As the Calgary Flames have surged into first place in the Western Conference, their top-line left winger Johnny Gaudreau has been at the epicenter. Gaudreau recently capped off a week in which he recorded five goals and 11 points in only four games. That includes an overtime win over his hometown Philadelphia Flyers; the Courier Post, citing a conversation with Gaudreau's father, Guy, reported that between family, friends, the high school alumni club and local hockey groups, there were probably "a couple thousand" people at the Wells Fargo Center just to see the Calgary winger.
Gaudreau is on pace to shatter previous career highs with 119 points (his previous high was 84) and 48 goals (30), as he fires off more shots than ever, shoulders more attention from opposition, and emerges as a legitimate Art Ross Trophy threat and under-the-radar MVP candidate.
As if things couldn't get any better, the sports scheduling gods are smiling upon Gaudreau, too. The Flames' trip to Chicago coincided with Gaudreau's beloved Philadelphia Eagles facing the Chicago Bears in a playoff game at Soldier Field. Calgary had booked ice time Sunday but nixed practice. Instead Gaudreau, along with linemates Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm as well as winger Matthew Tkachuk, scored tickets to the game.
"I had tried to buy a jersey when we were in Philly, but luckily Johnny bought us all Eagles toques," Lindholm says. After watching warm-ups at field level, the group settled in their seats where, according to Lindholm, they enjoyed anonymity. That is, until Chicago's double-doink field goal miss gave the Eagles an astounding victory.
"I don't think many people around me in the stadium were very happy with my celebration," Gaudreau admits, sheepishly.
"It was a little awkward," Lindholm says. "But Johnny was loving it."
And OK, not everything's coming up Gaudreau. Since the 25-year-old had to stay until the end of the game, leaving the stadium was logistically brutal, he says, as there was "a lot of traffic" heading back to the team hotel. If nothing else, it's a reminder: Despite his on-ice heroics, in a lot of ways, Gaudreau is an everyman.
Had Gaudreau been born four years later, he probably wouldn't have slipped to the fourth round of the draft; he was taken 104th overall in 2011. Gaudreau's superstar ascent rides parallel to the NHL's transformation into a faster, less brutish game as teams have accepted that small stature is not necessarily a hindrance. That wasn't the case when Gaudreau was coming of age as a prospect.
For the 2011 draft midterm rankings from NHL Central Scouting, Gaudreau was slotted as the No. 209 non-goalie prospect in North America -- on a 210-man list. Then listed at 5-foot-6, 137 pounds, Gaudreau was deemed too small and too slight. In 2012, he was cut from Team USA's 2012 World Juniors Championship roster.
Gaudreau (now listed at 5-foot-9, 165 pounds) found a way to produce at every level. With 72 points in 60 games for the Dubuque Fighting Saints, the 17-year-old Gaudreau was not only the USHL Rookie of the Year in 2010-11, but an All-Star. At Boston College, he won the Hobey Baker Award as the top men's player in NCAA hockey. The legend of Johnny Hockey grew.
In the NHL, Gaudreau didn't record a point in his first six games -- then worked his way into the All-Star Game as a rookie in 2014-15. In a story that encapsulates hockey players' inherent modesty, Gaudreau trademarked the term "Johnny Hockey" in both Canada and the U.S in 2014. His agent told TSN at the time that they "were concerned that people were going to abuse the Johnny Hockey name, coming out with Johnny Hockey shirts and stuff and we wanted to make sure that did not occur." Four years later, Gaudreau has not leveraged the nickname into any significant mainstream endorsements.
Of course, Gaudreau is only one part of Calgary's renaissance season. The Flames -- off to their best start since 1988-89, when they last won the Stanley Cup -- boast four players who rank in the top 20 in league scoring (the most of any team) as Gaudreau's linemates Monahan and Lindholm have shined with 1.23 and 1.14 points per game, respectively. The trio even captivates while sitting on the bench, because of their obsession with purple Gatorade and superstitious insistence that Gaudreau must squirt the bottle into both of his teammates' mouths.
"I'm not even sure when that started," Lindholm says. "It's funny that so many people caught on."
Gaudreau's shot volume is up big-time this season; he's on pace for 269, about 70 above his career average. Last March, Gaudreau's father suffered a cardiac event and the team allowed Gaudreau to fly home to New Jersey for a few days to be with him. When Gaudreau returned, his father (a longtime high school coach) instructed his son to shoot more. While that might be at the back of his mind, Gaudreau attributes his increased volume to the team's offseason trade with the Carolina Hurricanes that brought him a new linemate in Lindholm.
"Last year I played with Michael Ferland, and he's a little bit more of a shooter," Gaudreau says. "Lindholm obviously is a shooter as well, but he can see the ice really well and he can make some pretty high-end plays. So I've gotten more opportunity to shoot a little more with a player like that."
Gaudreau's status as a shifty perimeter playmaker with smooth hands and sick stickhandling is well established. Coach Bill Peters says Gaudreau's biggest strides this season have come from his play away from the puck.
"I don't know if he shows it that much, but he's really competitive," Flames captain Mark Giordano says. "He's really feisty out there sometimes. I think he's one of the best because he really wants to be the guy in those situations, a lot like Patrick Kane. They have the same vision, the same sort of skills, and those type of players want the puck in key situations."
The Kane comparison came up a lot as the Flames visited Chicago this week. Peters likened the two players, and Gaudreau admitted he spent a lot of time admiring Kane before he got into the league. It's apt, really, as the Blackhawks are rebuilding, the Flames are surging, and the 30-year-old Kane makes way for the next generation of American stars, a group of which Gaudreau is certainly one of the headliners.