By Geoff Baker
Yanni Gourde eased his way out of the Kraken’s dressing room into a hallway at the team’s palatial new Seattle home.
Gourde is still adapting to Climate Pledge Arena’s quirks and twists, given its $1.15-billion overhaul wasn’t completed until right before the team’s home opener in late October. Back-of-house construction remains ongoing, sounds of hammering and machinery omnipresent as Gourde discussed his change of scenery from two-time Stanley Cup champion to expansion-team leader.
One thing remains the same, though: his post-game aches. Gourde still felt the effects of taking a puck off his knee three days prior, forcing him out of a loss to Vegas. He’d skipped an ensuing practice and, the previous night, had put in another 17 aggressively chaotic minutes in a loss to Anaheim, logging three hits and mixing things up with Ducks through every whistle.
And that’s precisely why the Kraken plucked Gourde from the juggernaut Tampa Bay Lightning in July’s expansion draft and made him a first-time alternate captain before he could even play following off-season shoulder surgery. As it turns out, that post-surgical layoff lasted only four games instead of the anticipated two months, and Gourde has since done all he can to live up to his advance billing. “I’ve got to work for everything that I get,” Gourde said. “And that’s not going to change. I don’t want to change that, ever.”
What has changed was moving from the pinnacle of NHL success to a Kraken team that spent the season’s first month sinking toward last place. Some games were outright blown, while others saw slow-starting Kraken players fail to show until midway through the affair.
For Gourde, who turns 30 on Dec. 15, going AWOL is never an option. The native of St-Narcisse, Que., was cut three times by his midget AAA team and went undrafted in the NHL even after winning a QMJHL scoring title with Victoriaville in 2011-12.
Owing largely to his 5-foot-9, 175-pound size, the center didn’t get his first permanent NHL shot until scoring 25 goals with the Lightning in 2017-18, and he lives with the gnawing fear that each shift could be his last. “I’m never going to take anything for granted,” Gourde said, adding that he views it as his role to “bring as many guys into the fight” as possible.
Rather than mope over the breakup of a potential Bolts dynasty, Gourde embraced moving off Tampa’s third line into a top-six role with a Kraken team seeking to forge the relentless identity he’s known for.
So he uprooted his wife, Marie-Andree, and three-year-old daughter, Emma, from their Davis Islands home in Florida and made the trek to Bellevue, an upscale suburb across Lake Washington from Seattle. The suburban setting provided space for the family and its 100-pound Bernese mountain dog, Savi, to roam freely, but it’s still a quick 20-minute hop from the team’s new $80-million practice facility. But the real challenge for Gourde and others within the team’s leadership group begins after their cars are parked at the complex.
Wayne Gretzky famously described his Edmonton Oilers learning the price of championship success after walking by the New York Islanders’ dressing room after they’d beaten the Oilers in the 1983 Cup final. The Oilers saw how the banged-up, depleted Isles could only hold a muted celebration – something all too familiar for Gourde in post-championship Lightning rooms. “Guys would lay everything on the line to make that one play,” Gourde said. “If it was to block a shot, guys would lay down. It was just unbelievable, selfless play where they would lay their body out for a teammate. Take a hit to make sure that puck gets out of the zone.”
And he feels it will likewise take hard work and sacrifice to change the Kraken’s narrative. “It’s not something that you can say,” he said. “It’s something that you can show. I’ll try my best to bring that out on the ice.”
Kraken coach Dave Hakstol said Gourde is playing “a huge role” in the team’s quest for an identity. “The part that isn’t as evidenced in watching him on the ice is the experience that he brings to our dressing room, the perspective that he brings,” Hakstol said.
And so, after skipping that morning’s optional skate to rest his ailing knee, Gourde was back out the following night, throwing his body around for nearly 19 minutes of ice time in a loss to the Minnesota Wild. He notched three more hits, four shots and won seven of 10 draws. “It’s tough not to love the guy, he brings a ton of energy,” Hakstol said. “He’s full of life. This guy loves the game. Just watch him one day in practice, how hard he works at every piece of the game. He’s chirping at his teammates. He just brings life and energy.”
Bringing anything on-ice to practice this particular week would prove challenging as Gourde again took a “maintenance day” following the Minnesota contest. When not at the rink, he’s with his family, adapting to their new neighborhood. “It’s a nice area, and we definitely love it there,” Gourde said.
He’s growing into his new team as well, trying to help the expansion club learn to win. “It’s not going to be pretty,” Gourde said. “We’re going to have to work extremely hard to win games, and once we do, we might find our identity and how we’ve got to play to win consistently in this league.”