As the curtain gets pulled back further on the Calgary Flames' child star, Johnny Gaudreau, the story has been told more than once in these parts. How Gaudreau, when he was little – yes, even littler than he is now – had his father, Guy, hockey director for the Hollydell Ice Arena in Sewell, N.J., scatter Skittles around the ice, two or three feet apart, to encourage little Johnny to skate after them.
Dutifully, Gaudreau – 2 or 3 at the time – would shuffle along ("It was probably more crawling than skating," he reflected Tuesday), scoop them up one by one and pop them into his mouth.
"My dad had his own rink, so I had the ice by myself and didn't really have to watch out for anyone," said Gaudreau. "I was really fortunate to have my dad put me on the ice early and fortunate to learn a lot from him."
That early ability to grasp a concept is also evident in Gaudreau's current play, now that the second month of the NHL season is upon us, and Johnny Hockey is starting to find his rhythm at this new, elevated level.
Gaudreau is the Flames' first-year forward, the winner of last year's Hobey Baker Award as the top player in U.S. college hockey and, arguably, the most exciting player to come along in Calgary since the equally diminutive Theo Fleury. Gaudreau, Fleury, Martin St. Louis, Joey Mullen – all the small stars that came through Calgary – share a stature and a desire to compete, but are also unique in their own ways.
Fleury, for example, played with a massive chip on his shoulder throughout his career, in an era of hooking and holding, and freely launched his undersized body against much bigger players.
Gaudreau arrived at a time when there was more freedom to skate, but also a higher overall skill level than a generation ago. So his ability to produce points at 5 foot 9 and 157 pounds was no sure thing.
The 21-year-old won a spot on the team with an excellent exhibition season, but started slowly when the games started to count. Eventually, coach Bob Hartley put Gaudreau in the press box for the sixth game of the season – against the Columbus Blue Jackets – after he'd been held off the score sheet in the first five.
That was an early crossroads of sorts: When Gaudreau returned, if his scoring struggles had continued, there might have been a temptation to assign him to the team's minor-league affiliate in Adirondack for further development.
Instead, he started to adjust – and found the net more regularly. He now has 12 points in his past 11 games, which leaves him tied for second in the rookie scoring race behind the Nashville Predators' Filip Forsberg. On a Flames team where part of their early-season success can be attributed to scoring by committee, Gaudreau is second among the team's forwards in points and tied for the team lead at plus-nine.
"Sometimes you sit guys to send a message," explained Hartley. "And sometimes you sit guys so they can take a step back and look and relax. At the start, he was trying to do everything on the same shift. He has such high expectations of himself that he was his own worst enemy.
"So I sat with him for probably 30 minutes, and we grabbed him a suite by himself in Columbus and told him, 'just watch and learn how the NHL game is played.'"
According to Hartley, the Flames' early-season schedule – which has seen them play a league-leading 11 road games – was not exactly conducive to helping a young player adjust to NHL life. They opened at home and immediately went on a five-game trip, where practices were limited and routines disrupted.
"I felt his game was going backward and backward," Hartley said. "I could see him coming back to the bench and saying, 'What the hell am I doing?' So I said, 'Let's unplug, let's reboot. You know you're better than this, and we know you're better than this.' It was just a matter of getting a feel – of starting to feel it. Since then, he's playing with poise. He wants the puck. I see the Johnny Hockey that we'd watched in Boston College. Obviously, it's a bigger step and a bigger challenge – but he's doing quite fine."
Smaller players who defy logic to thrive in the NHL usually do so because of two factors: instinct and foot speed. People have been trying to stop Gaudreau in his tracks with their bodies for as long as he's played, but he is slippery and has that now-you-see-him-now-you-don't quality that has left some experienced NHL defenders clutching for air. And he's just flat-out solid on his skates. Chasing all those Skittles way back in the day clearly taught him a lesson or two that sunk in.
"For me, it's just being quick down low and making sure you know where guys are at and giving that extra shoulder check to see where the guys behind you are," said Gaudreau. "Those are things I've been learning from guys who have been playing in the NHL for a while – and they are smaller guys, too. I've been fortunate to watch a lot of guys play like that."