By Kevin Glew
The King is alive and well and living in Tavistock, Ontario.
No, he’s not Elvis, but former Canadiens forward Gilbert Dionne can still do a spirited impersonation of the rock ’n’ roll icon. During his tenure with the Habs, the charismatic Quebec native’s Elvis parodies earned him the nickname “The King.”
“We do karaoke once in a while (at his home) and my two youngest girls are big singing fans, so sometimes we pull out the microphone and plug the (karaoke) machine into the TV and off we go,” explained Dionne, a father of five.
His wife, on the other hand, isn’t nearly as enthusiastic about his performances.
“I think she just rolls her eyes, because I pretend that I can sing, but she knows darn well that I’m not a good singer,” he said with a chuckle.
“The King” is also an apt nickname for his older brother, Marcel. The elder Dionne starred for almost 12 seasons in Los Angeles and remains the franchise’s all-time leading scorer.
Nineteen years Marcel’s junior, Gilbert was often mistaken for the Kings legend’s son, but when people found out he was a brother, things didn’t get any easier. While he was playing minor hockey in Drummondville, Que., parents would accuse his coaches of playing him solely because of the name on his jersey.
“I remember coming home and asking my parents: ‘Why didn’t I play or why this and why that?’ And my parents, at that time, never really told me the reason, but eventually we talked and they said: ‘You know there’s politics sometimes and coaches probably need to protect themselves as far as parents complaining,’” recalled Gilbert.
The baby in a family of eight children (five sisters and two brothers), Gilbert realized at a young age if he wanted to make a career out of hockey, he wouldn’t be able to ride his brother’s coattails. But that didn’t stop him from idolizing his older sibling.
“When Marcel was in L.A., he used to come back and play against Montreal and the Quebec Nordiques and I’d go out and watch him play,” Gilbert said. “He’d make the trip once a year and then he’d come during the holiday season and the off-season in the summer to visit for a couple of weeks and then he’d take off again, but we were used to not seeing him.”
Contrary to Marcel’s short and stocky build, Gilbert was relatively tall and thin. Like his brother, however, Gilbert decided to play his junior hockey in Ontario. Marcel would help orchestrate Gilbert’s move to Niagara Falls, where the wide-eyed teen would suit up for the Jr. B Canucks. Without knowing a word of English, Gilbert bravely reported to the border city and learned much of the language in dressing rooms.
“I definitely learned the (swear) words that are probably not in the dictionary,” he said.
Despite scoring 84 points in 36 games in Niagara Falls in 1987-88, he wasn’t considered a top prospect. The Kitchener Rangers eventually selected him in the 19th round of the OHL draft.
After tallying 44 points in 66 games in his first OHL season, he would notch 48 goals and 105 points in his sophomore campaign, helping the Rangers advance to the Memorial Cup final. His performance convinced the Montreal Canadiens to select him in the fourth round (81st overall) of the 1990 draft.
Gilbert’s first extended tenure in Montreal took place in 1991-92. Skating primarily on a line with Shayne Corson and Mike Keane, he tallied 21 goals in 39 games and was named to the NHL All-Rookie Team.
“I would just go to the net and the puck would end up on my stick. I just kept it as simple as possible and it worked out for me,” he said.
The next year the young Dionne would notch 12 points in 20 playoff games to help the Habs win the Stanley Cup. In winning the Cup, Gilbert had accomplished something that his older brother, in his storied 18-year career, had not. Fortunately, the elder Dionne was on hand at the Cup-clinching contest to celebrate.
“I had two tickets available and I asked Marcel and his wife to be there. He came to the game luckily. I kept waiting for my turn (to hoist the Cup on the ice after the game) and I said: ‘No, I’m going to wait until I’m at that section so I can raise the Cup in front of my brother,’” Gilbert recalled. “It was one of the best things ever and I just raised the Cup up and I almost dropped it because it’s about 35 pounds and throughout the playoffs I lost about 15 pounds. I raised it toward my brother and it was the highlight of my life to show him that, ‘Hey, we finally did it.’”
Unfortunately, the honeymoon in Montreal was short-lived. The Canadiens and their fans expected more offensively from Gilbert and on Feb. 9, 1995, he was dealt to Philadelphia along with Eric Desjardins and John LeClair for Mark Recchi and a third-round draft pick. After suiting up for 22 games with the Flyers, he was signed by the Florida Panthers in Jan. 1996. He would play five games for the Panthers that season.
He also enjoyed four productive seasons with the IHL’s Cincinnati Cyclones from 1997-98 to 2000-01, becoming such a Queen City favorite that Dec. 2, 2006 was declared “Gilbert Dionne Day” and his number was retired.
Dionne spent his final two pro seasons in Germany, toiling alongside a number of other Canadians, before calling it quits.
Now settled in Tavistock with his wife, Heather, and five children, ranging in age from seven months to 16 years old, he works as a grain merchant for Parrish and Heimbecker. The company sells agricultural commodities and operates a series of grain elevators across Canada.
“I made a decision to work outside of hockey. The best thing is to do a nine-to-five job so I can come home to my kids and my wife every night,” he said.
Family is very important to the youngest Dionne, who, in between his weekly pick-up games, still manages to coach his son’s hockey team and stay in close contact with Marcel.
“I know in the back of my mind if I ever need anything, regardless of how many times I call Marcel or talk to him, he’s always going to be there for me,” he said.
“The King” is content with his post-hockey life – a life that affords him more experiences with his wife and children, and more time to work on his Elvis impersonation.