It’s impossible to forget the striking black and orange jerseys they wore, the speed they employed, and the creativity that made them tourney darlings at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.
But when asked about his recollection of Team North America’s group of under-23 studs, Brad Treliving gets flashbacks of the daily messages he received concerning Johnny Gaudreau.
“I just remember the management team of the Young Guns would text me every day, saying, ‘uh-oh, he’s going to cost you a little bit more,’” laughed the Calgary Flames GM, who was in the midst of high-stakes contract talks with his star winger that summer.
“In a lot of ways, on a national stage, I think that was Johnny’s coming-out party, to a certain extent.”
Talks had slowed between the Flames and Gaudreau’s camp, setting the stage for the then-23-year-old to up his stock in the eight-team international showdown.
Coming out of his entry-level contract with a 30-goal, 78-point season that landed him sixth in NHL scoring, he took out extra insurance to partake, albeit on a team he’d rather have faced while wearing red, white and blue.
“Obviously we’d want to play for our respective countries,” admitted the 5-foot-9, 165-pound Gaudreau, whose breakthrough season gave him an outside shot at making the U.S. squad based on being the NHL’s second-most prolific American sniper that year.
“I think it’s a motivator. Try to prove people wrong. Personally, I’ve had to do that my entire career. So, as a team, we have to do that. Whether you play for the U.S., Canada or Team North America you’ve got to come together.”
They sure did.
Seen by traditionalists as a gimmick heading into the tourney, the youngsters quickly overcame the social awkwardness that stemmed from throwing the talented mishmash of Americans and Canadians together.
“The first night we got there you could see the Americans over here and the Canadians over there, but as the pre-tournament went on you could see the guys come together,” said the 2014 Hobey Baker winner, who spent most of his time with Canadians like Jonathan Drouin and Nathan MacKinnon.
“We went to dinner and watched the games, and guys were giving each other a hard time for a bit, but we were a team.”
Playing largely alongside Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, Gaudreau led the team in pre-tournament scoring with three goals and two assists while pacing the Young Guns to a 2-1 record. They raised eyebrows with 4-0 and 7-4 wins over Team Europe, which would ultimately be the tourney’s runner-up.
They certainly fit in.
Gaudreau said he saw the tournament as a tremendous distraction from the “painful” contract situation that lingered to that point. He insisted there was no added pressure to try upping his stock with a stellar World Cup showing.
“After the 80 games I played I don’t think five or six games are going to change whatever the contract looks like, or whether I play well or not,” said the New Jersey native.
Gaudreau was named first star of the game in his team’s tournament debut, scoring on a deft redirect, hitting the post and getting robbed twice by Pekka Rinne in a 4-1 victory over Finland. The goal came as he jumped out of the way of a Colton Parayko point shot and managed to get the shaft of his stick on the puck, redirecting it through his legs as he pirouetted. The Johnny Jumparound.
“He probably could have had three or four tonight,” said teammate Mark Scheifele at the time. “I walked up and told him how unbelievable he was. He’s a special player.”
The youngsters followed it up with a 4-3 loss to Russia (despite outshooting them 46-25) before beating Sweden 4-3 in an overtime game some consider one of the most entertaining contests in decades. All are being shown on Sportsnet this week.
“I remember him buzzing all tournament and that he missed a ton of breakaways,” said Flames teammate Mikael Backlund, who was a member of the Swedish squad. “I think he showed everyone on a bigger stage how good he is. He was a treat to watch, like always.”
Alas, their short reign as fan favourites ended without them getting out of the round robin. Their 2-1 record tied them with Russia, who beat the kids out due to their head-to-head record.
A shame for a team with only one loss on its ledger.
Playing largely with Eichel and Dylan Larkin, Gaudreau finished the round robin tied for the scoring lead with two goals and two assists.
Less than a month later, after missing all of training camp in Calgary, Gaudreau signed a six-year, $40.5-million contract, just in time to start the season with the Flames.
As Treliving pointed out that day, “those that maybe didn’t get to see him as much in Calgary I think got a pretty good taste at the World Cup of what type of talent he is.”