PHILADELPHIA — Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. Tom Brady dropped to seventh on the Michigan football team’s depth chart. And 16-year-old Johnny Gaudreau was cut from his southern New Jersey district hockey team.
Though he eventually became known as Johnny Hockey, leading the nation in scoring the last two years and being named the 2014 winner of the Hobey Baker Award, Gaudreau has had to endure times that tested his belief in himself.
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“I got cut from a few teams and it put me down a little bit,” he said after the Hobey Baker Award ceremonies Friday. “But I had a lot of great coaches growing up that told me to just keep pushing and it would all work out. And it did.”
In a big way.
This year he scored 80 points, the first time since 2003 that any player has reached that mark. But for an athlete who even today stands only 5-foot-8 and weighs a mere 159 pounds, size has always been a question. Was he big enough?
“The first time I met him, I wondered who brought their little brother to practice,” BC captain Patrick Brown said.
Of course, the story doesn’t end there.
“Then he had three goals at our first scrimmage,” Brown said, “and I knew he was the real deal.”
As a freshman, Gaudreau’s skills became known nationwide when his highlight-reel goal sealed a win for the Eagles in the 2012 national championship game. But people who’d been watching him all season had known for a long time that Gaudreau was something special. And teammates like Brown got daily reminders.
“I’m glad I’m not a defenseman because he makes them look silly all the time in practice,” Brown said. “It’s really impressive. His ability to read a defenseman’s feet and their hips and the angle that they’re skating and then get around them is mind-boggling.”
Linemate Kevin Hayes, who’s enjoyed a front-row seat for the Johnny Hockey show, concurred: “The things he does on the ice, no one compares to it at this level.”
The list of admirers extended to even his victims.
“Johnny Gaudreau is the straw that stirs the drink,” Denver coach Jim Montgomery said after his former USHL protege ended the Pioneers’ season with a three-goal, three-assist performance. Montgomery even evoked the name of Mario Lemieux when discussing Gaudreau’s creativity.
Detractors are nowhere to be found.
“I’ve coached a lot of high-caliber players over the years, but Johnny is the elite of the elite,” BC coach Jerry York said.
Of course, the progression from a borderline collegiate prospect to the elite of the elite was no accident.
“[The secret is] his drive to get better,” Brown said. “He just loves the sport of hockey so much. Even when we’d have off days, he’d be down at the rink skating, working on his skills. He’s always trying to get guys together to play four-on-four down at the rink and play shinny. He lives and breathes hockey.”
Even with all the accolades, however, Gaudreau remains soft-spoken, as quick to pass praise to his teammates as a puck. In that respect, they’re all wide open.
“I never saw this [Hobey Baker Award] happening, but Coach York has put me with great players in my career,” Gaudreau said. “It’s hard not to play well when you’re playing with such great players.”