Both of the voicemails contained a sense of urgency. Something important was happening, something confounding, inexplicable, and disappointing, and Guy Gaudreau wanted his wife to know it in the moment.
“Jane,’’ he said, phoning from the rink that afternoon, “call me back, right away!’’
Jane Gaudreau reached for her phone, anxious, not knowing what to make of her husband’s urgency.
“Actually, I had to leave him a message, and then he got back to me,’’ recalled the woman who eventually would be known as Johnny Hockey’s mom. “Finally, he calls back, and I say, ‘Guy, what’s happening?!’ And then he says, ‘I took John on the ice today. I don’t think he has it in him. I don’t think he’s going to be a hockey player. He just doesn’t have, you know . . . it just doesn’t seem he has that love.’ ’’
In a sports sense, this would be called a coachable moment. In a married-to-a-hockey-nut sense, this was eyes closed, palm of hand pressed to forehead, deep breath, a second deeper breath, and a silent stream of thoughts spiced with enough adjectives and exclamation marks to make a longshoreman wither. Yes, Guy Gaudreau (pronounced like “Guy” in Guy Lafleur) was casting doubt on their eldest son’s very hockey being, but this also was their eldest son’s very first day on the ice.
And Johnny Gaudreau that very first day was all of 18 months old.
“I said, ‘Guy . . . he’s in a diaper!’ ’’ recalled Jane Gaudreau, her southern New Jersey accent running rich with sarcasm and relief, and now, some 18 years later, ample humor. “I mean, Johnny had barely been able to walk for maybe something like six or seven months. I said, ‘Guy, let’s wait till he gets the diaper off and see how he does, OK?’ I was so mad at him. I was like, ‘I can’t believe you . . . I can’t believe you would do this. What’s for him to love? He doesn’t know anything right now . . . except for food.’ ’’
Johnny Gaudreau grew up. Fast. Not very big, but very fast, with a love for hockey that seems insatiable, as boundless as his prolific scoring touch. He is now winding down his junior year at Boston College, with the Eagles (26-7-4) ranked No. 3 in the nation and eyeing a sixth NCAA hockey championship. They open up the NCAA Northeast Regional on Saturday against Denver at the DCU Center in Worcester, paced by Gaudreau’s wizardry at left wing, where he has produced an NCAA-leading 69 points (32 of those goals) in 37 games. He matched Paul Kariya’s Hockey East season record by picking up a point in 31 straight games.
In the next few weeks, the 20-year-old Gaudreau could have his nameplate velcroed to a second national title in his three years at The Heights, possibly collect the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s best player, then perhaps sign an NHL contract with Calgary.
The downtrodden Flames, desperate for someone with Gaudreau’s on-ice sorcery and marketing potential, selected him in the fourth round, 104th overall, in the 2011 draft. They were eager for him to turn pro after last season, and while their new boss, Brian Burke, would gladly accept a gift-wrapped assist from the puckhandling Jesuits, Gaudreau remains decidedly undecided about leaving.
“I don’t want to make either of them upset,’’ he said recently, focusing on a father leaning toward the pros, his mother on a fun senior year at BC, and a degree (communications) in hand. “They said in the end it’s up to me, but at the same time I don’t want them to be upset. I’ll sit down before the end of the year and definitely figure out what I want to do.’’
There is a prevailing, undeniable issue within that decision that has followed Gaudreau throughout his hockey career. Be it a big deal or none whatsoever, he is a tiny dancer by NHL standards. He stands 5 feet 8 inches and weighs 150-something, his heart set on matriculating in a league where 6-1, 190 pounds is maybe the 1,425 SAT score. Guys like the 6-9, 255-pound Zdeno Chara nail the Boards at 1,600.
“There is everything but his size to like about him,’’ said Burke, who generally prefers to stock his rosters with bigger, rougher sorts. “Sure, it’s a question. But his skill set is so high. His hockey IQ. His vision. His passing. His scoring. When he’s on the ice, he makes everyone around him dangerous. Will he fill out to, say, 180 pounds? Well, he hasn’t grown much in the last couple of years, so we’re not counting on that. But it’s reasonable to think he can add another 10 pounds of weight, muscle.
“You see him play, he leaps out at you. So it will be a challenge, but I’d say if there’s a kid who can do it, he’s the one.’’
He would not be the first small NHLer, and particularly not the first downsized Eagle, to thrive in the big league. Gaudreau chose BC, in part, because coach Jerry York has a history of shaping pint-sized forwards for the big time. Brian Gionta, Nathan Gerbe, and Cam Atkinson, all Gaudreau-like in size, made their way from The Heights to NHL success, all guided by York.
“Johnny is a little more cerebral. He sees things more and utilizes his other players more than, say, Atkinson and Gerbe and Gionta,’’ said York. “He is more of a chess player on the ice. Gionta, Gerbe, Atkinson all were little fire hydrants, where Johnny is just, well, there’s hardly anything to him at all. But he’s very elusive.
“His ability to create something out of nothing is incredible. He will see you over here, almost like a great point guard, like a Larry Bird or Magic [Johnson]. It surprises people. If it was a basketball [his passes] would hit you on the head.’’
Like many of the his best players over the years at BC, said York, Gaudreau also is without ego.
“If I brought you into our locker room and I walked you around the room and you thought, ‘OK, who is the difference-maker here?’ you’d walk right by him. His whole demeanor. He is very, very quiet. There’s nothing that would make you stop at his stall and say, ‘This guy is the difference-maker in tonight’s game.’ You’d never expect that. He just sort of blends in, where Gionta and Gerbe had more, ‘Hey, I’m standing up . . . I’m the guy.’ Their persona was like that. Then Johnny, the game starts and all of a sudden it’s, ‘Whoa! This is the guy . . . this is the guy!’ ’’
Whether he departs this spring or next, the physical difference for Gaudreau might be no more than a few added pounds and an overall game enhanced by more defensive structure. All of which would help at the next level. His father sounds convinced that his next growth spurt would be best teased out in the pro game, while his mother figures the pro life is a workaday world in which a game becomes a job. Fun, recreation, and youthful exuberance morph into paycheck and responsibility.
“John loves hockey so much, I don’t think he realizes that once you leave college, it’s going to become your job,’’ said Jane Gaudreau. “Right now he is having so much fun because he just loves it. Once he realizes the guy you compete with for that left wing spot — that guy might have a wife and three children, and that’s his job. That guy doesn’t still have his parents to help him out. I don’t think John quite gets all that yet.’’
Guy Gaudreau grew up on the Canadian border, in Beebe Plain, Vt. The family’s dairy farm encompassed 500 acres, a quarter of those actually across the line in French-speaking Quebec. Farming and hockey framed the seasons and Guy Gaudreau went on to play for Don “Toot” Cahoun for four seasons at Norwich (Class of 1980). Also an undersized forward, he liked to score.
“My pals come to BC and see Johnny play,’’ mused Guy, “and they tell me all the time, he backchecks more than I ever did.’’
Long the hockey director at Hollydell Ice Arena in Sewell, N.J., it indeed took the senior Gaudreau’s initial pleas to get Johnny out on the ice. It also took some sweet creativeness. Skittle sweet to be exact. According to the senior Gaudreau, the young Johnny, then maybe 3 years old, wouldn’t venture across the ice if not for a trail of the candy treats spaced a few feet apart on the surface.
“He’d skate a little, crawl . . . whatever,’’ recalled Guy. “But it got him out there.’’
Jane learned of her husband’s tricks later, when one of the rink’s regulars, a boy slightly older than Johnny, mentioned Coach Guy’s handiwork. In fact, the boy told her, Coach Guy had some of the other boys employed in the scheme.
“And I said, ‘You did what!’ ’’ she recalled saying to the boy who spilled the Skittles. “And the kid says, ‘Oh, we put the Skittles on the ice because that’s what Coach Guy says to do.’ And I say, ‘Isn’t the ice dirty? You let him put those in his mouth?’ ‘Yeah,’ the kid says. ‘Because that’s the only way we can get Johnny to skate.’ Oh . . . my . . . gosh.’’
About all Johnny Gaudreau remembers of his early hockey days is deciding early on that he wanted to play pro hockey. The Phantoms, the Philadelphia Flyers’ AHL affiliate, practiced regularly at Hollydell. Frank “The Animal” Bialowas was a favorite. Later, ex-BC forward Tony Voce was another.
“I’m not sure why I liked Frank ‘The Animal’,’’ Gaudreau said. “Maybe his name, I guess. And Tony, we were closer in age, so I worked out with him sometimes. I was at the rink all the time. I just knew it’s what I wanted.’’
Jane Gaudreau remembers it was Keith Primeau, the ex-Flyer, who firmly planted the college seed in her son’s head. Primeau came to Holydell one day to assist with a clinic, and young Johnny was only too proud to tell him that he, too, wanted one day to play in the NHL.
“We’d tell Johnny all the time he had to come up with a different plan, in case he didn’t make it,’’ recalled Jane, whose other son, Matthew, is a freshman on this BC squad. “But he didn’t listen to us, of course, because we are the parents. And this one day Keith happened to ask him, and John said, ‘Well, I am going to be an NHL player.’ And Keith said, ‘You need a backup plan, how about college? You could play hockey in college.’ And he said, ‘OK, I’ll do that.’ ’’
Later that day, with everyone back at the Gaudreau home in Pedricktown, N.J., Guy turned on the TV, finding Boston College playing in the Beanpot.
“We’re all watching the game and Guy says, ‘This a great school, John, and this coach likes smaller players,’ ’’ recalled Jane. “And John said, ‘OK, that’s where I’ll go.’ He didn’t realize it’s not quite that easy.’’
The nation’s leading scorer can’t recall his father’s candy contrivance. Forever a picky eater, he still likes Skittles, ideally the orange variety. For the most part, he has switched to plain M&Ms, the BC trainer doling him out one bag per game.
As for lunch, that’s always the same.
“He never changes, four pieces of turkey on white bread,’’ said Kevin Hayes, the 6-4 right winger from Dorchester who fills out Gaudreau’s prolific line (68-105—173) with center Bill Arnold. “He walks in, and Carol, the lady behind the lunch counter, sees him, and she just puts the turkey on the bread, hands it to him, and that’s it. Same every day.’’
Russ DeRosa, the hockey squad’s strength and conditioning coach, has watched a committed, dedicated Gaudreau make solid gains in the weight room over three seasons. The pride of the Eagle offense has added about 10 pounds, said DeRosa, and made strides in his overall diet.
“He’s not the best at that, but he’s better,’’ said DeRosa. Our nutritionist is constantly reminding the players, ‘Drag your sandwich through the garden . . . get some color on your plate.’ We want them to add tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers. My office is near the lunch room, so it’s hard for them to sneak by me. But when we’re on the road, if we’re at the airport, if I go right, Johnny will go left so he can go eat what he wants and I can’t see him. But you’re not going to find better than Johnny — a talented kid with character to match the talent.’’
If he leaves BC after this season, said Gaudreau, he’ll be sure to finish his degree by returning during the summer. He already is a couple of courses ahead of schedule, having studied while working out at The Heights during the summers of 2012 and ’13. His favorite course has been “Human Setbacks: The Unexpected Grace,’’ taught by Father Tony Penna, the team chaplain.
“All about people who’ve suffered setbacks in their life,’’ said Gaudreau. “You know, bad things that happen to good people, and how they deal with them.’’
According to Penna, Gaudreau was quiet at first but emerged as one of the eager contributors in class discussions. The Director of Campus Ministry, Penna also said Gaudreau regularly visits his office throughout the season, taking advantage of an offer open to all players, to discuss whatever is on their mind.
“A lot of players have done it through the years,’’ said Penna, ticking off a long list of regulars to his office, including Gionta and Gerbe. “It’s kind of a tradition, really. They’ll just come and talk for 45 minutes, one on one. It’s just someone to talk to, other than, say, their coach or professor. There’s no magic to it. But if they go out and score a few goals and they think there’s some magic, well, that’s OK, too.’’
Three years gone by, the magical ride continues for Gaudreau. Now he is left to decide whether to stay aboard for one more year with the Eagles or fly off to the next challenge.
“There are no guarantees, right?’’ said Johnny Hockey’s mom. “If you’re 6 feet 4, 220, no one can guarantee you are going to make it. Of course, we don’t know this next level, but I think he just has that drive that pushes him.’’