‘It was a special night’: Gaudreau appreciative of Flames fans in first return to Saddledome

Dillon Dube scored the game-winning goal in overtime while Andrew Mangiapane had a three-point performance as the Calgary Flames held off the Columbus Blue Jackets and Johnny Gaudreau's return to Calgary, beating them 4-3.

CALGARY — Punctuating a night of endless noise, emotion and drama, Johnny Gaudreau stood in the quiet confines of the visitors’ dressing room with an admission to make.

“It was hard for a little bit,” said the longtime Flame of the relentless booing that welcomed him back to the Saddledome for the first time as a Blue Jacket.

“I kind of knew what was going to happen, but still, there’s nothing that gets you ready for something like that.

“They were cheering and rooting for me for the past nine, 10 years and now they’re all booing me. 

“It’s hard. 

“It was hard for a little bit, but I kind of got my bearings and kind of settled down in the second.”

As much as this one meant for a fan base that spent the last six months waiting for the chance to share their frustration with his decision to leave, it meant every bit as much to the 29-year-old winger.

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He spoke of how hard his heart was beating before he hit the ice, how proud he was of his teammates for making a game of it and how touching it was to get the highly anticipated standing ovation he so richly deserved.

Bookended by boos that began in warmup and were sustained throughout the night was a touching video tribute early in the first period that prompted fans and players on both benches to stand in unison to salute nine years of service to the city and franchise that gave him a chance as an undersized teen.

Fans who felt Johnny Hockey had done them dirty with his last-minute free agency decision, also felt the need to share their gratitude, their love and respect for a man who most certainly earned it as one of the league’s most uniquely talented and entertaining stars.

A stirring moment on a memorable night that lived up to the hype in so many ways.

“Thank you for supporting me,” was his message when interviewed by Ryan Leslie during the intermission.

“A small little kid coming out of Boston College, and from Day 1 they loved having me here, and I loved being here. 

“Just, thank you.”

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After the game he went further.

“Just the non-stop support I’ve had since my first day, even in college, they were big fans of me,” said Gaudreau, whose overtime winner in Game 7 against Dallas will remain one of the most memorable in club lore.

“I just want to thank them all for being great fans and welcoming me into their city. They treated me and my family really well.”

Especially during what he’ll always remember as a special sendoff of sorts.  

“It felt nice to see everyone standing up and clapping their hands and cheering for me,” said Gaudreau before breaking into a grin.

“Then five seconds after, start to boo again. 

“It’s what I expected coming here. It’s a great fan base. They’re passionate fans. I loved it. It was a special night for me.”

Setting up a see-saw drama that saw his young team push the Flames into overtime in a game the host would eventually win 4-3, Gaudreau was handed a penalty shot a mere five minutes in against former teammate Dan Vladar.

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He wound up whistling his attempt wide, sending the crowd into a frenzy.

It was only after that opening period, with his club down 1-0, he finally got the jitters out, setting the stage for the type of magic the Flames so sorely miss this season.

Despite being badly outplayed, Gaudreau turned the game on a dime midway through the second, erasing a 2-0 deficit by brilliantly setting up a pair of power-play goals 49 seconds apart.

Game on.

“Kind of settled down in the second, finally,” said Gaudreau, who was a perfect decoy on Boone Jenner’s tying goal early in the third.

“Calmed down, took a breath, and played my game.”

And what a game it was.

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By night’s end, Gaudreau had 11 shot attempts, five hit the net, and his redirection of an Andrew Peeke point shot bounced off the post with eight minutes left in a 3-3 game.

Alas, like many of the games his club has played this season, it ended with a loss — but a night he’ll never forget.

“It was loud all night,” he said, laughing.

“I was sitting next to Eric Robinson, he’s a longtime friend, and he was like, ‘Man, they’re really giving it to you out there.’ I was like, ‘it’s just a great fan base.’ It was a lot of fun. I’m glad I got to come back and play. It was a cool night.”

A night that paves the way for his next visit to be just a little less stressful.

“It’ll probably be easier next time, but I’m sure I’ll still get booed,” he said, laughing.

“The first time back there are a lot of emotions, a little nervous before the game started, but I was excited to be back. 

“It was a lot of fun playing here.”

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