First thing Monday morning, Calgary Flames' coach Bob Hartley drove to the Saddledome and gave Johnny Hockey a big hug.
Well, how else would you celebrate the next step in Johnny Gaudreau's rapid rise through the NHL ranks? On the heels of a five-goal performance during the league's shortened Christmas schedule, Gaudreau was named the NHL's player of the week. Chances are, later this week he'll also get the nod as the league's rookie of the month.
It has been an onward and upward trajectory for the 5-foot-9, 157-pound rookie, who on Saturday night was gustily serenaded by Flames fans with "Johnny, Johnny, Johnny" cheers after he scored twice in a 16-second span during the 4-1 victory over the Edmonton Oilers.
Just before Christmas, Gaudreau, 21, recorded a natural hat trick in a come-from-behind overtime victory against the Los Angeles Kings. Two wins in a row reversed the Flames' three-week slide down the Western Conference standings, and helped them stay in the playoff race, a point team captain Mark Giordano was making prior to Monday's rematch with the Kings.
"It's a pretty impressive run he's been on," Giordano said of Gaudreau, "not only the numbers he's put up, but the big-time goals he's scored at key points in a lot of different games. We need those young guys who weren't expected to come in and produce the way they are to keep going – because that's what helping to push our team."
Until last week's scoring outburst, Gaudreau had been making his mark mostly as a playmaker (17 of his first 26 NHL points were assists). He and linemate Jiri Hudler, another relatively diminutive forward, have developed real chemistry over the past month. Hartley, who constantly likes to mix and match his line combinations, has left those two mostly alone the past month or so. But Hartley did take Gaudreau aside recently and advised him to shoot a little more.
So does it make Hartley feel good that Gaudreau can follow instructions so well?
"Makes me feel very bad, because I should have told him before," Hartley answered with a laugh. "We could be first overall in the league, maybe.
"Right now, everything's he's touching is going in. His tying goal against the Kings goes in off [Drew] Doughty's skate. The other day, second breakaway, he loses control of the puck, but it still trickles in. Every player goes through those stretches. For Johnny, at this young stage of his career, especially since he's been known as a passer first, I want him to have confidence in his shot – and to make the right decisions. If he's in a position to put the puck on the net, I want him to shoot." If he feels that passing should be his first option, then so be it. But I don't want him to start looking only for his partners."
With the Kings in town, Gaudreau was surrounded by an unusually large horde of reporters Monday morning. Flames players rarely resonate with U.S.-based media, but Gaudreau, from Salem, N.J., is something of an exception. His size, his modest demeanour and of course that catchy nickname – much like Johnny Manziel's Johnny Football – have made him something of a newsmaker early in his career. He was asked once again to outline the timetable of how he came to be known as Johnny Hockey, in the context of NFL rookie Johnny Manziel being dubbed Johnny Football in his college days at Texas A&M.
According to Gaudreau, the two nicknames were popularized at roughly the same time – Gaudreau was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as U.S. college hockey's top player around the time when Manziel was in the running for the NCAA football's Heisman Trophy, as the top college football player. Gaudreau ultimately won the Hobey Baker the second time he was a finalist – during his junior year at Boston College – and then signed with the Flames.
Gaudreau's transition from Boston College, where he won the Hobey Baker Award as college player of the year, to the NHL has been smoother than Manziel's to the NFL, even with a slow start in the first month of the season.
"Remember October, the first home game here against the Canucks, and then we go on the road for six games, and those six games didn't go very well for Johnny," said Hartley. "But if that's a learning curve he needed, credit to him, because he bounced back and took it as a pro.
"He wants to learn so badly. He's a great student of the game. He has a lot to offer. He's going to grow in the NHL. He has many parts of the game that he has to address, but he wants to do it. He doesn't want to be a one-trick pony. He wants to play the game the right way, and that's very refreshing."
Gaudreau's sister was visiting here over Christmas and was planning to attend one more game – Monday against the Kings – before heading home. In the meantime, Gaudreau still has a lot of fans back in Boston, who are measuring his move up the rookie scoring ranks – he's trailing the leader, Filip Forsberg of the Nashville Predators, by just five points.
"They were really good to me at BC," said Gaudreau of his college days. "I always get a ton of people tweeting at me from BC, asking me to come back and play a game or two."
Eligibility rules would prevent that from happening, but even if it were possible, Calgary isn't about to let him go. Less than half a season in, Johnny Hockey has become a fixture with the Flames. As debuts go, it couldn't have gone much better than this.
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