PENTICTON, B.C. — Johnny Gaudreau has a single NHL game under his belt, but he’s already earned a very catchy nickname.
Known as “Johnny Hockey” in an homage to Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel and the “Johnny Football” brand, the slick Calgary Flames prospect is turning heads because of his moves, and his moniker.
“(The nickname) is kind of cool, unless you’ve got (teammates) tweeting from my Twitter that ’I am Johnny Hockey’ and no one knows it’s them tweeting it,” said Gaudreau. “That’s probably one of the downfalls of it, but other than that it’s something special and unique.”
Generously listed at five foot nine and 160 pounds, the native of Carneys Point, N.J., is special and unique in his own right, and those talents were on full display at the recent rookie tournament hosted by the Vancouver Canucks.
The shifty Gaudreau caused a minor uproar in the hockey world with an outrageous goal against the Winnipeg Jets’ prospects where he undressed a helpless defenceman before roofing a spectacular backhand.
A video of the play was posted online within minutes and had social media buzzing.
“It’s something special you get to have,” Gaudreau said modestly. “I made a nice little play there and got the shot off. I was fortunate to have it go in the net and have a whole bunch of people talk about it.”
Drafted 104th overall back in 2011, Gaudreau took a different route than many prospects at the rookie tournament — which included prospects from the Edmonton Oilers, Flames, Canucks and Jets. He played three years at Boston College, finishing with an eye-popping 36 goals and 44 assists in just 40 games last season to win the Hobey Baker Award as the top collegiate player in the U.S.
The 21-year-old has great vision on the ice and seems to have the puck on a string at times, but said his size has always been an issue.
“With every small player you definitely need to show people you can play,” said Gaudreau. “Because you’re a smaller guy you’re at a disadvantage and you need to be better offensively, defensively, at making plays and stuff like that. It’s every small guy’s problem.”
Other players at the rookie tournament took notice of his talents, including Oilers draft pick Leon Draisaitl, who played against Gaudreau’s U.S. team as a member of the German squad at the world championships this spring.
“He’s small, tiny, and probably one of the most skilled guys I’ve ever seen,” said Draisaitl. “That game we played against him he had four points against us and was by far the best player on the ice.”
A fan of the Philadelphia Flyers growing up, Gaudreau said he was inspired by the likes of Daniel Briere and Martin St. Louis because of how they excelled in a big man’s game.
“It’s hard not to have them as your favourite players when they’re successful in the NHL as smaller guys,” said Gaudreau. “It’s someone you look up to and you watch in your career and want to become like.”
Gaudreau, who scored a goal in his only NHL game at the end of last season, said his stature worked against him a lot more when he was growing up.
“I got cut when I was younger a lot … it sucks but it’s something you need to overcome,” said Gaudreau, who should be at Flames training camp when it starts Thursday. “Every player’s been there, whether you’re playing in bantam or in the NHL. Everyone needs to overcome it at some point.
“As the years went on I felt like I was getting closer and closer. I’m pretty fortunate to be here with a ton of great players.”
Adirondack Flames head coach Ryan Huska led Calgary’s prospects team in Penticton and said Gaudreau brings something special every time he touches the puck.
“He’s got this ability where you’re amazed,” said Huska. “He slows the game down in a positive way. Everybody talks about speeding the game up and how we want to play faster, but there’s something to be said for a player that can slow it down.
“He’s one of those players … he’ll bring people to their feet and energy to his bench.”
Added linemate and 2014 fourth overall pick Sam Bennett: “It’s amazing. He’s an unbelievably skilled player. Any time you get a chance to play with a guy like that, good things are going to happen.”
Sean Monahan, the sixth overall pick in 2013, made the Flames last year and it remains to be seen if Gaudreau, Bennett or another Calgary prospect can crack the roster this year for a franchise that is rebuilding and has not made the playoffs since 2009.
“It’s one of the organizations you want to be a part of as a younger guy,” said Gaudreau. “Management says there’s open spots so you’ve got to go into camp thinking that you’re going to be in one of those spots and just try to prove that you belong there.
“Whether I play in the AHL or the NHL, either or, I’m just going to do the best I can and see where that goes.”