It’s an understatement to say that Tom Gilbert’s high school hockey career blossomed under a microscope.
Not only did Gilbert play for one of the most recognizable and dominant programs in the state, Bloomington Jefferson, but the former Jaguars’ star and his teammates were also immortalized in arguably the most infamous book on Minnesota high school hockey ever written, John Rosengren’s “Blades of Glory.”
The book, called by some the “Friday Night Lights” treatment of hockey in the state, chronicled the story of the Jaguars romp through the 2000-2001 season – Gilbert’s senior year.
And it wasn’t always kind.
It celebrated the student-athletes within its pages, but it also looked at the pressures the Jaguars faced – and to which they sometimes succumbed. At the time Jefferson was a superpower and had its eyes on the ultimate prize, a state title. Through all their faults and virtues, the Jaguars focused on getting to St. Paul.
Ultimately, they fell short of their goal in a shocking 2-1 loss to Eastview in the Section 5 semifinals.
“The only thing we didn’t do that year is that we didn’t close out that game,” said legendary Jefferson coach Tom Saterdalen, who won 703 games and seven state championships during his coaching career.
Gilbert does have regrets about his final year at Jefferson.
“We were all so young,” recalled Gilbert on the eve of his sixth NHL training camp with the Edmonton Oilers. “It was a great team, but how we fell short was so disappointing. I wish I could have been more of a leader and brought the team together.”
Still, Gilbert maintained that he wouldn’t relinquish any of his memories of that year, both for the friendships he maintained and the hockey development he still needed.
“I had the option to try out for the U.S. Developmental team just before my junior year, but I didn’t want to go out there for that,” Gilbert said. “I liked playing at Jefferson and playing with my buddies. I liked how competitive high school hockey was in our conference.”
“For me, my senior year was about the opportunity to play with my buddies,” said Gilbert, who was a Mr. Hockey finalist his senior year. “We’d been together since we were kids. It was the best time. Those are friendships that last forever.”
Gilbert was a multi-sport star at Jefferson, also lettering in baseball for two seasons. As a senior, he was a team captain, All-Conference selection and was chosen to play in the annual Lions’ All-Star game. He capped his high school career by being named the 2001 Male Athlete of the Year at Jefferson.
“If you’re leaving, you’re going to play just one sport,” stated Gilbert. “For me, the more sports I was involved in the better. I think it’s more of advantage to play multiple sports to become a better athlete.”
But it was on the ice that Gilbert excelled.
“He knew how to make that first pass to open it up. He made a great first outlet pass,” said Saterdalen, who also said Gilbert had the great feet of a top-level defenseman which he has become in the NHL.
Gilbert had been a high-scoring forward through the youth ranks in Bloomington, but Saterdalen moved him to the blue line in his sophomore season. He built up his skill base as a defenseman before spending his senior season up front.
After his high school career, Gilbert played one year in the USHL with the Chicago Steel and was drafted in the fifth round of the NHL draft by the Colorado Avalanche. But before the NHL beckoned, Gilbert played a full four years at the University of Wisconsin.
He was the Badgers’ team MVP his final two years and earned All-American honors as a senior, which ended with Gilbert scoring the game-winning goal in the 2006 NCAA Championship game against Boston College.
For the 2006-07 season, Gilbert signed a pro contract with the NHL’s Oilers and spent just 33 games in the minors at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton before injuries cleared his path to the big leagues. He was recalled in January 2007 and scored his first NHL goal in the final seconds of a Feb. 20 game against the Ottawa Senators, sending it to overtime.
In 2007-08, he broke camp with the Oilers and continued his immediate impact.
By the end of that season, he had racked up 10 goals as an offensive defenseman, breaking the Oilers’ team record for a rookie shared by Marc-Andre Bergeron and Hall of Famer Paul Coffey. Just a month later, the Oilers signed Gilbert to a six-year contract extension, the longest the team had given out since Wayne Gretzky was in uniform.
Through five NHL seasons and 337 games, Gilbert had 30 goals, 111 assists, 141 points and 94 penalty minutes. And he’s just getting warmed up.
“I took a pretty long route to get where I’m at, playing three years of high school, a year of juniors, four years of college and a year in the minors,” said Gilbert. “Is there a day that goes by that I wish I could take it back?
“Absolutely not. I was in no rush. Development is the reason I ended up here (with the Oilers). I wasn’t ready back then.”