- Yanni Gourde took a long, circuitous route to the NHL. In his first full season with the Tampa Bay Lightning, the everyone else is learning why he'll stick.
NEWARK — On more than one occasion this season, an opposing player has approached Tampa Bay Lightning forward Alex Killorn with an important question. Perhaps he waits until postgame, but sometimes curiosity just can’t wait. Claude Giroux was among those who inquired, Killorn recalls. Like everyone else, the Flyers captain wanted to know the same thing:
Who is this Yanni Gourde guy?
And why are they asking?
“Just because he came out of nowhere,” Killorn says.
Watch him chase the puck. He tends to comes out of nowhere a lot. Lightning coach Jon Cooper has compared him with the Energizer Bunny, but even nine-volts drain over time. Gourde, meanwhile, was apparently programmed without an off switch. He hounds puck-carriers in the neutral zone, harasses for 200 feet while killing penalties. It’s extremely annoying to play against. “He’s a jitterbug,” Killorn says. “He’s one of those guys who always has that energy.”
Who is this Yanni Gourde guy? Here are the basics:
A little less than a decade ago, he was entering Quebec major juniors as an 18-year-old, realizing that his development was already behind the curve for top prospects his age, of which he was most definitely not.
Six years ago, he was planning to enroll at the Université de Moncton, where he would play Canadian college hockey and study civil engineering.
Five years ago, he was signing a free agent contract with the ECHL’s Kalamazoo Wings, believing that might be his last professional stop before real life started.
Today? He is a 26-year-old with 24 goals and 34 assists on the top Eastern Conference team, a 5-foot-9, all-situations whipsaw whose point total ranks third among all rookies behind Calder Trophy favorite Mathew Barzal of the Islanders and Arizona's Clayton Keller. "I'm still pinching myself every day," he says.
The Lightning landed Gourde as he was riding out a 25-game tryout agreement with the AHL’s Worcester Sharks in ‘13-14. Late one night, agent Paul Corbeil fielded a call from assistant GM Julien BriseBois, who relayed the glowing report that Tampa Bay had received from its local scout. After two-plus seasons of minor-league incubation in Syracuse, Gourde earned an NHL promotion for the stretch run last March and nailed the audition. He hasn’t left coach Jon Cooper’s lineup since. “He’s got that no-quit attitude,” frequent linemate Brayden Point says. “He’s relentless. He’s tenacious. He won’t be denied by anybody and this just proves it.”
Above all, though, Gourde is toughest on himself. “Every guy knows that,” he says. “They tell me, ‘Just f----- relax, Yanni. You don’t have to be so hard. But that’s the way I am. I make a bad pass and I come on the bench and I’m pissed at myself because I should’ve made a better play. It’s who I am. It’s what I’ve always done.” When Syracuse dropped Game 2 of the 2017 Calder Cup finals against Grand Rapids in double overtime, coach Benoit Groulx walked out of the rink alongside a distraught Gourde, who despite scoring that night kept remarking that he deserved full blame for the loss. It wasn’t the first time Groulx had to tell his leading scorer, “You’re wrong, man. You can’t think like that.”
“Sometimes I think he beats himself up too much about some play he didn’t feel like he made the right play,” Cooper says. “It’s a blessing and a curse to have that. You want the guy to be passionate and all that. But sometimes you want him to let it go. I’ll take that avenue any day of the week, if I’ve got to pull a little of that back to make him feel better, knowing how hard he is on himself, knowing all he wants to do is make himself better, that’s a good thing.”
Who is this Yanni Gourde guy? Here are some details: He is often mistaken for someone much younger, not only due to his rookie status but because, as Groulx says, “he looks, like, 19 years old.” He is engaged with a child due in May. He owns a Bernese mountain dog, which he occasionally takes to the park for playdates with Point’s mini goldendoodle. According to Killorn, he also possesses the body fat percentage of a greyhound. “Tell him to have a burger,” Killorn says.
It’s last Friday afternoon in New Jersey, where the Lightning arrived on a three-game winning streak. A small crowd of reporters is clustered around Gourde, asking about his journey. The word “grind” comes up often in his answers, both when recounting the past (“I kept grinding”) and looking ahead (“trying to grind it out, trying to keep staying up here and making it work”). This attitude plays nicely among the Lightning, who are populated with similarly undersized hellcats: Four of their five top-scoring forwards are listed under 6’0”, and Steven Stamkos only stands at 6’1”.
The talk is backed up with action too. After practice ended, for instance, Gourde spent several minutes discussing faceoff strategy with assistant coach Brad Lauer on the ice, breaking down various techniques in slow motion. “Failure is not an option for him,” Groulx says. “He wants to be the best. With all the obstacles he went through in his career by being a 5’9” player, I’m sure more than a thousand times he’s heard the words too small. For every one person who believed in him, there were probably a hundred who did not.”
That opinion is now obsolete. Gourde rarely appeared on Syracuse’s power play yet has struck seven goals there for Tampa Bay this season. At 5-on-5, the Lightning have outscored opponents by 26 when Gourde is skating, the best ratio among team regulars. The greyhound even has some bite, dropping the gloves against Detroit’s Tomas Tatar and Calgary’s Garnet Hathaway. “He’s always on top of you,” Killorn says. “One of those guys who will never give up.”
By now, two weeks until the Stanley Cup playoffs—if current seeding holds, Tampa Bay would host New Jersey in the first round—Killorn has developed a requisite answer for anyone still asking about that Yanni Gourde guy: “I say, ‘He’s a good player. Keep your eye on him.’”