Rising star Gaudreau has the name — and the game
COLUMBUS, Ohio – At about the time an undersized, skilled and freelancing quarterback named Johnny Manziel was lighting up opposing defenses at Texas A&M and earning the nickname Johnny Football, an undersized, skilled and freelancing forward named Johnny Gaudreau was lighting up opposing defenses and goaltenders on the ice at Boston College.
The Boston College student section started chanting "Johnny Hockey" after Gaudreau goals.
The name stuck, and Boston College student section kept going home hoarse. Johnny kept them busy.
Like Manziel did after two years of college stardom, Gaudreau went pro after winning the Hobey Baker Award — essentially college hockey’s equivalent of football’s Heisman Trophy, which Manziel won in 2012 — last spring. Despite being just 5’6 then, the Calgary Flames had drafted Gaudreau in the fourth round of the NHL Draft in 2011, and despite an administration change in the three years between his drafting and arrival, Gaudreau was welcomed.
He’s never played a game in the minors. Johnny Hockey — still undersized, yet still elusive and productive at just 21 — is a hit in hockey-crazed Calgary, and Saturday night’s All-Star Skills Competition in Columbus could provide another popularity boost. It’s no coincidence that the NHL wants to showcase the 5’9, 150-pound Gaudreau to fans across multiple countries.
Gaudreau and his agent have applied to trademark "Johnny Hockey" with the US Patent and Trademark Office, just to make sure Gaudreau maximizes his individual earnings if his rise continues.
It’s just business.
"I like the name," Gaudreau said Friday. "It’s all good. It’s a pretty cool name to have.
"Credit the students at Boston College. They did it. The support was incredible. I don’t know how it started, but I watched (Manziel). He’s a great player. The whole thing is pretty cool."
It’s been a fast rise. Gaudreau admittedly struggled through his first training camp and NHL preseason. He was a healthy scratch when the Flames visited Columbus early in the season and scored just once in his first 10 games; he scored a point in four of his last five before the All-Star break and twice in December had four-game scoring streaks.
"I set goals for myself," Gaudreau said. "The first one was just to make the team."
Another was to survive — on multiple fronts. Gaudreau didn’t share it publicly, but he was determined to avoid demotion. On the ice, he was adjusting to the fastest, most violent hockey he’d ever played against bigger, stronger defenders.
"In the NHL you have guys who are 6’5, 200-some pounds coming down on the wall," Gaudreau said.
They want to hit the hot-shot kid, but they’ve had only limited success. Gaudreau has 13 goals and 22 assists for a surprising Flames team that is in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race.
"One of the questions we had coming into the season was where our offense was going to come from," Flames captain and All-Star defenseman Mark Giordano said. "Johnny has provided it. He’s been great. I don’t think anyone expected him to produce this much this quickly, but he’s just dynamic with the puck.
"He’s so quick. He’s really small, but he never puts himself in a bad spot."
Gaudreau’s father, Guy, was his son’s coach at Gloucester Catholic High School in South New Jersey, but by his senior year Johnny had gone to Dubuque, Iowa, to play junior hockey, live with a host family and chase his professional dreams. Johnny said he played soccer, baseball and lacrosse growing up, but he realized early hockey was his best sport.
"I knew if I wanted to pursue all this, I’d better stick with hockey," he said.
He committed to Northeastern University, also in Boston, but switched to Boston College after a coaching change. He had 36 goals and 44 assists for a team that made the Frozen Four last season, and he turned pro immediately after receiving the Hobey Baker Award.
"It’s been a crazy year," Gaudreau said. "At the beginning of the season, I was just trying to get confident, trying to find my way. I was pretty nervous about getting sent down."
Now, he’s so popular that Johnny Hockey is getting trademarked, Calgary fans are wearing his jersey to games and an upcoming trip to Philadelphia for a game against the Flyers is being advertised as his homecoming.
"People I barely even know are sending me messages telling me they already bought tickets," Gaudreau said. "It’s going to be a fun weekend."
Gaudreau doesn’t want to talk about being the NHL’s next American star. But there’s nothing to indicate that this has been too much, too soon, and Saturday night brings another chance for his popularity to grow.
The name Johnny Hockey is an easy one to remember.