Johnny Gaudreau had his future mapped out. The crafty forward had committed early to Northeastern and he was excited about playing hockey for the Huskies beginning in the fall of 2011.
But others’ decisions had a domino effect. Last June, NU coach Greg Cronin accepted a job as an assistant coach with the Toronto Maple Leafs. The next month, assistant Albie O’Connell, with whom Gaudreau had grown close, headed to Harvard to join Ted Donato’s staff.
That left Gaudreau with a dilemma: head to NU and its new coaches or look for a different school. He elected the latter and chose Boston College. It was fortuitous for the Eagles, too, because a scholarship was open after defenseman Philip Samuelsson left to sign with the Penguins organization.
BC, which has a legacy of playing small but talented forwards, added the 5-foot-7-inch, 150-pound native of Carneys Point, N.J., and the result has been electrifying.
Gaudreau heads into tonight’s start of the Eagles’ Hockey East quarterfinal series with visiting UMass third on the team in scoring (16-17-33 in 36 games).
During the Eagles’ current 11-game winning streak, Gaudreau has generated 15 points (8-7-15), tied for a team high with Barry Almeida (7-8-15).
Looking back on his decision-making process, Gaudreau said it was a hectic time.
“With three weeks of school left, I didn’t know if I’d have enough time to pick a new school,’’ said Gaudreau, who was playing for the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the USHL at the time. “I really wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I talked to some people and they thought the best decision for me was to meet some new teams and see what I liked from there.
“I visited a bunch and, right away, I felt like I belonged at Boston College. As soon as I got there, I felt something. It’s like home to me.’’
Coach Jerry York said landing Gaudreau was a bonus.
“We got a Christmas present early with Johnny Gaudreau,’’ said York. “We were never actively involved in recruiting him because he committed so early. He certainly has all the attributes of some of the top players we’ve had here.
“I think what makes him a little bit different is his vision. He can see people who are open that normal people cannot see. He has great hockey sense and terrific vision on the ice. He sees all 10 players on the ice at once.’’
Gaudreau started the season strong, but at midseason, around the same time the Eagles were struggling, he hit a wall. But, as the team found its rhythm again, so, too, did Gaudreau.
“He had all the ingredients and essentials to be a top-flight player,’’ said York, “but there’s always that question when you move up from junior to college, ‘How is he going to handle the strength factor and the physicality and just the maturity [of players] who are 23, 24, or in some cases, 25?
“He’s made the adjustment with only a few hiccups. But boy, he’s bounced off that wall and he’s better now than he’s been at any point in the year. He brings you out of your seat when you watch him.’’
For Gaudreau, the learning curve was difficult because of the strength of play in Hockey East. There was less parity in the USHL, where Gaudreau helped Dubuque win the Clark Cup championship last season.
“It was good for me [to play tougher competition],’’ said Gaudreau. “At the beginning of the season, we were playing really well and it’s hard not put up numbers when your team is playing well. But then we hit a rough patch. We weren’t playing the way we were at the beginning of the season. So those two months, it wasn’t very fun.
“We just got back to [making fewer] turnovers on our blue line and getting pucks deep, and, ever since then, it’s been a great ride for us.’’
He said the transition was made easier because of Dubuque coach and general manager Jim Montgomery, the former University of Maine star.
“If I would’ve went to any other team in the USHL, I don’t think I’d be playing college hockey right now,’’ said Gaudreau, who had 72 points in 60 games last season. “Coach Montgomery, he was a small player, and he taught me a ton out there. I just can’t thank them enough for everything they did for me.’’
Montgomery said Gaudreau was a joy to watch develop into a dynamic talent.
“He can turn nothing into something just because of his creativity and his hands and his lateral movement,’’ said Montgomery, who said Gaudreau reminds him of Red Wings star Pavel Datsyuk. “He’s just an exciting hockey player who can take fans, and even his own teammates, out of their seats. I think he’s a great fit for any type of hockey at any level.
“He’s fearless. He’s small, but he goes to tough areas and that’s why he scores goals. He has a rare combination of skill and will. He’s a force even as freshman in college hockey. BC plays a very up-tempo offensive-minded game, and that suits John right to his strengths.’’
Gaudreau said one of the factors he considered when choosing BC was how well smaller players have fit into the program.
“Looking through a lot of players coming through here, 5-foot-7, or 5-8, or 5-9, and you see how well they do here and how well they do in the NCAAs, it definitely gives you the feeling that the coach likes small players and they’re not just going to put the small players on the end of the bench because they’re not big and strong and physical,’’ said Gaudreau. “Coach likes that speedy kind of forward and that’s one of the bigger reasons I did choose BC - as well as the academic side.’’
York said Gaudreau, who won’t turn 19 until August, reminds him of past Eagles Brian Gionta, Ben Eaves, and Ryan Shannon.
“The have similar stature and abilities and competitiveness,’’ said the coach.
From a lifestyle perspective, Gaudreau said the smaller school and relatively suburban campus (as compared with NU) is a more comfortable place.
“I’m definitely not a city kind of person,’’ he said. “When I committed [to NU], it was going to a little nervous for me, going into the big city with a whole bunch of students. But going to [BC], I felt more myself.
“I grew up in a high school with maybe 2,000 kids in it and my middle school maybe had 500 kids in it, so I always grew up in small areas, and BC was definitely a better fit.’’
However far the Eagles go in the postseason, Gaudreau said he believes what has happened to him was meant to be.
“I thank God every day for giving me the chance to play here at BC,’’ he said.