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Every National Hockey League player wants to write a storybook ending to his career, and for a time in March, it looked as if Doug Gilmour would get to do it.

Here was his favourite former team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, loading up for a Stanley Cup at the NHL trade deadline. Owen Nolan and Glen Wesley were already aboard before general manager Pat Quinn engineered a complicated deal with the Montreal Canadiens involving deferred salary and other considerations that brought Gilmour back into the Leafs' fold.

Gilmour was motivated and he was healthy -- or as healthy as any undersized 39-year-old who'd played a mean, competitive game for almost two decades was ever going to get. His arrival with the darling Buds cranked up the volume in Maple Leafs Nation to an even higher note. The stand-pat era was ending; the Maple Leafs were actually going to make a run. Hosannas rang from the rooftops, or at least they were heard on The Fan, where Leafs loyalists embraced the return of the prodigal son with religious-like fervour.

Then, in the second period of his first game, disaster struck. Gilmour stumbled over a fallen Calgary Flames player, Dave Lowry, wrecked his knee and couldn't return.

Now, some six months later, with the job offers not exactly racing in, Gilmour made it official yesterday -- after 20 seasons and 1,474 NHL games, he was retiring.

Gilmour finishes 12th on the NHL career games-played list (he passed Tim Horton and Mike Gartner in his final year) and 13th in points (passing Dale Hawerchuk and Jari Kurri in his final year). Gartner, Hawerchuk and Kurri were all inducted into the Hockey Hall Of Fame in the class of 2000, so it seems probable -- even likely -- that Gilmour will follow as soon as the mandatory three-year waiting period expires.

Professionally, Gilmour's greatest moment came in the spring of 1989 when he won his one and only Stanley Cup championship as a member of the Flames. Gilmour and Mark Hunter joined the Flames from the St. Louis Blues in September of the previous year in a one-sided deal that cost Calgary the services of Mike Bullard (the skilled, but defensively deficient centre, not the comedian).

Gilmour's presence in the lineup changed everything for Calgary. He turned out to be the perfect complement to the team's other dominant centre, Joe Nieuwendyk, who was scoring 45 goals on an annual basis back then.

Gilmour was deathly ill down the stretch in the 1988-89 season and, as a result, had an uneventful opening playoff round against the Vancouver Canucks. From there, however, he and his linemates, Joey Mullen and Colin Patterson, gradually evolved into the team's No. 1 unit. On the night the Flames won the Stanley Cup (they were the only visiting team in history to win on Montreal Forum ice), Gilmour scored the winning and insurance goals in Calgary's 4-2 victory and was, arguably, their most important forward in the final month of the playoffs.

In all, Gilmour was traded five times in his career. It is not overstating matters to argue that the second time it happened -- the controversial 10-player trade in 1992 that landed him in Toronto for the first time -- it dramatically shifted the fortunes of two NHL teams. Calgary didn't win another playoff round after Gilmour's exit. Meanwhile, the Maple Leafs, who had long been an NHL laughingstock thanks to the mismanaged stewardship of owner Harold Ballard, suddenly became respectable. Soon after Gilmour's arrival, the Leafs twice qualified for the Stanley Cup semi-finals. In the 1992-93 season, he had his best-ever statistical output -- 127 points in 83 games and another 35 more in 21 playoff games.

Even though the Leafs lost to the Los Angeles Kings in the 1993 Western Conference final, his 25 assists led all playoff performers, including even Wayne Gretzky. The fact that Gilmour won only one major NHL award, the 1993 Selke Trophy as the league's top defensive forward, was largely the result of playing his prime in the same era as Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.

Now some may remember that Gilmour sort of retired once before. That happened after the 2000-01 season, when he was playing for the Buffalo Sabres. After the Sabres' second-round playoff exit, Gilmour said he was moving on. He talked about cooking classes, old-timers hockey and spending more time with his family.

The next day, the NHL Players Association sent out a news release denying the original story. Gilmour, it turned out, wasn't ready to pack it in after all. So he squeezed two more seasons out of his 5-foot-11, 177-pound body, which would sometimes shrink to the low 160s, depending on how deep his team went into the NHL playoffs.

In the spring of 2002, Gilmour was playing like his old, agitating self in the Canadiens' opening-round upset of the top-seeded Boston Bruins. The Canadiens' playoff luck ran out in the second round against the Carolina Hurricanes, a series they looked fully capable of winning. That, in turn, would have set up a Canadiens-Leafs series for the Eastern Conference championship, a potential match-up that had purists and traditionalists alike salivating.

It didn't happen, and the Canadiens' 8-2 loss to the Hurricanes that spring turned out to be Gilmour's final career playoff action.

So Gilmour follows fellow Kingston native Kirk Muller into retirement, unable to write the final chapter in what could have been a storybook ending. Life is sometimes like that. It has this pesky habit of getting in the way of best-case scenarios.

The fact that the Maple Leafs' new general manager, John Ferguson Jr., effectively closed the door on Gilmour's possible return on the same day he took the job, ultimately convinced Gilmour that, this time, his career truly was over.

With both Gilmour and Muller now on the sidelines, the only question remaining is: Who is left for Don Cherry to kiss on Coach's Corner? All of his favourite players are going, going, gone.

Eric Duhatschek writes a daily hockey column for globeandmail.com.

eduhatschek@globeandmail.ca