Interview with former Lehigh Valley Phantom Kurtis Gabriel
Watch: Full Interview with Kurtis Gabriel
I would like to preface this interview by saying that when I talked with Kurtis I realized that he embodies everything the perfect enforcer should be, on and off the ice. While yes, enforcers are rare due to the rule changes and fast pace of today’s game, Kurtis could practically be the poster child.
Often it’s thought that the enforcer is the tough guy, the villain on the other team who’s always looking for the opportunity to ruin someone else’s day, but this couldn’t be farther from the truth. The enforcer is his teams’ protector, he puts his body on the line night after night to keep his teammates safe, it’s the most selfless role in all of hockey. A true enforcer puts himself right in the line of fire, not because he has to, but because he wants to, because he cares. It’s a role that means protecting the little guy so that everyone has the opportunity to contribute.
Kurtis is a big guy, he’s 6,4, 216 lbs, and aims to play a fourth-line tough guy role, but most importantly he’s an enforcer where it counts, in everyday life. Kurtis uses his social media platforms to discuss topics that too many are taboo, especially in the sports world. The negative remarks he receives do not faze him because the positive messages from those he has helped are what truly matter.
It’s this mentality that makes him a real enforcer, an amazing person off the ice, and what I imagine to be an incredible locker room presence and team player. I wish Kurtis the best of luck in the next few days as training camp comes to a close, and hope he will be able to secure a spot on the Sharks roster for the 2021 NHL season.
We discussed his activism, his time with the Phantoms, his relationship with Flyers’ forward Nolan Patrick following the heated game between the two in 2019, and his excitement for this upcoming season in San Jose with the Sharks organization.
It’s difficult to talk about social issues when they are considered to be taboo, so I asked Kurtis what prompted him to take action and if he ever feared backlash from the hockey community or even from within the locker room:
“I fell into this organically, and I think everybody has to come to it in their own time. For example, when Colin Kaepernick took a knee, I wasn’t, I still had white fragility all over the place, I still didn’t know how to talk about these issues, I didn’t understand them. And I put a wall up. So I fell into the LGBTQ stuff in Jersey the year before, with the Pride night there and putting the pride tape on my stick and scoring that big goal against the Canadians, you know, for inclusion obviously was like the highlight of my career to this point. And so I fell into it that way. It stemmed from an experience in the summer of my ex girlfriend’s friend who came out to be in a relationship with a woman and wasn’t supported by her family financially anymore. And I just thought she was just a sweetheart. And I couldn’t understand someone being unsupportive for that reason. And it kind of stuck with me, that was my first experience of seeing, you know, firsthand humanizing of an issue. And that kind of got me jump started… I quickly realized that I’m on the right side of this issue. And I don’t think I need to worry about what people think about it. I wish I got into it a little bit earlier, but the way that the world is now, we all know that if you’re not on the right side of this issue, you’re gonna get attacked for those reasons. So I think we need to work on not canceling people. So we open the discussion. But I’m not worried that people don’t want me to play on their team. Because if they don’t support my views, and they don’t want me to play for that reason, I don’t want to play for them.”
Gabriel recently had two pairs of custom skates made, this was his inspiration:
“I thought I could you know what put a tasteful amount of social justice on my skates for issues I’m passionate about and I thought why not split it between the two I do, so left skate has the rainbow and the regular true logo hockey skates part and ‘love is love’ on the back. And then the Black Lives Matter on the other skate with a fist. It’s not in your face aggressive that it should take away too much from the game and I know we’re trying to be traditional hockey and I want to ease it in I don’t want to push anyone too far. But I also thought if I have the tape on my stick Why can’t I have a little rainbow and one of the skates and you know a fist, like why not? So? Yeah, I just it’s been a lot of fun.”
When he played for the Phantoms, Gabriel won their American specialty AHL man of the year award, being involved with local communities is a key aspect of who he is as a player:
“I just started to slowly kind of start to realize that there’s nothing wrong with saying, you go do charity, and the people that you’re with or hospital or the police officers or whoever you’re with spending time with, they get something out of it, but I get something out of it too. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. There’s this thing called karma and people helping people. And if I’m sacrificing my time, but they’re also sacrificing their time, I’m spending time with them, but they give me something back. They give me a different perspective. They give me what they’re going through. And I feel like I take my mind off the game. So really, I try to say that because it’s not just making a sacrifice, like, as you can get something from this too. And it’s okay to say that I think that that’s amazing. And I think people can tap into that more, when people start helping people, magical things are happening. So I just found that that really helps me and it helps others so why not keep doing it.”
In March of 2019, while Kurtis played for the New Jersey Devils, he and Nolan Patrick played a very heated and physical game that ended with Gabriel getting a 5 minute major for boarding and a one game suspension. I was curious if he and Patrick had spoken about these events after the incident or once Kurtis joined the Flyers organization:
“Yeah, right away in training camp. You know, there’s an AHL and NHL one [locker room] so I was in there and I walked around the corner and there he was, and it was just kind of like, ‘Hey, what’s up, buddy?’ Shake hands. You know, ‘how you doing? You know, I really didn’t mean to hit you like that’, you know. I’ve been hit from behind. That’s the first time I’ve been suspended for a hit, so I was pretty remorseful. But I just wanted to say like, Hey, I hope that didn’t contribute to the problems you’re having. And he communicated that it didn’t. He told me some other stuff that I won’t share here that I appreciated him telling me. Yeah, so I’ll leave it at that. Hopefully I get to play against him one day, and I think he still kind of got a shot back on me which I like back so it’s definitely going to be an interesting game when I play him again.”
Chuck Fletcher said that Gabriel wants to be an NHL player more than anyone he’s ever met, and Kurtis has kept this energy during training camp with San Jose:
“I’m really happy to be in a place that really wanted me and that was my number one choice for free agency and I think that’s where happiness comes from, you chase your dream, and you go all out at it. And I don’t hold back at all. And I think it’s pretty evident when you spend time around me and follow me on social media. It’s very authentic, very real. And I just want to see how far I can push myself in this great game. I love the role I play. I so badly want to be a regular in the NHL, I so badly want to play playoff games in the NHL again. And I so badly want to win a Stanley Cup and be that unsung kind of hero, fourth line, tough guy. So that’s where the motivation comes from, for me, but I think I haven’t reached that potential in the past because I put too much pressure on myself. And I think now, I really have a different mindset. And I’ve really invested in working at it. And I’m so much freer now, I don’t walk around on eggshells, I don’t worry about not making it, I just go give my best. And if it’s not good enough, I won’t play there. And I’m going to be okay, I’m going to survive, I’m not just spontaneously combust and die if I don’t make the NHL. That’s what I used to think. So now I know that, hey, if I make it I make it and it’s gonna be amazing. If not, I’ve got a great bunch of other things going.”
Kurtis has a very positive outlook on the newly formatted 2021 season and is excited for whatever it brings:
“I think that I’m seeing it as an advantage for me. I think I love the game at a certain level and I think some other guys enjoy off the ice more, whether that’s on other teams, or here guys try to make it and I just truly love playing hockey. And I could play like this forever. I mean, the more important to me part is playing hockey and training and getting better every day. And if I had the opportunity to have some time off away from the rink, that’s great. But we’re not going to get that this year. And you’re going to have to adapt to the protocols. And like as our team said, you don’t want to be the hand grenade that brings COVID back in the locker room and blows up the team. So it’s always gonna be on the players. We’re really trying to keep our distance from each other. I really don’t want to get it, I can’t afford it. So I’m quite alright with this. And I just want to play in the NHL. That’s all I care about.”
Big thanks to Kurtis Gabriel for finding the time during his busy schedule to sit down and talk. Once again, I wish him the best of luck in San Jose.
Update: Kurtis Gabriel has been placed on waivers by the Sharks
Mandatory credit: JustSports Photography