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Montreal Canadiens' Brendan Gallagher gets caught in between Carolina Hurricanes' Joni Pitkanen, left, and Jay Harrison during third period NHL hockey action Monday, April 1, 2013 in Montreal. The Canadiens beat the Hurricanes 4-1. (Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Montreal Canadiens' Brendan Gallagher gets caught in between Carolina Hurricanes' Joni Pitkanen, left, and Jay Harrison during third period NHL hockey action Monday, April 1, 2013 in Montreal. The Canadiens beat the Hurricanes 4-1. (Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Sean Gordon

Canadiens' Gallagher thrives in a land of NHL giants Add to ...

These are the legs of a colossus, sturdy and thick.

Except they are attached to – and serve to propel – a perpetually grinning 20-year-old kid who weighs 178 pounds and stands barely 5 foot 9 in his sneakers and baggy gym shorts.

This is, of course, by design.

If fearlessness, drive and skill are what allowed Brendan Gallagher to bustle into a first-line role with the Montreal Canadiens, one of the things that will keep him there is the years spent strengthening his lower body in order to thrive in areas of the ice typically dominated by larger men.

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The Edmonton-born Gallagher started working seriously on developing leg strength when he was 14, under the watchful eye of his father Ian, a former pro lacrosse player and physical education teacher who trains high-performance athletes. (He has worked with NHLers, and is the strength coach for the Western Hockey League’s Vancouver Giants, where his son played junior.)

“Brendan showed a lot of desire at a very young age,” the elder Gallagher said with a chuckle. “As a parent, you just want to give him the chance to follow it through. He was the one who determined the degree to which he put in the work, we were just vehicles.”

It’s also around that time that Gallagher made the acquaintance of an NHL washout named Jaroslav (Yogi) Svejkovsky. After injuries derailed Svejkovsky’s promising pro career, the Czech-born former first-round draft pick reinvented himself as a skills coach. Gallagher credits him for teaching the art of how to play behind the net and along the boards.

“He’s someone I worked with every day in the summer,” Gallagher said. “It’s about being comfortable on your edges, understanding where the defenceman is, where his stick is, how much pressure he’s putting on you. You try and use their strength to spin off and go the other way. It’s something he’s taught me.”

Since he started playing high-level competitive hockey, Gallagher has mixed on-ice practice drills with a customized fitness and dietary regimen designed by his dad. There are advantages to having an in-house conditioning expert.

“We made certain Brendan was a multisport athlete,” said Ian, whose plan was inspired by those used by smaller NHLers like Theo Fleury, Mike Comrie and Martin St. Louis. “He played lacrosse, he grabbed a huge passion for baseball. Making sure he wasn’t too linear in his focus was a great help.”

Ian describes the approach as “natural body movement with resistance” – beach running and stair-climbing, in addition to traditional weight-room work – and through it, his son has transformed his body.

In that sense, Gallagher is the prototype of the modern NHLer. He has been shaping himself physically and honing specific skills since early adolescence.

“The most important thing has been leg strength and lower-body power,” Gallagher said. “For a guy my stature, it’s the thing you really focus on. I know the type of player I am, the stuff we do in the summer is strictly to help me perform. It’s for my body type, and that’s something I appreciate. There’s a lot of power, squats, dead lifts are big for us, jumping. Every week we do plyometrics and that sort of stuff.”

The net result?

Gallagher has built himself into a compact force in the physical mould of teammate Brian Gionta, Tampa Bay’s St. Louis and Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby – undersized players who are charter members of the NHL’s roomy trousers set.

Though his skill level doesn’t approach Crosby’s, he shares the same low centre of gravity and uncanny ability to skate away with the puck after engaging in battles with towering defencemen. (The consensus among NHL defencemen is that Crosby, generously listed at 5 foot 11, is the hardest player in the league to deal with in the corners because it’s virtually impossible to bump him off the puck.)

“I think it’s because guys think they’ll be able to lean on [Gallagher], but you can’t, because of his strength and shiftiness,” said Habs defenceman Josh Gorges, who has offered his guest bedroom to his young teammate this season and marvels at the resulting grocery bills. “It’s fun to watch, but it isn’t fun to play against those kinds of guys. And he’s only going to get stronger, he’s got a few more years before he hits his physical prime. More than strength, he’s going to get more efficient.”

He’s done all right so far.

Witness a signature moment in Gallagher’s first professional season: March 19, with his team down 2-0 in the third period against Buffalo at the Bell Centre. Gallagher smuggled the puck away from 6-foot-4 defenceman Robyn Regehr on the side boards, dived behind the net against 6-foot-8 Tyler Myers and six-foot centre Cody Hodgson, wriggled out with the puck, and stormed to the front of the net.

Linemate Max Pacioretty swept his perfect feed past Ryan Miller to key a rally, although the Canadiens lost 3-2 in overtime. Gallagher finished the sequence where he usually does: on the edge of the goal crease (Gallagher may lead the league in cuffs received by opposing defencemen).

This sort of thing happens all the time, and should draw the notice of voters for the Calder Memorial Trophy, awarded to the NHL’s top rookie.

Beyond the goals and the points (Gallagher is tied for second on the team with 11 goals, and his 21 points overall put him third among rookies), the diminutive youngster brings a level of determination and desire that his teammates describe as infectious.

This is a young man who has sweated hard to prepare himself for the big time. No one in the NHL should be surprised if his legs – and his determination – carry him to lofty heights.

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