CALGARY — "The players know."
Brad Treliving, the Calgary Flames new general manager, was talking about a quarter-final game played in Minsk, Belarus last May at the World Championships. The United States had fallen behind 4-1 and pulled goaltender Tim Thomas with 3:11 to play, trying to forge a miracle and avoid a flight home the next day.
Treliving had been hired by Calgary just the month before, so this was appointment viewing: How would Johnny Gaudreau — the waif the folks in Boston called "Johnny Hockey" — fare against NHL and Euro pro opponents? Against men, not boys in the NCAA.
As it turned out, Treliving learned far more that day by watching Gaudreau’s American teammates, rather than Gaudreau himself.
"The players know," Treliving told us this summer, as he described a USA push with the goalie pulled that began with genuine NHL players like Tyler Johnson, Justin Abdelkader and Jake Gardiner getting the puck to Gaudreau, nominating an undersized college kid with one NHL game under his belt to start the offensive thrust.
"I was down at the half wall, trying to send it to the point, or send it down low to Johnson. He had both the goals with the goalie out (two in 13 seconds), and I got a lot of touches," a humble Gaudreau said Monday morning. "The coach (Peter Laviolette) believed in me to put me out at the end of the game. Went out there, we had a few goals. Couldn’t score another one. I think we had a minute left too.
"It definitely helped my confidence, playing with NHL guys and (being) one of the last guys out there."
One of the best guys out there, because what Treliving says is dead on: the players do know. So did Laviolette.
It was a different Calgary Flames regime back in February of 1998 that signed a diminutive Quebecer out of the University of Vermont, giving him a shot for a couple of seasons back in a time when smaller players had a much more difficult path to navigate in the NHL.
Calgary shrewdly plucked him off of the International Hockey League roster of the Cleveland Lumberjacks, shipping him to the Saint John Flames for the rest of that season. He would roughly split the next two seasons between Calgary and Saint John, and then the Flames gave up on him. He was too small to play, they decided. Wouldn’t amount to much.
Cast aside, Martin St. Louis landed a free agent tryout with the Tampa Bay Lightning that summer. He would play 13 seasons in Tampa, log a couple of Olympic tournaments, and before his 1000-game career is done he will count more than 1000 points.
"What is your height and weight, as we stand here right now," I ask Gaudreau.
"I am 5-9, 160."
It’s funny. The Flames and NHL.com list him at 5-foot-9, 150. Team USA’s roster from May had Gaudreau an inch shorter at 5-foot-8, but a full 13 pounds heavier at 173. Impossible.
On the Boston College roster from last season he is 5-foot-8, 159. Does one grow an inch from age 20 to 21? Not often.
If that one-inch, 23-pound swing teaches us anything, perhaps it is this: Who cares how big Johnny Gaudreau is? Who cares what this kid doesn’t have, when you see the incredible hockey sense that he possesses?
"What he has," begins head coach Bob Hartley. "The vision of the game. How quick he can shift from left, to right, to left. It’s amazing. For special teams, for power play, Johnny Gaudreau could be a very effective player."
That is not to limit him. And they won’t rush him here either. The mantra here in Calgary goes like this: "The best thing we can do if we keep Johnny Gaudreau, or anybody else on the team, we will keep them for the right reasons," Hartley said. "I don’t think we can keep any player to satisfy for the fans, or to justify a (draft) pick. We have to keep them for the right reasons."
This is the first time I’ve met Gaudreau, so all I can fall back on is players like him who I’ve met before. He’s intelligent, and years of being the best player on his team have taught him he doesn’t need to talk a big game, as long as he plays one.
He has been the target for physical play his entire hockey-playing life, as was Wayne Gretzky. The fact he’s come this far tells you he is nimble enough to avoid 90 percent of the hits, and tough enough to withstand the other 10 percent.
"When I was a freshman at B.C., I definitely wasn’t the best player. I might have been one of the top guys in points, but there were a lot better, a lot smarter players," he said. "I’m hoping to come here like that, and follow some of the talented guys on the team. Become one of those guys down the road."
Gaudreau was a point-per-game player that season at B.C. and finished second in scoring. Under promise, over deliver.
The Flames had a guy like this once, and let him go. So we’ll make two predictions:
One, they’ll keep Johnny Gaudreau around until he proves he can’t play in the NHL. Two, that day will never come.