Flames feeling mixed emotions heading into first game against Gaudreau

Luke Gazdic joins Evanka Osmak on Sportsnet Central to discuss Buffalo Sabres forward Tage Thompson's hot streak, Columbus Blue Jackets forward Johnny Gaudreau's reunion with the Calgary Flames, and the Colorado Avalanches' injury woes.

COLUMBUS – It’s tough to say how the sight of Johnny Gaudreau facing off against Calgary Friday night will feel for Flames fans.

Perhaps enough time has passed for the sting and frustration of his 11th-hour rejection to turn into apathy or understanding.

Maybe not.

As life moves on, it’s likely a good chunk of those tuning in will do so with a focus on seeing call-up Matthew Phillips, who hopes to follow in Gaudreau’s kid-sized footsteps.

Either way, there’s no doubt his skill and creativity are missed.

No one questioned that would be the case.

What people continue to question is the manner in which Gaudreau departed, leaving the team that negotiated in good faith in limbo until he decided to bolt a few hours before free agency hit on July 13.

They also question the decision to choose Columbus, of all places, for considerably less money than the Flames offered up.

His call.

His life.

Despite his new team’s predictable place near the bottom of the standings, he continues to be productive and says he’s happy with the decision he’s repeatedly said he agonized over with his mom and wife by his side.

As Rasmus Andersson told reporters of Friday’s reunion of sorts, “You guys make it bigger than it is.”

Perhaps true, as the much grander stage will come Jan. 23 when Johnny Hockey returns to his old stomping grounds.

The emotions of that evening are still up for debate, which isn’t the case in terms of how people felt the night Gaudreau chose to leave Calgary.

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Few people took the news harder than Flames assistant GM Craig Conroy, whose tight-knit relationship with the diminutive fourth-round pick dates back almost a decade.

“For a couple days I was beside myself, to be honest,” said Conroy, who was the one dispatched to sign and bring the Hobey Baker winner to Calgary on a private jet in 2014.

“To see him going to Columbus, I just did not understand.

“Maybe that’s because of my relationship with him, and how much I love Johnny and his family and (agent) Lewis (Gross, who also represents Conroy) – it was the whole package.

“He’s got to do what’s best for him and his family, but I really thought we would be able to get him signed, and I was having a hard time dealing with it.

“When things went sideways and he told us a couple hours before the deadline he was leaving, that’s when you start to take things a little personal and you get mad, disappointed.

“It’s like a breakup, you ask, ‘What just happened here?’”

The shock stemmed from many of the conversations he’d had with Gaudreau leading up to the big decision.

“I talked to John, just as friends, and I felt like it wasn’t, ‘Yes, I’ll do it and will sign, 100 per cent,’ but I did feel like he loves Calgary, loves being here, there were no issues and his wife seemed to like it here,” said Conroy, who talked to Gaudreau about how special it would be to become the franchise points leader, ahead of Hall of Famers Jarome Iginla and Al MacInnis.

“The only thing I worried about was the money and term.

“I always thought he said if we got up to money and term he felt comfortable with, it would get it done. With the eighth year we could offer, and the money there, we thought we were good.

“Also knowing Johnny didn’t love change, he likes what he likes.”

As evidenced by the eight-year, $10.5-million deal the club later extended to Jonathan Huberdeau, the Flames had certainly offered to go much higher than the seven-year, $9.75 million deal Gaudreau signed in Ohio.

A new father whose family is now able to visit more regularly, Gaudreau reiterated to Postmedia’s Wes Gilbertson Wednesday he’s happy with a decision he agonized over until making an emotional call to GM Brad Treliving.

“I know a lot of people thought I was just stringing Calgary along, but no, it was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make,” said the native of Carneys Point, N.J., an eight-hour drive from Nationwide Arena.

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“I didn’t know what to do.

“At the end of the day, I felt what was best for me was to play a bit closer to home, to spend a lot more time with my family, see people that I don’t get to see a lot throughout the year.

“I’ll never say that I didn’t make the right decision.

“Looking back, obviously, I made so many great friendships in Calgary.

“But it was time for me to go in a different direction.”

Given the season he’d just had, and the memories and history he had in Calgary, surely even the angriest of Flames fans can truly understand how hard it would be to make a life decision of this magnitude.

It’s also important to note, even if he’d informed the club of his intentions a week or two earlier, there’s little chance the club could have traded his rights for a draft pick of significance, if at all.

Still, while waiting for Gaudreau, the team was unable to address other pressing issues.

“I don’t think he did it maliciously, I don’t think that’s his personality – he wouldn’t do that on purpose,” said Conroy, who believes the isolation Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk felt during COVID played a role in their decision to return stateside.

“I just think he was back and forth, and he definitely had a lot of people in his ear, and that’s the hard part.

“(His father) Guy was here a lot and we even went and skated, playing hockey together.

“He loved it here. You felt like the family really loved it here.

“They were treated like rock stars, and rightfully so.”

The ride their son will receive in Calgary next month, and moving forward, will be mixed.

A story for another day.

On Friday, he’ll be surrounded by family, friends and former teammates who completely understand how hard it was for Gaudreau to make the sort of decision that needs no explanation.

If only it was that simple for passionate fans to see it the same way.

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