Bert Gilling parlayed his passion for hockey into a scholarship at the University of Minnesota Duluth, and later a position as an assistant coach at Bemidji State University. Gilling loved the job but uprooted his family after being offered a head coaching position at Mount Royal University. Now, in his third year leading the men’s hockey team, Gilling is continuing to work hard to improve the program.
Gilling always had a passion for sports, especially hockey, but it was hard for him to start playing as his hometown of Alexander, Man. didn’t present opportunities to play organized sports. This lack of opportunity, paired with the fact that Gilling’s family “wasn’t a hockey family, per se,” meant he began playing the game later than most players.
Gilling received his first pair of skates when he was around seven or eight years old and became involved with organized hockey in Brandon, Man. when he was around eight or nine. “You know, you hear stories of kids getting into it at four years old. As soon as they can walk, they put on skates. That wasn’t my story.”
Though it took him a couple of seasons to catch up to the skill level of kids who had been playing longer, Gilling continued making his way up the ranks. “As I got a little bit older into peewee and bantam and started getting more serious [I] started to sit there saying ‘I want to keep going … how far can I go?’”
When the time came to make the decision about whether he would pursue major junior hockey or go to university and play at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) level, Gilling knew what his choice would be. Influenced by his uncle who had played in the NCAA and with his parents in mind, Gilling picked university.
“I realized all the effort and the money and the sacrifices my parents made for me, and I kind of deep down knew I wasn’t an NHL-level player. But I figured that if I could parlay [hockey] into a scholarship … that would be a pretty good gift back to them.”
Gilling accepted a scholarship offer from the University of Minnesota Duluth.
“So now I’m all of a sudden a university student, I’m going to a different country, I’m going to a foreign league that I had no idea about … I had never seen a college hockey game live. I had no idea what I was getting into. None.”
Eventually, Gilling settled into his new surroundings. He chose to get an English teaching degree when he discovered Minnesota Duluth didn’t offer his first choice of sports psychology. What they did offer, though, was a minor in coaching.
His minor in coaching, combined with his passion for analyzing hockey and his time as captain of the UMD Bulldogs, are all experiences Gilling points to as influencing his decision to become a coach.
Finding an opportunity to coach turned out to be no harder than walking through the athletics hallway in Duluth. “It was on a Sunday, so there was nobody around and I remember there was a posting on one of the bulletin boards in the UMD athletics office saying graduate assistantship-Bemidji State University,” says Gilling. “I remember I ripped it off the wall. I didn’t want anybody else to get it.”
The position offered was volunteer assistant coach for the Bemidji State Beavers in Bemidji, Minn. Though not familiar with the program, Gilling did know two key members of the Beavers, head coach Bob Peters and assistant coach Tom Serratore. Motivated by his desire to pursue coaching and encouraged by his connection to Peters and Serratore, Gilling interviewed for the position, which he would ultimately get. Gilling was a volunteer assistant coach for the Beavers for two years while he earned his master’s degree in sports studies.
After graduating Gilling was hired on full-time as an assistant coach, a position he held for the next 13 years. Gilling says his experience at Bemidji was integral in shaping who he is as a coach. “My experience there, what I experienced of building a successful program and the things that happen along the way have really set the foundation for me as a coach,” he says.
The Beavers first joined division one NCAA hockey in Gilling’s first year. They suffered numerous seasons of adversity before turning themselves into a successful program with a dedicated fan base. “That Bemidji State experience for me, I could talk about that forever,” he says. “At Bemidji State, we started from scratch and we ended up getting a $50 million facility built for us. We ended up playing in the highest level of college hockey. We ended up playing for a national championship … no one ever thought that would happen.”
Towards the end of his stint at Bemidji, Gilling reached a point when he began to wonder about his future. “It was kind of getting to the point where I’m like okay, where am I at? Am I a lifelong assistant coach? … Can I be a head coach? Who would take me?”
After applying for head coaching jobs around the NCAA and receiving no callbacks, Gilling turned to one of his mentors, Tom Skinner, for insight. Skinner said, “In hockey coaching, for whatever reason, at 39 years old you’re still viewed as a young coach but at 40 you start to be viewed as an old coach.” Gilling says this stuck with him and motivated him to keep looking for that elusive head coaching opportunity.
Skinner wasn’t the only one in Gilling’s life offering insight at that time. His wife, Sheila Gilling, always felt her husband was destined to be a head coach and encouraged him to continue pursuing a job. “He’s just meant to do that and I’ve always said that. I’ve believed in him from day one,” she said. “It’s just who he is and I knew if he got a position where he was a head coach, he would do well.”
The insight and support offered by Skinner and Sheila motivated her husband to continue applying for head coaching jobs at the NCAA level. When he still didn’t get any callbacks, Gilling realized he may have to look for an opportunity elsewhere. This lead him to explore Canada West.
At the time, the league had three head coaching positions available; The University of Lethbridge, The University of British Columbia, and Mount Royal University. Though he knew the least about MRU, Gilling decided to pursue the position.
After being offered the position, Gilling was still a bit hesitant. “I had a good situation, my family was in a good situation. This was a big move. But I had the support of my wife and kids and this was an opportunity to be a head coach and I know how hard they are to come by at high levels.”
Sheila said it wasn’t difficult for her to support her husband in his decision. “I’ve always said, if you truly believe that this is what you want, we’ll do it,” she said. “As a family, we will do it.”
Upon arriving, Gilling was reassured of his decision. “It’s been the right fit from day one.”
Now in his third season, Gilling’s goal for the Cougars’ program is to keep developing. “The challenge I have is: can we take the next step? Can we be more committed to off-the-ice training? Can we achieve more in the classroom? Can we develop our practice habits? I would say, the results will take care of themselves.”
“I think he’s been probably the most influential person in not only hockey but MRU athletics for the last few years.” -Matthew Brown, Captain of the MRU men’s hockey team
It seems players have heard Gilling’s message loud and clear. Cougars’ captain Matthew Brown, who was named captain in Gilling’s first season, echoed his coach’s sentiments when asked about what the team is focusing on this season. “The real challenge is making sure that we show up on a consistent basis and not just working hard but working smart too,” Brown says. “I think it’s kind of our goal moving forward is to find that consistency weekend to weekend.”
Brown says that under Gilling, the team has developed practice habits that they believe will help them find that consistency they’re looking for; “The idea is … practice hard and then the games will be that much easier.”
When asked how Gilling is as a coach, Brown says “I think he’s been probably the most influential person in not only hockey but MRU athletics for the last few years.” His influence, Brown says, is felt both on and off the ice. “He’s done a great job, obviously, bringing systems to our program but I think the big stress is culture and just having championship work ethic in all aspects of our lives from school to… your social life, getting into the gym, training, and at the rink.”
Many of Gilling’s abilities as a coach have come with time and experience behind the bench. Over his lengthy career, Sheila has noticed a few changes in her husband both at and away from the rink.
His public speaking skills, his confidence and his ability to motivate his players are all things Sheila has seen grow stronger over the years. “His beliefs have become very solid and that improves his confidence,” she says. “So when he’s speaking … you wouldn’t say no to him because he believes it so strongly.”
Though some of Gilling’s talents have come with time, Sheila also acknowledges the natural talent her husband has to motivate people. “That’s what a leader does, right? They have that gift. And he’s got it, there’s no doubt about it.”
Away from the rink, Sheila says his new job has allowed him to spend more time at home with their family, a luxury that wasn’t afforded when he was an assistant coach at Bemidji.
“He was so busy before with his other job that you just miss so much and you don’t even realize it because you’re gone all the time and now he’s able to see more. So, I see that. I think he’s a better dad.”
When reflecting on what he’s seen change in himself, Gilling says he’s become more mature. “I’ve seen a lot of different things and you’re always a student as a coach. When you think you have all the answers, people have said, it’s time to get out because in this thing you’re always constantly learning.”
The editor responsible for this article is Tayari Skey and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org