When you’re 21, under 6 feet tall, weigh a mere 150 lbs. and look like you’re 12, the chances of you taking home one of the most coveted trophies in a professional sports league can be a bit unlikely. Oh, unless you happen to be named Johnny Gaudreau.
His nickname, Johnny Hockey, speaks for his talent, since his baby-faced appearance doesn’t. Following a remarkable underdog season with the Calgary Flames, it was no surprise to anyone when the diminutive left winger was named for Calder Trophy contention.Gaudreau built up a name for himself long before he even hit the big ice. Gaudreau signed with the Calgary Flames just over one year ago, on the same day that he was awarded the Hobey Baker Award for his exceptional college hockey career. Needless to say, 2014 was a big year for the New Jersey native (the 2013-2014 season saw him score a whopping 36 goals in 40 games with Boston College), and the Flames were eager to lock him down.
Gaudreau was the Flames’ fourth-round draft pick in 2011. Despite being a young gun bursting with excitement to go pro, Gaudreau chose not to join the Flames’ affiliate team after a successful and impressive training camp. Instead, he opted to attend Boston College, with the level-headed intention of earning a good education whilst honing his already-advanced hockey skills. Three years with the Boston College Eagles, and Gaudreau was ready to play with the big boys.
He came at right time, joining fellow fresh-faced forward Sean Monahan, who’s rookie year in Calgary saw him achieve milestones no young Flame had achieved since an 18-year old Jarome Iginla joined the team. The two developed an easy chemistry on the ice, guided by the veteran presence of Jiri Hudler. Gaudreau, Monahan and Hudler’s line became known as the “Boys n’ the Hudz”, a line that gained notoriety for generating plays, producing offense and orchestrating outrageous comebacks.
So what can you expect from a rookie who’s freshman year in the league takes him all the way to the Stanley Cup playoffs? 2013 first overall draft pick Nathan Mackinnon did it last year. Granted, Mackinnon entered the season carrying a mountain of comparisons to Sidney Crosby, and his first year in the league did not disappoint. However, the postseason was a different story, and under the pressure of playoff hockey, Mackinnon and the Colorado Avalanche crumbled.
Like the Avalanche one year past, the Flames were expected to get knocked out in the first round of the playoffs against the Vancouver Canucks. And like Mackinnon, Gaudreau was expected to make minimal impact on his team’s success against playoff veterans like the Sedin twins. But proving people wrong had become somewhat of a habit of the Calgary Flames, and while beating the Canucks and making it to Game 5 in the second round against the mighty Anaheim Ducks, Gaudreau managed to nab four goals and five assists.
Not bad for a rookie, and certainly better than his fellow Calder contenders fared. Early in the season, the Nashville Predators’ Filip Forsberg was a favourite to take home the trophy. But when his hot streak fizzled and Gaudreau’s kept on burning, Forsberg was forced to take a backseat. And 18-year old Aaron Ekblad certainly made his presence known in the running. A fast, strong defenseman who shot the puck remarkably well for his size, 2014’s first round draft pick would have been an easy choice to win the Calder.
Many argued that, while Gaudreau’s rookie season achievements clearly outshone Ekblad’s, the difference in age and the differences in the level of compete in the east and the west, would rule in Ekblad’s favour. But in the greater spectrum of things, it comes down to the fact that Gaudreau’s impact on his team was much more significant than either Forsberg’s or Ekblad’s.
Without taking away from Forsberg or Ekblad’s rookie accomplishments, it is the underlying story of the undersized Gaudreau that gives him an edge for the Calder Trophy. He wasn’t the superstar of his draft year, and he wasn’t playing alongside superstars of the league to aid in his rookie season successes. He began his professional hockey career on a hot streak, and managed to maintain the heat throughout the entire season and even into the postseason. 24 goals, 40 assists; a 64-point season in 80 games played. He was the scorer of countless game-winning goals, and a huge part of the come-from-behind wins the Flames had become known for. He is, undeniably, the most valuable rookie to his team than his Calder counterparts are to theirs.
And after all is said and done, whether Gaudreau goes home with the Calder or not, his rookie season is an old-fashioned feel-good story: a boy who was told he couldn’t because he was too small, but did because everything else about him was big. His skill, his presence on the ice, his heart for the game of hockey.
Graduate of Mount Royal University’s Journalism program and a freelance sports writer from Calgary, Alberta.