As a toddler, Cole Caufield would shuffle around the carpet on skates in the living room of his family’s home in Stevens Point, Wis.
“He and his brother did it to build strength in their legs,” their mother, Kelly Caufield, says. “I thought it was ridiculous.”
Brock, nearly two years older than Cole, began to play organized hockey when he was 4. Cole tagged along to the first practice and burst into tears when he wasn’t allowed to play.
“He cried watching Brock,” his mother says. “He wanted to skate. He knew he could do it and didn’t understand.”
Brock was quickly moved up one level, and two-year-old Cole was offered his place on the team. Thus began a journey that has taken him to the Stanley Cup final at the very beginning of his National Hockey League career.
A 20-year-old right wing, Caufield scored a team-leading four goals for the Canadiens in six games during their semi-final-round victory over the Vegas Golden Knights. Montreal, which last won a Stanley Cup in 1993, plays its first game of the final in Tampa on Monday night against the defending champion Lightning.
“When I look at him, I can see how he is soaking things in,” Kelly Caufield says. “I think everybody [on the team] has taken him under their wing. He is learning from phenomenal players and we are so proud and thrilled for him.
“He is living out his dream.”
The Canadiens’ first-round draft pick in 2019, Caufield joined the club at the end of the regular season and showed an immediate flare for the dramatic. The first two goals of the four he scored in 10 regular-season games were overtime winners.
He has four goals and nine points in 15 postseason contests since then and continues to turn heads. He set up Nick Suzuki for the overtime winner that started Montreal’s comeback against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round, and scored a breathtaking goal to give the Canadiens the lead in the sixth game against Vegas.
After accepting a long pass from Joel Edmundson, Caufield chipped the puck over the stick of the Golden Knights’ Brayden McNabb, blew past him and wired a wicked shot over goalie Robin Lehner.
It was one of those ‘wow’ moments one would expect out of Connor McDavid or Sidney Crosby, not someone in their second month in the NHL.
“He made a play only superstars make,” says Tony Granato, Caufield’s coach for two years at the University of Wisconsin. “It’s not the pass or the shot or the move he makes, it is the combination of five different things he does to make the play.
“I’ve got news for you. He is just getting warmed up. This is just a little hot streak that he is on.”
Caufield scored 30 goals in 31 games at Wisconsin this season and was selected the winner of the Hobey Baker Award given to the best men’s hockey player in the NCAA.
A few months before that, he was a member of the United States team that beat Canada for the gold medal at the world junior championship.
Nothing he has done so far with the Canadiens has surprised anyone that knows him.
“The brighter the lights, the more Cole Caufield shines,” Robbie Beydoun, his roommate at Wisconsin, says. He is currently a goalie with the Fort Wayne Komets of the ECHL. “He thrives on it. He is a creative player and a dynamic player, and he is always hungry and striving for more. He was always preparing for pro hockey. That’s why he is where he is now. He is where he is meant to be.”
Caufield is only 5 foot 7 and 165 pounds and has always had to disprove critics that think he is too small. He was expected to be among the first players chosen in the NHL entry draft but dropped to No. 15 and the Canadiens because of his stature.
“Teams picked bigger guys before him because that’s just the way it is,” Granato says. He played for 13 seasons in the NHL and has served as the head coach of the Colorado Avalanche and Team USA at the 2018 Olympics. “That was a disappointment to Cole and motivation.
“I know lots of undersized players that have gone to have fabulous careers. Size and weight only matter in certain situations. He looks at his size as an asset. He is fast, able to manoeuvre and get open. It has never been a factor, no matter what level he has played at.”
Caufield’s agent, Pat Brisson, has known him since he was 10 years old. Brisson’s son Brendan, now a prospect in the Golden Knights organization, played against Caufield in his youth and was a teammate of his on the U.S. world junior team.
“Cole has always been a special player and he has been an elite scorer at every level,” Brisson says. “We knew he was going to be a great NHL player, but nobody in their right mind would have expected it so soon.
“He has always been a confident young man and thrives in big moments. When a game is on the line, he wants the puck on his stick.”
Says Nate Leaman, the head coach of the U.S. world junior team and also of the men’s team at Providence College. “He is happy to score whether it is a warm-up drill or during a game. The happiest time of his life is when he is at the rink.”
Caufield joined players competing in the Stanley Cup final for rounds of interviews with journalists on Sunday morning. Still in his early days with the Canadiens, he has taken an approach to defer to the team’s older players and speak only when spoken to.
He has been placed on Montreal’s most productive line with Suzuki and Tyler Toffoli.
“Everything has gone by so fast that I haven’t really had a chance to enjoy it yet,” Caufield said. “In some ways that’s actually good. It has allowed me to just focus on things on a daily basis.
“It’s been a crazy ride. I just want to cap it off by winning a championship.”
Kelly Caufield and her husband Paul, a former college player, will be at Amalie Arena in Tampa on Monday night. So will Brock, who is about to start his fourth year at Wisconsin and will be one of its captains.
“I’ve watched Cole do this since he was two,” his mother says. “He has been blessed all of his life. He is just a genuinely happy kid living out his dream. He realizes it is abnormal for this to happen to someone so quickly.
“He is enjoying every moment of this like everyone else.”