There is a story Jim Montgomery revels in telling. It is from his only year coaching Johnny Gaudreau with the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the United States Hockey League during the 2010-11 season.
Before the team's game at Lincoln that year, the Saints warmed up, as usual, by kicking around a soccer ball. As Lincoln's coach passed by, he noticed a runt-sized teenager among them. He found it nice that they would let their stick boy play with them, the coach told an assistant on Montgomery's staff. The assistant coach giggled as he passed the story onto Montgomery, knowing just how off-key this was.
A few hours later, after Gaudreau had thrashed Lincoln with a goal and an assist, the losing coach walked by again and this time he harbored no misconceptions.
"Your stick boy," he said, "stuck it up our ass."
This is the quintessential Gaudreau tale. At a generous listing of 5'9" and in just his second season with the Calgary Flames, the 22-year-old nicknamed "Johnny Hockey" has become one of the most exciting and popular players in the NHL. He is a star in the making with a bevy of highlight-reel plays and the seventh-most points (55) in the league, a season after finishing third in the Calder Trophy race with a 64-point campaign in his rookie year.
It's also unexpected, frankly, that a player who had been repeatedly turned down from his local teams as a teen in southern New Jersey and was just a fourth-round pick five years ago would now stand at this point. Once overlooked, he now has the Hobey Baker award— college hockey's Heisman—to his name and an ever-growing profile.
"All my life I've been playing against bigger guys," he said. "So I've been getting used to it throughout my career."
In many ways, however, Gaudreau has been bred to be a hockey star. He is the product of talent and opportunity. His father, Guy, has run the Hollydell Ice Arena in Sewell, New Jersey, for more than two decades and Gaudreau began playing when he was just two. He had an unfettered exposure to the sport, ice time available to him at a whim and a father who also went on to coach him in high school at Gloucester Catholic.
Gaudreau landed in the perfect spot when he left home before his senior year of high school and joined the USHL. Montgomery, his coach, had been an undersized player, too, playing parts of six seasons in the NHL despite being just 5'10".
Guy Gaudreau believes it was the right fortune for his son.
"There's coaches out there that would never have given him a chance," he said. "He's too small—there's no need for him."
Gaudreau's skill comes from an almost preternatural savvy. Montgomery compares him to Barry Sanders, the former Lions running back who made football into an art form as he danced in the backfield in Detroit. Both are diminutive and elusive, and, like Sanders, Montgomery wondered why no one could hit Gaudreau.
That comes down to an innate timing. He shifts at just the right moment to avoid impact. Even in tight spaces, like when he sets up behind the net, he creates room. Where others may look like they are in a closet, he has all the opening of a ballroom. In the USHL, the Saints would set up their power plays with Gaudreau behind the net and wait for him to act, finding amusement as opponents tried to win the puck. A power play there once ended up with Gaudreau stuffing the puck into goal as four defenders languished on the other side.
In the NHL, it's not very different. Senators defenseman Mark Borowiecki tried to corner him back in October, only to end up as an embarrassing dupe as Gaudreau eluded him.
"Johnny's greatness—and it holds true at every level he's been, including the NHL—is creativity and the ability to create time and space," Montgomery said. "The way he can read opponents' sticks, hips and knees, to be able to go the other way on them allows him to do things that people didn't think were humanly possible at his size in the NHL."
Guy Gaudreau taught his pupils to think of two things: to play hockey from the waist up and skate from the waist down. He advocated a game predicated on passing and carrying in space.
Still, even he admits that his son's play can't quite be taught. Johnny Gaudreau's understanding of time and space—of what's available to him and what he can seize and create himself—is innate. And there is little doubt that his size has left an influence on his style.
"It had to," Guy Gaudreau said. "There's a lot of guys in the NHL that use their whole body to skate with their heads down and they go plow through people. He can't skate like that. He's got to skate from the waist down, head up, head on a swivel, stick handling and control the puck, make plays. He would not be where he is now."
Montgomery once asked him how he did it. What, exactly, does he look for before he makes one of those whimsical cuts? I wait for either his knees or his hips to be crossed over, Gaudreau told him, then I go back the other way. Of course, unless you're a superb skater like Gaudreau, this is easier to explain than to perform and replicate.
"He thinks the game and does things on the ice that not many players maybe outside of Patrick Kane and Pavel Datsyuk have the ability to do," Montgomery said. "To say he's a genius—and I'm talking just his creativity—people don't understand how he keeps people back off. Because he doesn't look like he's a great skater but he's almost like an aeronautical engineering genius on the ice because he understands triangles and he understands cutbacks."
While magnificent to watch, Gaudreau's game has only slowly won acceptance. As an adolescent and teenager in New Jersey, he continuously missed the cut for the district team, which took the best players in the region. He eventually stopped trying out, his father said. Only after an assistant coach for Northeastern—the school he first committed to—insisted the 16-year-old standing 5'6" try out again, did Gaudreau finally break that wall.
"I was concerned that his size would hold him back," Guy Gaudreau said.
But once Johnny Gaudreau got to the USHL, his career began to flourish quickly. Montgomery expected him to stay for three years as a stopover before college. Gaudreau left after a year, good enough to play at Boston College immediately, though his father admits Johnny has a habit of pushing the pace in his career, too. Gaudreau won the Hobey Baker as a junior and then turned pro. Now, the Calgary forward has blossomed into a two-time All-Star in Calgary, scoring at a point-per-game pace. He's an emerging star defined by his size and flair but not limited by it.
"He's a little tiger," Flames coach Bob Hartley said. "He has very high expectations of himself. He wants to contribute. It's quite a treat to watch him, whether it's going on the power play or a regular shift or a 3-on-3, you can see sparks in his eyes.
"The only disappointment is that I think he's done growing. He won't get much taller. We have to put up with this."