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Flames' diminutive star Gaudreau playing like an MVP-sized giant

The NHL is trending smaller and that’s great news for Johnny Gaudreau, the best little guy in the game today.
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Welcome to Hollydell Ice Arena, a.k.a. the best babysitter in Sewell, N.J. It’s summer in the early 2000s, and a dozen neighborhood boys have the perfect outlet for their mischievous energy. The Gaudreau brothers, Johnny and Matty, have hookups at Hollydell. Their dad, a former dairy farmer named Guy, runs the joint. No one uses the ice much this time of year, so he hands the keys to his sons, who recruit two teams’ worth of skaters and two goalies. Guy holes up in the office, planning the schedule for the upcoming busy season while the boys play.

And do they ever play. They skate for three or four hours, then hit the snack bar for lunch. Then it’s back on the ice for the rest of the day. Sometimes, they play so long they don’t even see the sun.

On the ice, it’s Team Matty versus Team Johnny. The Gaudreau brothers are never teammates. Their rivalry is too great. Matty’s slick skills will take him to the USHL, Boston College and the AHL one day, but older brother Johnny, the future NHLer, has his number. Johnny’s a master of breathtaking dangles, and there’s no one he enjoys lighting up more than Matty. Johnny wins the duel most of the time, and when he does get away, he feels Matty’s stick chopping at his ankles, trying to trip him from behind.

• • •

Welcome to the SAP Center, a.k.a. The Shark Tank. It’s January 2019, and, just like always, Guy Gaudreau supervises his son, Johnny, while he goofs around on the ice, trying out whatever flashy moves he can cook up. The stage, of course, is a wee bit bigger this time. The Gaudreaus are in town for the 2019 NHL All-Star Game. Johnny, the NHL’s third-leading scorer, competes for the Pacific Division in the 3-on-3 tournament. Johnny’s coach with the Pacific squad and first-place Calgary Flames, Bill Peters, has invited Guy to co-coach the affair. Peters feels honored to work alongside Guy, director of hockey operations at Hollydell since it opened in 1992. “He gives a lot back to the sport in the New Jersey area,” Peters said. “He coaches a bunch of kids, and he does a good job, so it was a neat thing to allow him to be on the bench and share that experience of the All-Star Game.”

The Pacific takes a beating from the Central. It’s 7-1 after the first 10-minute half. Guy, who Johnny says “hates losing more than me,” gets fired up. He paces up and down the bench, slapping superstars like Connor McDavid on the back. “Let’s go boys, let’s go,” he says.

Johnny Gaudreau may be one of the NHL’s emerging superstars, a walking GIF and a Hart Trophy candidate, but he’s a young man deeply attached to his family at heart. His parents haven’t missed a playoff game or All-Star Game yet. His mother, Jane, so protective of Johnny, Matty and their sisters, Kristen and Katie, confessed in a first-person article a few years ago she told Johnny to ask the NHL if he could wear a full face cage when he was a rookie. It was a moment equally adorable and embarrassing.

 FUEL & FIRE Gaudreau’s electrifying skill set and offensive wizardry have elevated him to the MVP conversation, joining the superstar ranks alongside the likes of Battle of Alberta rival Connor McDavid.Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images

FUEL & FIRE Gaudreau’s electrifying skill set and offensive wizardry have elevated him to the MVP conversation, joining the superstar ranks alongside the likes of Battle of Alberta rival Connor McDavid.Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images

Jane is Johnny’s sounding board. They talk all the time. “If I don’t mention my mom, she’ll beat me down,” Johnny jokes. Guy has always handled the hockey side of things. He was Johnny’s coach for years. He famously taught his son to skate by throwing Skittles, Johnny’s favorite candy, on the ice and making him chase them. Guy’s still a crucial mentor today, perhaps more cherished than ever after he suffered a cardiac event last March when his heart stopped while he was running a half marathon. He has since recovered fully. What Guy taught his children most, Johnny says, was about more than hockey. “It’s being a good person off the ice, respecting the people around you, the elders, calling people Mr. and Mrs.,” Johnny said. “Still to this day, people are like, ‘Call me my first name,’ and I’m like, ‘I won’t.’ It’s something my parents always taught me. It’s being polite and a good person. It’s something that will always stick with me and something I’ll teach my kids from him.”

When Johnny Gaudreau talks about his connection with his parents, or his grandfather who makes maple syrup in Vermont, it resonates more than it might from, say, a 6-foot-9, 250-pound behemoth like Zdeno Chara. Gaudreau is 25 but can pass for 18. For so much of his hockey career, he was defined by being “the magical little guy.” Being from South Jersey, which is Philadelphia Flyers country, he idolized 5-foot-9, 174-pound Daniel Briere growing up – but also 5-foot-8, 180-pound Martin St-Louis. When the Flames drafted Gaudreau 103rd overall in 2011, he was a first-round talent coming up with the USHL’s Dubuque Fighting Saints, but the obvious knock on him was his size. He didn’t crack the top 100 prospects in The Hockey News’ 2011 Draft Preview. The Flames largely gambled on him because their GM at the time, Jay Feaster, had won a Stanley Cup in Tampa with St-Louis and trusted small players more than most GMs did.

When Gaudreau earned his ‘Johnny Hockey’ moniker dominating at Boston College and winning a 2013 World Junior Championship with Team USA, he was perceived as doing so in spite of being 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds. The narrative repeatedly labelled him as someone who beat the odds, even when he burst onto the NHL scene to finish third in Calder Trophy voting in 2014-15.

That was then. The NHL is not really a big man’s game anymore, is it? Ten years ago, 19.9 percent of the NHL’s skaters were shorter than six-foot, and 37.3 percent weighed less than 200 pounds. Five years ago, 21.3 percent were shorter than six-foot, and 39.2 percent weighed less than 200 pounds. Of the 825 skaters to compete so far in 2018-19, 193, or 23.4 percent, are shorter than six-foot, while 421, or 51.0 percent, weigh less than 200 pounds.

The little guys are invading. One reason why the smaller, faster NHLers are flourishing today, of course, is the league’s crackdown on the enforcement of slashing penalties beginning in 2017-18. The key case study the season prior inspiring that decision: Gaudreau. In a Nov. 15, 2016, game against the Minnesota Wild, he ate 21 slashes. That’s no exaggeration. Watch the YouTube video. That meat grinder of a night left him with a broken finger that required surgery and cost him 10 games. The 21-slash salute was used in competition committee meetings as the quintessential example of the need for a change in the “casual slashing” culture.

Today, when Gaudreau blows past a defender – which happens often – the guy he just clowned can’t turn around and chop at him like his brother Matty used to during those childhood games. Is it any coincidence, then, that Gaudreau has exploded for the best two offensive seasons of his career since the change? Excluding his one-game rookie debut in 2013-14, in 5-on-5 play he’s posted by far his two best outputs in individual shot attempts per 60 minutes, individual goals for per 60 minutes and individual high-danger shot attempts per 60 minutes since the slashing crackdown, per naturalstattrick.com. The shot-attempt data suggests he also allows more chances for the other team than he used to, so he hasn’t rounded out into a perfectly complete player yet, but the point is he’s offensively unshackled thanks to the rule enforcements. “It definitely helped a lot,” he said. “I can tell a big difference from my first season to now. Just the hacks. The whacks. You can hold the puck a little longer. You’re not getting blood blisters on your fingers after every hack. So it’s nice. That gives the offensive players a little more time with the puck, holding the puck a little bit more, and that’s why it’s leading to more offense for teams and other guys in the league.”

Gaudreau led the NHL in even-strength points at the all-star break and was on pace for 47 goals and 117 points. Peters compares Gaudreau to another undersized star he coached with the Carolina Hurricanes, Sebastian Aho, and admires the way they’ve turned their size into an advantage. “It’s the speed they play with and the understanding of where everybody is,” Peters said. “They know where the high-danger areas are. Sometimes there’s a high-risk play with a low reward, physically, and they won’t put themselves in that spot. That’s a credit to them and their hockey sense. You don’t always have to go through a wall. Sometimes you can go around it, and they understand that.”

There are few things Gaudreau loves more than going around people. He’s among sport’s elite stickhandlers, ranking up there with McDavid, Patrick Kane and Aleksander Barkov. Gaudreau won the puck-control event at the 2019 all-star skills competition. He doesn’t view his hands as mere tools that help him do his job. They’re more like instruments he loves to strum. Especially when it comes to humiliating his teammates. “I definitely enjoy it,” he said. “It’s something I try on the players I play with every day. In practice all the time, I try to dangle them and give them a hard time in the locker room. Other guys like McDavid, Kane, guys who can really make defensemen look really foolish, I enjoy watching them, too. You learn from them.”

 COMING THROUGH The NHL crackdown on slashing, partly due to the way opponents used to hack at Gaudreau, has opened up the game for the Flames winger to utilize his speed and elusiveness..Derek Leung/Getty Images

COMING THROUGH The NHL crackdown on slashing, partly due to the way opponents used to hack at Gaudreau, has opened up the game for the Flames winger to utilize his speed and elusiveness..Derek Leung/Getty Images

The path to becoming a puckhandling savant requires lots of repetition, which is exactly what Gaudreau got at Hollydell all those years. It was a place to test his now-patently exotic dekes judgment-free. “Don’t ever worry about looking stupid on the ice when you’re with your buddies,” he said. “It’s only going to help you in the long run. It’s all right to make mistakes. You’re only with your buddies on the rink or wherever you’re at, like your basement. Just keep working on that kind of stuff, and eventually when it works, you can make it a big art.”

Now, with the game opened up like we’ve never seen it, we’re witnessing Gaudreau at the peak of his powers, and the same applies to the Flames as a whole. They’d staked a 33-13-5 record by the all-star break, good for the second-highest points percentage in franchise history at .696, bested only by a .731 mark in 1988-89, the year they won their only Stanley Cup. That’s a staggering turnaround from a demoralizing 2017-18 in which an injury-riddled Flames team tumbled out of the playoffs. Gaudreau has formed one of the NHL’s most dominant lines alongside his usual center, Sean Monahan, and breakout right winger Elias Lindholm. According to Peters, the trio works so well together because, in today’s game, any member of a line who handles the puck well can be the de facto “center” during the actual flow of the game if his other two linemates have good faceoff skills. Because Lindholm can play center, too, he and Monahan alternate taking strong-side draws, which means each guy is only taking the faceoffs he’s the best at winning, which means they can get the biscuit to Gaudreau, their on-ice point guard, early and often.

The Flames boast a great two-way second line featuring rising star Matthew Tkachuk and defensively conscientious pivot Michael Backlund. On defense, captain Mark Giordano was arguably the season’s first-half Norris Trophy frontrunner, while the coaching change from Glen Gulutzan last season to Peters was going smashingly well. Gaudreau’s face visibly perks up when he’s asked to describe playing for him. Gaudreau loves it. Peters, he says, gives everyone on the team an opportunity to produce and trusts them with increased responsibility when they’re hot, regardless of where they’re supposed to sit on the depth chart. The most prominent example would be goaltender David Rittich, a 26-year-old Czech who didn’t even debut in North American pro hockey until 2016-17. He was outplaying veteran Mike Smith and, in Peters’ eyes, that warranted wresting the No. 1 job away. Gaudreau respects Peters’ new-school malleability, his “play well and play more” philosophy.

Peters finds Gaudreau’s youthful joy in playing the game to be contagious and calls him a serial winner. “I knew he was a good player,” Peters said. “I didn’t coach against him a whole bunch being in the Eastern Conference. But he was better than I imagined, and what I didn’t know was how competitive he is and how passionate he is about playing.”

Gaudreau’s love of hockey is obvious, but it’s not his only love. He goes fishing off the Jersey shore on his boat any chance he gets in the off-season. He also enjoys watching mixed-martial artist Conor McGregor compete in the UFC. If you know McGregor, you know him best for his unrivalled trash-talking skills. Gaudreau and his friends gleefully eat up the chirps and social-media rants. Gaudreau’s nothing like McGregor in everyday life, but what about McGregor when he steps in the octagon to fight? He’s quick, unpredictable, hard to hit and has a penchant for lifting people out of their seats with “Did he really just do that?” moments. Sounds a lot like Gaudreau’s on-ice persona.

That trademark finesse has helped Gaudreau achieve stardom. The question now is whether there’s one more rung on the ladder. We know Johnny Gaudreau, face of the Calgary Flames, but we don’t yet know Johnny Gaudreau, MVP, or Johnny Gaudreau, Stanley Cup champion. He’s won one playoff series in his career. But the way things are trending, for the Flames and for all the Little Guys in hockey, that might change this spring.

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