The Big Short: Pint-sized Johnny Gaudreau delivers thrills
This story appeared in the March 7, 2016 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe, click here.
The Gaudreau family property occupies 15 acres in Oldsman Township (pop. 1,773), a sleepy section of southwestern New Jersey. The land is spacious enough to whack golf balls into the woods or shag flies in the front yard. Two soccer nets form a field near the driveway, and a swimming pool tempts guests out back. It was the perfect setup for keeping four active children occupied—particularly the second oldest, Johnny, who once complained after a sleepover, “All we did was sit there and play video games.” It was also the only house around where the kids ate steak and drank milkshakes for breakfast.
A former Division II hockey player who has run a local rink for the past quarter-century, Guy Gaudreau was realistic as he raised his two sons around the game. He worked Johnny and Matty hard on the ice, but he also taught them cold genetic truths. “I just explained that they weren’t dealt a very good hand size-wise,” the 5' 8" Guy says, adding that if they wanted to reach the NHL, their odds might improve by fattening up.
So Guy marinated meat overnight, woke up early to light the grill, cooked massive cheese omelets and blended eight scoops of chocolate ice cream with Hershey’s chocolate syrup, Vitamin D–fortified milk and protein powder. He sought weight-gaining advice from their pediatrician and filled his sons with three daily servings of PediaSure. “I’ll put you in the garage,” Guy joked, “then tie you up by both ends and stretch you out.”
Nothing worked. Nature prevailed. Today, Boston College’s hockey roster lists Matty, a junior, at 5' 9" and 145 pounds, easily the lightest player in Hockey East. And 5' 9" Johnny—the Flames’ 22-year-old left wing, a former Hobey Baker Award winner at BC, 2015 Calder Trophy finalist, two-time NHL All-Star and currently, teammates attest, the most famous person in Calgary—carries the league’s lightest frame, a whopping 157 pounds.
“He looks like he could be your paperboy,” says Jane, his mother. Or, if you prefer, an “altar boy” (Flames president Brian Burke), “stick boy” (teammate T.J. Brodie), “water bug” (Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau), “little bugger” (Calgary coach Bob Hartley) or “little brother” (too many to name). When Gaudreau reported to his first summer camp as a fourth-round draft pick in 2011, Flames staffers initially thought he was just another fan seeking autographs.
GM Brad Treliving believes Calgary’s scoring leader symbolizes something else—an evolving NHL where stricter obstruction rules let players like Gaudreau showcase their talents, regardless of size. Take, for instance, a four-second span on Nov. 20, when in overtime Gaudreau fired a wrist shot from the slot, swiped the rebound from Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook, faked goaltender Scott Darling onto his knees and then pulled the puck to his forehand and roofed it from inside the blue paint, all while avoiding contact. “I think he’s subconsciously aware that he’s a trailblazer for younger kids,” Treliving says. “He’s saying, ‘Look at me, I’ve done it, and I’ve been told I can’t.’”
Sometimes it takes even more than on-ice creativity and slick stickwork to get people to look beyond the scale. When he was 17, during preseason camp with the USHL’s Dubuque (Iowa) Fighting Saints, representatives from NHL Central Scouting visited the junior team to measure draft-eligible prospects. At the time, Gaudreau’s weight hovered around the low 130s, not exactly an attractive number for potential suitors.
And so it was that Johnny Gaudreau stepped onto the scale with five pucks crammed inside his jock strap. He fudged the official weigh-in (137 pounds!), hiked up his pants and carefully waddled away so nothing tumbled out. “That’s all I was thinking about, getting as many extra pounds as I could,” he says. “Hopefully someone would [think] I wasn’t as skinny as I really was.”
He was filled with doubt as he boarded the chartered plane in Philadelphia. It was mid-April 2014, the end of his junior season at Boston College. Over the previous two days the Eagles had lost in the Frozen Four semifinals, Gaudreau had won the Hobey Baker as college hockey’s best player, and Calgary, which drafted him three years earlier, had signed him to an entry-level contract worth almost $1 million per year. Now he was flying to Vancouver to make his NHL debut the next night. Flames assistant GM Craig Conroy tried chitchatting during the five-hour trip, but Gaudreau paid little attention. Not even his requested first meal in professional hockey—ham sandwich on white bread, Skittles and Mountain Dew—soothed him. “I’m thinking, Can I even compete at this level?” he says now. “I’m so small and stuff. I was too worried.”
Sure, scouts praised his skill during his draft year, when he finished second in the USHL with 36 goals in 60 games and Dubuque won the Clark Cup. They marveled at his artful puck control and elusiveness in high-traffic areas, how he could bank pucks off goaltenders’ masks from tight angles and read defenders’ hips to know exactly how to lose them.
Still, the stigma followed him. Central Scouting’s midterm rankings had listed Gaudreau second to last out of 210 North American skaters; he moved up to 193 by season’s end. Six months after he was drafted, largely thanks to then head amateur scout Tod Button, who insisted Gaudreau’s talent overshadowed his vitals, USA Hockey cut him from its world junior team pool, much to the chagrin of the tournament’s host city—Calgary. When Flames officials protested, they received the same answer scouts had repeated for years. “Hey, great player, but too small,” Treliving says. Burke was working as the Maple Leafs’ GM in 2011 when an early evaluation of Gaudreau landed on his desk. He remembers the wording: “Dazzling player. Will not play Division I.”
“I wasn’t sure he was going to be able to play,” Burke says, equally astonished and admiring. “Nobody was. He shouldn’t be in this league at that height and weight. He doesn’t belong here.”
“Bigger players have to play themselves off teams,” Guy used to tell his son. “Smaller players have to play onto them.” So Johnny often practiced twice on summer mornings, first with Matty’s club and then his own. He spent hours kicking pucks between his feet without looking down, because if his head could stay up while skating, he could sense oncoming checkers too. “As a smaller guy, there was no chance I could be taking those hits,” he says. “One hit, one game, you’re out of it.”
Along the way he sought spots where his stature would be embraced and his ingenuity let loose. His juniors coach, Jim Montgomery, played more than 100 NHL games at 5' 10". Gaudreau chose Boston College partially because the program had a history of producing pint-sized NHL-ready players: Cam Atkinson (5' 8"), Nathan Gerbe (5' 5") and the Gionta brothers (Brian and Stephen, both 5' 7"). He signed with Lewis Gross, the agent who represented Martin St. Louis (5' 8"), a future Hall of Famer and one of Gaudreau’s idols. During his Hobey Baker speech, he thanked “those who believed that someone my size could actually play and contribute at such a high level.”
His big breakthrough, though, came not when the plane landed in Vancouver and he scored his first NHL goal on his first NHL shot in Calgary’s 2013–14 season finale but rather the following fall. Through five games Gaudreau had no points and mustered only one shot on goal. He missed the sixth as a healthy scratch. Flirting with a demotion to the minors, he returned to the lineup two nights later—“Most nervous I’ve ever been for a hockey game,” he says—and banished any notion he was overmatched.
On a power play midway through the second period, Gaudreau, set up below the goal line to the right of Winnipeg’s cage, took a feed as he bolted behind the net. In one smooth motion, Gaudreau dropped to his knees, opened his hips to handle the tight angle and nudged the puck inside the post. This was the nifty scorer that the Flames had hoped to see—smooth and stealthy, magic conjured in a flash. He rose up and grinned. “That was the first time I really took all my doubts away,” he says. “It told me I belong here.”
On a sunny day after practice in mid-February, Gaudreau rolls into a Calgary restaurant freshly shaved, having forsaken his latest attempt at facial hair because too many friends gave him grief. Aside from a few locals eyeing him through the window, lunch passes without interruption. This is unusual. “Oh, yeah, I notice people hiding their phones behind glasses,” he says.
Gaudreau has autographed both a baby’s pacifier and a Loonie coin. At a pregame tailgate during the 2014–15 playoffs, when the Flames reached the second round and Gaudreau led them with nine points, at least 50 people took pictures with his parents. A construction worker once gave Burke his hard hat, requesting Gaudreau sign it for him. “He’s become a poster boy for the city,” teammate and roommate Josh Jooris says. This year, when a deliveryman dropped off packages where Jane Gaudreau works, he slipped into her office because “I just wanted to meet Johnny Hockey’s mom.”
There was a time when Gaudreau’s representatives worried about his embrace of that Manziel-inspired nickname, which he got at BC and had trademarked in the United States and Canada last year. (The family says it licenses approval only for charitable events.) “But I think the name is where the similarities end,” says Gross, noting Gaudreau enjoys a much quieter life than the controversial quarterback. Adds Treliving, “There’s a shyness to him, a realness to him. He’s not this big gladiator. A lot of kids say, ‘Hey, he reminds me of me.’”
Which is to say Gaudreau also resembles any other scatterbrained twenty-something figuring out adulthood. “He’s not the most domesticated kid,” Jooris says. Last year Jane wrote her son’s rent checks. On separate occasions his friends, father and agent have arrived at games only to learn that Johnny forgot to leave tickets. “I’m working on the laundry thing,” he says. “When I was in juniors, I didn’t know the difference between a washing machine and a dryer, let alone how to use them.”
Postadolescent naiveté is only acceptable to a point, though; when Gaudreau arrived to the rink late the morning after Super Bowl Sunday last month, he and two other teammates were scratched as punishment. The next day, Guy hammered the lesson home to his embarrassed son. “They want you to be a superstar,” he told Johnny. “You’re going to make all this money. There’s no excuse. This is part of growing up.”
Indeed, the lucrative raise Gaudreau will receive this off-season as a restricted free agent—conservative estimates see him sextupling his current $925,000 salary—will reflect how the Flames have earmarked their most marketable asset for their future. But this season has also brought new challenges; despite Gaudreau’s 62 points, sixth in the league at week’s end, Calgary was also 12 points out of playoff position, not that the honeymoon has ended. “Walking around the mall, you hear whispers,” Jooris says. That’s Johnny Hockey. That’s Johnny Gaudreau. “I don’t know if he’s noticing it half the time.”
But sometimes the attention is too loud to ignore, like when the Flames hosted the Rangers on Dec. 12. About one minute into overtime, while the Rangers held possession and both sides changed lines, Gaudreau hopped over the boards. He hadn’t even touched the puck before a roar spread around the rink. A few fans whistled. Someone blared a horn. “A gasp of anticipation,” Treliving remembers. “An electricity in the building,” Hartley says. Back-checking through the neutral zone, Gaudreau was confused. “I’m looking up like, Whoa, what’re they screaming about?” he said. “No one’s scored.”
This last detail didn’t matter. The altar boy was on the ice. The congregation was rising to its feet. They’re all believers now.