have a better mentality, but what we’re lacking is infrastructure. We need more rinks. We need more coaches. There still isn’t a full-time coach of the men’s national team. I’ve been back three years, but it’s a part-time job. We have a lot of good players, and there are a lot of good things going on, but it’s going to take a while.”
Austria has three world class players in the NHL these days – Thomas Vanek, Michael Grabner, and Andreas Nödl – but that isn’t necessarily a good thing, Gilligan suggests, because none developed at home.
“It’s no good for the Austrian players to have players like Vanek and Grabner and Nödl to develop outside the country. They need to develop at home. But we have to have something to provide them. They know if they’re going to develop, they have to go somewhere else. All the good young players are asking, ‘Where can I go?’ and, ‘How soon can I get there?’ That’s not what we want.”
So, while Vanek et al are great stories, their success, “hasn’t translated into team success. Their success has provided motivation for kids to play the sport, but they are not a product of the country’s hockey system. They are isolated cases. They haven’t made an impact at that level.”
And therein lies the rub. Torn between Massachusetts and Europe, coaching and family, short term and long-term commitment, he will once again consider his options this summer before coaching again in Austria. Or Switzerland. Or the U.S. Or...?