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Long, winding road leads to NHL success for Lightning rookie Gourde

Yanni Gourde’s career path doesn’t mirror that of any of this season’s other top rookies, but the 26-year-old might not be a Calder Trophy darkhorse if he didn’t have to battle his way to the NHL.

You watch the NHL these days and you’re constantly reminded that it’s a young man’s league, now more than ever. There are plenty of examples of how these teenagers are more ready to play in the best league in the world than they have ever been and how their exposure to high-level hockey at such a young age has made them impervious to the pressures of playing in the NHL.

It’s easy to fall into that way of thinking, particularly when you watch teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs these days. But sometimes we all forget that there are still players such as Yanni Gourde of the Tampa Bay Lightning – guys who had to travel almost three hours north of their home to Jonquiere, Que., because they didn’t get protected by their local AAA midget team, who were never drafted either by a major junior hockey team or an NHL one. There are guys who have to scratch and claw and keep persevering on a road that goes through the ECHL and the defunct San Francisco Bulls, who played in the old Cow Palace that accommodated the San Jose Sharks when they first came into the NHL.

And sometimes that road leads to great, great things, the way it has for Gourde. Yanni Gourde is not Brock Boeser. He’s not Clayton Keller or teammate Mikhail Sergachev or Mat Barzal, wunderkinds who came into the NHL as teenagers and had instant success. For starters, he’s 26 years old, having qualified for rookie status by only three months. He’s played five full years in the minors, including last season when he scored 27 points in the playoffs for Tampa’s minor league affiliate. And now the darkhorse finalist for the Calder Trophy finds himself with a 20-goal season on his hands and second in goals among first-year players behind only Boeser.

It’s been quite an odyssey for a kid who was convinced his future was in civil engineering after playing out his overage season in the Quebec League. “It’s a long path, a long way to get to the NHL,” Gourde said. “But it was an awesome experience. Every year. As long as I was going to school and keep studying and playing hockey, it was the best of both worlds. I could keep playing hockey and keep studying. My backup plan was always really close to me.”

That backup plan, of course, has been scrapped. Gourde finally hit the jackpot before this season when he signed a one-way deal that pays him $1 million this season and next, meaning he would have been a millionaire had he played in the NHL or the minors. But the way he’s producing, it’s beginning to look like a steal for the Lightning. Then again, this is a franchise that seems to have a penchant for seeing things in small, Quebec-based players that nobody else seems to be able to locate. Starting with Martin St-Louis and continuing with Jonathan Marchessault – with a little U.S.-born Tyler Johnson thrown in for good measure – the Lightning have never been reticent about taking chances on small players with skill.

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After winning the QMJHL’s scoring championship as an overage player in 2011-12, Gourde signed an AHL deal with the Worcester Sharks the next season, but didn’t perform well enough to earn another one. The best he could get was a professional tryout (PTO) contract with the Kalamazoo Wings of the ECHL, where the Lightning noticed him and signed him to a minor league deal after the PTO with Kalamazoo ended. It has been a long road since then, one that has culminated with him starting the season as a bottom-six forward to working his way to the Lightning’s top line with Steven Stamkos at center and Tyler Johnson on the right side. “We got a sign of it last year when we had all those injuries and he played the last part of the year for us,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said of Gourde. “But I’m not going to sit here and say he was going to have the impact on our team this deep in the season that he is now. You want to say he’s secondary scoring, but he’s kind of our main scoring. He has been a pleasant surprise, no doubt. I know I’m biased but you do your ballots for rookie of the year and you’d be hard-pressed not to have him up there.”

Cooper makes a good point. Gourde will almost certainly not win rookie of the year and might not even finish in the top three in voting in what has proved to be a boffo year for freshmen. There will likely be some bias among voters who think Gourde is too old and too experienced to be compared with teenagers, but the last we checked, the award went to the best first-year player under the age of 26 when the season begins. Gourde qualifies, so he deserves to be there with the likes of Boeser, Barzal, Keller and Charlie McAvoy.

Not that it matters much to Gourde, who was thrilled to have his father, Jean-Guy, along for the Lightning’s Dads’ trip. He is generously listed at 5-foot-9, but is fearless in the corners and in front of the net. Named after the Greek soft rock musician after his parents saw Yanni’s name in the credits of a movie they were watching when his mother was carrying him, Gourde is in a great place. The path ahead, unlike the one in his rear-view mirror, looks paved with riches. But Gourde knows full well he would have never ended up where he is without enduring the setbacks early in his career.

“Every level I got a lot of experience and that’s what got me to this level,” Gourde said. “The maturity I have today is because of where I came from.”

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