His coach thinks Johnny Gaudreau might have slipped a few candy bars in his back pocket, a little extra weight to cheat the scale. Even a few ounces count, after all, when you’re fighting to get past the 150-pound mark.
Gaudreau insists it’s real, this weight, insists that the lure of American food once he got back from a stint in Russia has done the trick, gotten him all the way to 155. It’s hard to tell where he has put the extra pounds, though. His frame remains lithe and wiry, his face that of an eighth grader.
He’s only 5 feet 8 inches, but it’s not just the height that makes the Boston College sophomore seem small. He’s not even the smallest player on his own line. Steve Whitney is listed at 5 feet 7 inches. But Whitney, like BC greats Brian Gionta and Nathan Gerbe before him, has a little more heft. He’s solid. Gaudreau is not.
“At least I’m 165, 170,” said the 5-5 Gerbe, who now plays for the Sabres. “The first time I met him, I couldn’t believe how skinny he was. But it works.”
The stories are everywhere. Meet Gaudreau, and you assume he’s 12 years old. That’s the age that everyone offers, from the coach who initially recruited him to Northeastern to the coach who led him to the World Junior championship to his linemate at Boston College.
“I was sort of taken aback because he looked like one of my kids,” said Phil Housley, coach of the United States world junior team that won the gold medal in Russia last month. “He’s got these boyish attributes. But when he steps on the ice, he plays like a man.”
Freedom to improvise
Some coaches fall in love with size. It can’t be taught, after all. Some coaches yearn for the 6-footers, the 200-pounders, the players who look like, well, players. As BC coach Jerry York said, “Hey, you can win that way. But you overlook some very, very good players.”
York rarely does.
Once they’re identified — whether they’re 5-5 or 6-5 — that’s when York allows them their freedom. He likes creative players, so when he gets them, he lets them be creative. He doesn’t want his players turning into a game of table hockey — stiff robots without the vision to move.
“They all like to score goals,” York said of the diminutive forwards he has brought to BC. “They think red lights. They’ve all been career scoring leaders. And they’ve all got that competitive drive. They’re all a little different personality-wise, but all the skating is extraordinary.”
When he finds those players, those with the ability to make things happen, he can disregard their relative lack of strength. He can accept their low numbers in the weight room.
As Gaudreau’s linemate Patrick Mullane said, “We’re not trying to change players into something that they’re not.”
So York reels in the Giontas and the Gerbes and the Gaudreaus. He finds the forwards with small stature and outsized abilities. They are willing to commit to a program that values them. They have heard too often from those who don’t believe in them.
“He’s not afraid to play the smaller guys,” said Gaudreau, acknowledging that legacy is a major reason he came to BC. “A lot of coaches like big guys, and I think it’s a great unique tool that Coach York has, putting smaller guys in his repertoire.
“I’m really fortunate that he likes small guys.”
False start at NU
At first, almost everyone overlooked Gaudreau. Northeastern recruited him early, assistant Albie O’Connell spotting something in a kid who looked as though he would never make it at the college level. By 16, Gaudreau was signed.
York had barely heard of him.
Even Greg Cronin, then the coach at Northeastern, had his doubts.
“I said, ‘How the hell is this kid going to play college hockey in a couple years?’ ” Cronin recalled. “He clearly was a really weak-looking kid, very small, very boyish-looking.”
Then Cronin saw him play.
“That’s the first time I actually said that I would pay money to see youth hockey,” said Cronin, now an assistant coach with Toronto. “He was that dynamic in the game. I couldn’t believe how skilled he was, and how extremely competitive.
“His competitiveness was visible right away, and he reminded me a little bit of Wayne Gretzky. That’s a really, really far reach, but in the game I watched, he made plays that you would see once in a decade.”
Then Cronin left for the Maple Leafs. O’Connell left for Harvard. Gaudreau backed out of his commitment, and by then, the rest of the top coaches had seen him, heard of him, wanted him. The sweepstakes was on.
BC, with its dedication to the smaller player, with its legacy of success for the little guy, was the victor. It didn’t hurt that, when he was younger, Gaudreau used to walk around wearing a BC hat.
As his father, Guy, said, “If you have a small son, that’s where you want him to go.”
On the ice at 2
Already, Gaudreau has helped deliver a national championship, his goal against Ferris State in the 2012 title game sealing the verdict with three minutes to play, as the freshman took two defenders one-on-one for the score.
He is, as York said, the player that brings you out of your seat. You can’t look away.
“I think he is able to understand and process the game better than anyone I’ve ever played with,” Mullane said. “He finds himself in positions that other people aren’t because he understands the game and he can think so many steps ahead.”
He’s elusive, slippery, a Patrick Kane-type who always wants the puck. He reads players’ weaknesses, reads puck movement, knows where to be. And he isn’t afraid to go into traffic, even with the size disadvantage.
Part of that came from growing up in Carneys Point, N.J., on the ice, skates on at 2 years old, raised by a former college player who ran a rink. He couldn’t hold himself up that young, so he lay down on the ice.
There were drills pushing tires across the rink to learn to skate with only his lower body. There were full practices without pucks. He found his vision there, his skating ability.
“When I started both boys in hockey, it was because I loved the game of hockey,” said Guy, of Johnny and his younger brother Matt, who is also expected to go to BC. “I just wanted them to love the game and enjoy it more than anything else. I created monsters.”
When Mullane’s skate laces are wildly uneven, one side long enough to wrap around his waist, one shorter than a finger, he knows whom to blame. It’s a prank Gaudreau performs often, gleefully watching as Mullane takes the ice five minutes late.
Gaudreau doesn’t necessarily react quite so well when the joke is on him.
“That,” said Jim Montgomery, who coached Gaudreau in the US Hockey League, “was the only time where I noticed the Napoleon in him come out.”
But it makes sense. It fits. He is, as Mullane said, “that annoying little brother that just kind of hangs around and you love him for it.”
He needs the sauce off his pasta. He hates vegetables, the nutritionist at BC often scolding him for the lack of greenery in his weekly food journal. He favors Skittles and Mountain Dew and chocolate chip cookies. He giggles, often.
There is maturation that still needs to happen, which is one of the reasons Gaudreau’s family is fighting off the advances by Calgary to get him into the NHL. His father says he will play at least his junior season in Chestnut Hill, and perhaps his senior as well.
“He looks like he’s 12 and he still acts like he’s 12 sometimes,” Guy said. “He’s just finishing up puberty.
“Any player that’s played with him, in the locker room with him, will tell you that he’s still very young. He might be 19, but he’s still probably in the body of a 17-year-old boy.”
His game, though, far outstrips his physical readiness. He knows what he wants. He wants the puck. That hasn’t changed since he was 3 years old.
“There’s a tiger inside that little body that comes out every time he’s on the ice,” Montgomery said. “He uses his brains to win those one-on-one battles and loose puck battles, with his stick and his feet.
“That’s why people say he’s going to be able to do it when he goes to the pro level. Yes, he is. The best predictor of the future is your past and Johnny’s past is better than anybody’s.”