Ben Gallacher is your everyday laid back guy from Alberta, Canada.
He’s a college student who tries not to take life too seriously. He enjoys hanging out with friends and has a supportive family.
Just two years ago, he taught himself how to play the guitar by watching instructional videos on YouTube, and now it’s simply become another relaxing hobby for him. He likes to percussively strum the tune of songs by alternative and indie folk artists such as Ben Harper and Bon Iver. It’s nothing mainstream, but it’s just the way he likes it.
“I’m not playing Avicii on my guitar,” Gallacher said. “I’m an acoustic guy. It’s really mellow.”
Like many young Canadians, there’s also another important hobby that Gallacher is more passionate about than anything else: playing hockey.
Gallacher first laced up a pair of skates and picked up a hockey stick at 5 years old. Sixteen years later, he’s a sophomore defenseman on the Massachusetts hockey team.
But Gallacher isn’t that same laid back guy when he steps onto the ice. There’s too much at stake. He’s a competitor with big aspirations and he’s sure to let it show when the Minutemen open their 2013-14 season at Boston University on Friday night, his first game with UMass and his first college hockey game since Feb. 24, 2012.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Gallacher said. “I’m happy to be back in college hockey.”
Not the right fit
Gallacher originally signed with Ohio State as a highly touted recruit under longtime Buckeyes coach John Markell. He was selected by the Florida Panthers in the fourth round of the 2010 NHL Draft and his skills as a puck-moving defenseman made him an ideal fit for just about any system.
However, when he arrived in Columbus in 2011, Markell was no longer the coach. Gallacher instead played for Mark Osiecki and led all CCHA freshman defensemen in scoring with 12 points on a goal and 11 assists. But by the end of the year it was clear to Gallacher that Ohio State wasn’t the place for him.
“It just wasn’t a good fit,” Gallacher said. “It’s a great program out there and a great coaching staff, but it was a personal decision that I made.”
While Gallacher wouldn’t talk in depth about the decision to leave the Buckeyes, he saw it as a learning experience to be “put in the position I was in.”
Gallacher couldn’t play in college last season due to NCAA transfer regulations, so he spent the year playing for the Green Bay Gamblers of the United States Hockey League. In 42 games he registered 19 points on four goals and 15 assists with a plus-2 rating, all while taking classes in order to remain eligible for 2013-14.
But before he could worry about that, he still needed to find a new home.
Coming to UMass
The Minutemen were going through some changes themselves at the time. UMass was preparing to begin its first season under new coach John Micheletto, and with that came a new philosophy, a new system and a new culture.
Gallacher was a perfect fit for all of the above.
He met with Micheletto and assistant coach Joey Gasparini and they told him that they wanted to “turn the culture around here” and “become a winning program,” according to Gallacher. It was something he certainly wanted to be a part of.
Micheletto was looking for the Minutemen to become a faster, grittier, more aggressive team the moment he set foot on campus, and believed Gallacher was just the type of player for that role.
“Ben likes to go,” Micheletto said. “His natural instincts are aggressive in most areas so we like to play on our toes in a way that puts Ben at an advantage in terms of understanding how we want to play. He’s got very good instincts on the fly, which helps with his decision-making and his sorting through his options with the puck on his stick. He jumps and joins well from the back end and certainly can defend well enough to turn pucks over and get us going in transition.
“It makes it easy when you have that sort of skill set already. It’s just about honing the skills that he already comes with.”
Now that he is officially a Minuteman, Gallacher will finally have a chance to put those skills on display for all of Hockey East to see, including his mother, who he said is making the trip to Agganis Arena to watch him play.
It appears he’s already made quite the impression in practice so far, though. He’s been working with senior Joel Hanley, also an offensively-gifted defenseman, on UMass’ top defensive pairing. The two together expect to be a lethal offensive threat both in even strength and on the power play.
“That’s the plan,” Hanley said. “I think we’ll go off each other and push each other, so I think having a guy like that is good for me and the rest of the D-corps.”
With that being said, Gallacher doesn’t want to restrict himself to just being offensive-minded because that can lead to mistakes on the defensive end.
“I like to be offensive-minded, I like to jump up in the rush as much as I can, but sometimes it’s a little too much, I get myself into trouble,” Gallacher said. “But, I’m working on my game from the red line back and trying to be solid defensively.”
It’s something Gallacher has been working on since he started at Ohio State. He described himself then as a “young, anxious D-man. I wasn’t very good defensively.” But through an entire season of college and a year in juniors last year he can see improvements in his defensive game, which in turn will help create more offensive chances for himself and the team.
“I think over the past couple of seasons I’ve gotten better in my own zone,” Gallacher said. “I’m being more defensive-minded and it helps get the puck on my stick so I can play the game that I want to play, which is run and gun, get up the ice and try to help the team score goals.”
Playing for the future
Gallacher may be that easy-going guy, but his hockey career isn’t something to mess with.
Growing up he’d watch film on former Detroit Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom and try to pick up any little details and tendencies in order to try to mirror his game after the four-time Stanley Cup champion.
Like Lidstrom did for 20 years, Gallacher wants to play in the NHL. He wants to be more than just another kid from Canada whose hockey career started at 5 years old. He’s actually the only person in his family who ever played organized hockey, particularly at the level he’s playing at right now.
He’s already been drafted, but he knows that earning a spot in any NHL lineup isn’t a given. He’ll have to earn it. But he feels being a Division I hockey player, at UMass, in Hockey East, is the perfect situation for him and is his best bet at a long playing career.
“I want to be a pro hockey player,” Gallacher said. “That’s been my motivation ever since I was 5 years old when I first started playing. This is the stepping stone that I think is gonna help me get there, I think this coaching staff and this team all have the same goal in mind. Everyone wants to develop and become pro hockey players and that starts right where we are.”
It’s thoughts and dreams like these that turn that laid back, guitar-playing guy from Canada into the intense, energetic and highly competitive hockey player that he is.
Nick Canelas can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas.