Despite all the gaudy stats Johnny Gaudreau has put up in his hockey career -- like 90 points in 27 games as a 13-year-old -- there's one number in particular most people have had a hard time looking past his entire career: his height.
"He was always really, really small for his age, but fortunately he never saw himself as small," explained Johnny's father, Guy Gaudreau. "I'd always tell him that he needed to work twice as hard as everybody else if he ever wanted to do something with hockey, and he's always wanted to do something with hockey and that meant he was always trying to get better and work on his skills."
With Guy the hockey director at Hollydell Ice Arena in Sewell, New Jersey, his sons -- John and Matt, who is a junior at Boston College -- were the beneficiaries of all the ice time they could handle.
"Whenever he had the chance to be on the ice, he was on the ice," the elder Gaudreau said. "That's when John's the happiest. That's what he lives for. He was blessed with a lot of natural talent, but he's also worked really hard at making the most of that talent. He is where he is today because of his passion and love for the game."
That love for the game was apparent at an early age. When Johnny was only 4 years old, his games were at 4:30 a.m. on Saturdays, and that meant he had to go to bed early if he wanted to play in the game. One Friday night, he didn't go to bed early and his father left the next morning without him.
"When he woke up, he came running into the bedroom asking where Daddy was and when I told him he was at the rink, John cried and cried," explained his mother, Jane. "He was devastated that he missed the game."
He learned his lesson, though. The next weekend, not only did he go to bed early without any questions, but in the middle of the night he crawled into his parents' bed and grabbed hold of his father's shorts.
"He made sure there was no way I was leaving the house without him," said Guy, still smiling at the memory. "At that point, I knew he was in love with the game of hockey."
Although Johnny had always played a year up and although he always managed to put up a lot of points, there was still the issue of his size and the doubts that came with it.
"When he moved up to peewee and there was checking, everyone told me he was too small and he'd never be able to compete at that level, and I would listen to them and think maybe they were right," Guy said. "But then he did it and again in bantams and midgets and juniors. ... Every year people would say he'd never be able to compete, and every year he proved them wrong."
When he was 11, Gaudreau tried out for the regional select team and a chance to go to USA Hockey's annual development camp for the best players in each birth year and was cut for the first time in his life.
"We couldn't believe it," Jane said. "He was playing a year up and was one of the best two or three players in that age group in the entire area. How could he not be good enough to make a team with players his own age?"
"What they should have said is that if you're not this tall, don't bother trying out," Guy added.
Gaudreau tried out for that select team for four years and was cut every time. He was so discouraged that he didn't want to try out for the U-16 team. Fortunately, one of his coaches persuaded him to give it one more shot.
Gaudreau not only made that team but dominated the national event and put himself on the map.
"The first game his team won 6-5 and he had five goals and an assist, and the next game they won 5-4 and he had all five goals and everyone's asking where'd this kid come from? Why haven't we seen him before?" Guy said. "He went on a tear and showed that he belonged there, even though he was barely 5 feet tall. He proved all the doubters wrong, and I was really proud of him."
Despite Johnny's on-ice domination at every single level, the doubts about his size followed him as he took the next step in his hockey career and joined the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the USHL.
"Of all the things he's accomplished, I'm the most proud of that -- to make the decision to leave his family and prepare himself as best he can to play Division I college hockey," Guy explained. "It just showed how much he loved the game and wanted to be the best he could be. It was amazing to me that he could do that at 16, and not only did he do it, he did it so well, too. I just couldn't believe it."
Gaudreau lead Dubuque with 72 points in 60 games and helped it win the Clark Cup as USHL champion in 2011, and still there were concerns about his then-5-6 and 150-pound frame and his ability to produce that kind of offense at a higher level.
The Calgary Flames -- whom he had never even spoken with -- chose to look past those concerns and selected him in the fourth round of the 2011 draft while Johnny, too nervous about the possibility of not being selected, was playing in a local summer hockey tournament.
"I had his phone, thinking they'd call him if he were drafted, but the service in the rink was terrible," Jane said. "But someone at the rink had been following it online and ran to Guy on the bench to tell him John had been drafted and word spread and everyone started banging their sticks.
"It couldn't have been a better reflection of who John is and how he started and all the hard work he had put in to find out in that moment -- playing with his friends and against kids he grew up with -- that he had been drafted."
In his freshman season at Boston College, Gaudreau earned 44 points in 44 games and helped the Eagles win the 2012 NCAA championship, but the doubts remained, as did his resolve to prove the doubters wrong.
"There's something about John's drive that, whenever he moves on to the next level, he rises to the challenge and finds success," Guy said. "You can say that he's motivated by wanting to prove all those people wrong, but I think it's because he just wants to prove to himself that he can. He wants to be the best, and he wants to win. I don't know anyone who likes to win more than John."
When he scored seven goals in seven games at the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship, leading Team USA to a gold medal and being named the best forward in the tournament, people wondered if it was a fluke. Could this 19-year-old kid, who looked like he was 12, have what it takes?
"That was the first time I saw him play with and against so many high-level players," Guy said. "All these first- and second-round picks -- the best that USA had -- and he looked pretty good out there. That might have been the first time I thought he might really have a chance to make it to the NHL."
In Johnny's junior season at BC, he put up 80 points in 40 games, won the Hobey Baker as the best collegiate hockey player in the country and signed an entry-level deal with the Flames, but people still wondered how this 5-9, 157-pound 20-year-old would fare in the professional ranks. Including his parents.
"I figured he'd start in the AHL and that he'd work so hard down there that they'd eventually have to bring him up," Guy said. "Never did I think that he'd start right away with the big club. Then I'm watching him play against Vancouver in his first NHL game and he scored on his first shot and he's flying around and I'm like, 'Boy, he sure looks like one of the better players out there. How is that possible?'
"Even now -- two years later -- we still have a hard time believing he's an NHL player. We see him on TV and can't believe that's our son out there. It's so hard for me to grasp that he's as good as he is. That he's actually doing this. That he's living his dream. It's unbelievable."
With 111 points in 128 NHL games, including 46 goals (21 so far this season), a Calder Trophy nomination, a second appearance at the All-Star Game in Nashville and his name on the short list for Team North America for the World Cup of Hockey, Gaudreau has proved over and over again that he's more than capable of not only playing at the NHL level but succeeding.
"I don't know how he is able to do what he does as well as he does it," Guy said. "I can't explain it. He just always finds that next gear, and, if there was a level higher than the NHL, I think he'd find that gear, too."