By Paul Ryan | AHL On The Beat Archive
When he was 13 years old, Christopher Gibson told his mother he was going to stop taking French in school because he would never use it in his life.
Three years later, the Finnish netminder was drafted by the Chicoutimi Saguenéens of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, one of the few teams in North America whose players and staff all exclusively spoke French.
“My first year, I couldn’t understand anything,” said Gibson. “I just smiled and nodded every time somebody said something. Now, my girlfriend is from Chicoutimi and I speak French fluently, probably even better than I speak Finnish at the moment.”
Thus has been the life of Gibson, who’s adapted to his surroundings incredibly well for someone who’s just 23 years old.
Christopher Alexander Gibson was born in Karkkila, Finland, to a Finnish mom and an English dad. The two met in the United Kingdom before Christopher’s dad, Peter, wanted to move to Finland. Much like Christopher, Peter didn’t speak the native language of the country he immigrated to, but picked it up quickly.
“He can have a conversation [in Finnish],” said Gibson. “He’s actually pretty good. He still has an English accent when he speaks Finnish but he’s actually really good.”
Gibson grew up bilingual, speaking Finnish with his mom and English with his dad. To his brother Jon, he would speak a mix of both. Now he’s a polyglot, speaking French, English, and Finnish with ease.
One of the reasons Peter moved to Finland was for the family life, but he also added something new to the sporting world there. Peter is responsible for bringing kickboxing to Finland, being the first person to open a martial arts gym in the country.
“He still has his own gym in Finland and he works there every single day,” said Gibson. “I think he might be in better shape than I am actually. That’s his passion and that’s what he loves to do.”
Gibson’s father instilled that adaptability into Chris at a young age, something he needed prior to the start of this season.
On September 17, as both the New York Islanders and Toronto Maple Leafs were preparing for training camp, the Islanders acquired Gibson along with four others in exchange for forward Michael Grabner. Gibson was headed to the airport to board a plane for Halifax, Nova Scotia, for the second half of Leafs camp. Then, he got the phone call. “It was a big shock for me,” said Gibson.
“It was the first time in my career that I had been traded anywhere, so I didn’t really know how to deal with it. I jumped in the car and I drove to Long Island, but during that drive, I called a lot of people. I called my parents, my agent, my girlfriend and everyone tried to calm me down and tell me this is how things go and that you just have to show you can play and do your thing, it doesn’t matter where you are. I’m really happy that I have a close group of people that can help me in those types of situations.”
One of the things that helped Gibson most in his trade to the Islanders was that he was not alone. The four other players involved in the trade – Taylor Beck, Matt Finn, Tom Nilsson, and Carter Verhaeghe—were all going through the same thing and were able to lean on each other throughout the process.
Fellow Sound Tiger Verhaeghe was in the same boat.
“It was obviously huge having the other guys too [in the trade],” said Verhaeghe. “I had never been traded before and it was easier having guys like Gibby to come over with. It was nice to have guys like him to experience it together.”
Just three months after the trade, Gibson earned his first call-up to the New York Islanders. Although it was not his first trip to the NHL (Gibson served two games as a back up for the Maple Leafs in December 2014 without seeing game action), Gibson made sure he was mentally prepared should the opportunity to play arise.
“I was hoping to get a game or get to play,” said Gibson. “You never know in those types of situations. I was lucky to have [goalie consultant] Marc Champagne on that trip. We worked really hard and he always said to me ‘be ready, be ready, you never know,’ so I guess I was ready when that time came. “
The time came with 9:03 remaining in the second period of a 4-0 game on January 2. The Pittsburgh Penguins had just scored two goals in 32 seconds before Islanders Head Coach Jack Capuano tapped Gibson on the shoulder and told him the news.
“To be honest, I was like ‘oh my god, this is actually happening right now,’” said Gibson. “I tried to look as calm as possible, but in my head I was going crazy that this is actually happening, I’m going to play my first game against Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh.”
Gibson allowed a goal on a deflection on his second shot faced in the NHL, but shut the door after that, stopping 16 of 17 shots in total.
“During a TV timeout, I was skating around and saw [Sidney] Crosby skate towards me and I didn’t know what to think,” said Gibson. “I thought he might chirp me because it was my first NHL game. But he actually came up to me and asked ‘is this your first game?’ and I said ‘yes’ and he said ‘congrats buddy.’ That was really nice of him. I have a lot of respect for that guy.”
Gibson didn’t expect to be in Bridgeport prior to the season. But his adaptability and his love for the game of hockey have helped him reach his ultimate goal, somewhere he hopes to be back real soon.