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'A man amongst boys': How Newmarket NHLer Kurtis Gabriel left a mark on local hockey

'What we know today as grit, that was Kurtis,' says his former Newmarket AA coach, as local community celebrates signing with Leafs

Kim Gabriel is looking forward to having an easier trip to see her son play hockey games on a massive stage.

The mother of NHLer Kurtis Gabriel will not have to travel far from her Owen Sound home to see him play for his new team, the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Newmarket native signed with his hometown team July 28. He later posted a picture of himself as a kid on Twitter, wearing a Leafs jersey and goalie equipment. 

“It was a little unexpected at the time,” Kim Gabriel said. “It’s every kid in the arena’s dream to play in the NHL, but to play for your favourite team, it was really cool.”

The Gabriel family made its roots in Newmarket, with Kurtis playing in local minor hockey and Kim teaching in Aurora. After a journeyman NHL career that has seen him play for six different AHL and NHL teams, Gabriel is getting a homecoming.

“I’m hoping between the Leafs and the (AHL Toronto) Marlies, I’ll get to see a whole bunch of games this year,” she said. “It’s a whole different experience when you’re watching it on TV and actually in the game. You get to feel the crowd, see what’s going on. Usually I'm a bag of nerves but at least I get to see him after the game.” 

The hockey player was born at Southlake Regional Health Centre and schooled in Newmarket from kindergarten to Grade 12. Gabriel said it was a good place to raise a family. She said her son was attracted to all kinds of sports. 

“Soccer, baseball, basketball and, of course, hockey,” she said. “A lot of friends in Newmarket he knew from school and all these different activities.”

He began to rise through the hockey ranks, playing local and rep hockey in Newmarket and Richmond Hill. 

Tom Jackson coached Gabriel in Newmarket for two years at the rep AA level, on a team that went on to win a tournament in Pittsburgh. Jackson said Gabriel did not stand out as much for his raw skill as he did for his character. 

“He was always prepared to work. He’s always ready to go. He always wants to do what you want him to do. He always asks what he can do to do better,” Jackson said. “What we know today as grit, that was Kurtis.”

Jackson said Gabriel did not necessarily stand out as someone who would go pro at that age, 12 or 13. But he did the things you wanted a player to do and exemplified a workmanlike spirit. 

“Kurtis, he was a man amongst boys from the get-go,” Jackson said. “Determined. You can always count on him for an honest effort.”

2021-08-27-Kurtis Gabriel winning team-JQOne of Kurtis Gabriel's (#10, top right) Newmarket AA teams, after winning a tournament in Pittsburgh. By Supplied photo/Tom Jackson

Joe Pacione also coached Gabriel, when the player was 14 at the Newmarket AA level. He said when he proposed Gabriel try out for defence on a team overloaded with forwards, Gabriel confronted him.

“He walked right up to me like he was 25 years old, with the world of experience under his belt, and said, ‘I’m going to make this team as a forward,’” Pacione said. 

Gabriel did make the team after scoring in the scrimmage on the last day of tryouts and helped the team to success as captain, Pacione said. 

“He left a mark on me in a personal way before he made it to the NHL. He definitely is a special young man,” Pacione said. “His soul and his character.”

Gabriel would go on to get scouted and secure a spot with the OHL's Owen Sound Attack, before getting drafted by the Minnesota Wild in 2013. He made the full-time jump to pro hockey in 2014, bouncing between different NHL and AHL clubs. 

Seeing Gabriel reach the NHL, and now his hometown Leafs, is exciting for the local hockey community, Jackson said.

“Kurtis has reached everything every guy he ever played with hoped he could do. He’s done it for himself, but he’s done it for everybody,” Jackson said, adding Gabriel can be an example to inspire others. “‘I wasn’t the biggest, the fastest. I wasn’t the best guy on every team I was on. I was just the most earnest, and look at what I’ve accomplished by being earnest.’”

Pacione said Gabriel has plenty of contacts in Newmarket who were eager to spread the news of his signing. 

“I do know I got a million phone calls, saying, ‘did you hear, did you hear?,’” Pacione said. 

But Gabriel has also made a name for himself off-the-ice with his advocacy for LGBTQ+ people and social justice. It began when he used a stick with rainbow hockey tape to score an NHL goal with New Jersey in 2019 during a Pride night event. He has opted to keep the hockey tape for his career.

His mother said he had a friend whose family cut her off when she entered a gay relationship. She said that humanized the issue for him.

“From there, he just tried to learn more about it. You have to learn all the time and you make mistakes, but like anything, you learn from them,” she said. “His intention is to support the community in its goal for equality. In everything, not just hockey.”

“You couldn’t be more proud of him,” Jackson said of his social advocacy. “He’s a good kid, a good hockey player, but more importantly, he’s committed to being a better human to make the world a better place.” 

Kim Gabriel said there is no guarantee of how many opportunities he might get to play for the Leafs versus its AHL counterpart, the Toronto Marlies. 

Regardless, she said it is amazing to have seen her child achieve his dreams.

“He knows he’s not the most talented, skilled guy — we’re talking relatively —but he just never stops working, and he has an incredible passion for the game,” she said. “I don’t think it matters what your child is doing as long as they’re happy in it, they’re getting the success they want, they’re enjoying that.”

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Joseph Quigley

About the Author: Joseph Quigley

Joseph is the municipal reporter for NewmarketToday.
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