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TOGETHER AT THE TOP

By George Johnson - CalgaryFlames.com

Jim Montgomery has coached against Johnny Gaudreau precisely once before.

"I actually thought I did a pretty good job against him that night," deadpans the first-year bench boss of the Dallas Stars.

"I was coaching at Denver and he was at Boston College.

"They beat us 5-1.

"He had five points.

"Two goals, three assists. True story."

Montgomery can only hope things will go somewhat better Wednesday night at the Scotiabank Saddledome when he gets a second crack at muffling one of the game's true spellbinders.

He has, you see, been on the other side of the wonder.

Together, they helped collaborate on a USHL Tier 1 championship with the Dubuque Fighting Saints back in the day, seven years ago to be exact.

The kid from Carney's Point, N.J., was then all of 18.

"You expect your best players to make special plays in big moments," recalls Montgomery. "And Johnny did that over and over and over again for us that year.

"I remember our overtime goal, first game of the playoffs. He set it up, naturally. Won a battle out of the corner, comes out, attacks the net, somehow the puck gets to the back post and someone pokes it home.

"Only because he had the ability to get it to the back post.

"Then Game 2 of the semifinals. We win Game 1, the other team's pushing really hard. Looks like it's going to overtime, last minute, there's a turnover and he's gone.

"I mean, gone.

"Joakim Ryan, who's playing in San Jose, was our best defenceman at the time and he hits Johnny in full stride at the far blueline. Johnny had only enough room for two pucks to go high blocker. And he put it there from an angle like Gretzky did in OT against Calgary (in '88), the series they swept 'em four straight.

"I remember seeing the Gretzky goal and thinking: 'Oh. My. God. How did he put it there?' How does he know to shoot the puck there, knowing the goalie's going to move slightly and he can put the puck under the bar? How?

"Same with Johnny.

"Below the dots, just outside the dots. That's where he scored his goal, too. That's just the type of player he is."

 

The high praise is purely reciprocal.

"He was one of the best coaches that I've ever had throughout my career,'' says Gaudreau. "I'm not at all surprised with how quickly he's risen to get to the NHL.

"It was a pretty special year, he helped me a lot.

"At that age, at that point in your career, so much about that USHL year was about preparing for college and making sure I was ready for that kind of a jump, both on the ice and off. We had a pretty special year that year, winning it all in Dubuque.

"He would always give me plenty of one-on-one time, to help work on my skills and be that sounding board that every young player needs to get to the next level. Whether it was something to do in the game or my life away from the rink, he was always there for me. Always wanted to help.

"He did a lot for me. I can't thank him enough for everything he did."

A recruit from the Team Comcast Midget AAA program, Gaudreau lit up the 3,100-seat Mystique Community Ice Center in Dubuque, a city of 59,000 inhabitants that lies at the junction of Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin, in his only season there before moving on to mounting acclaim at Boston College.

"I had convinced Johnny to be one of the seven free agents we were allowed to sign outside the draft," Montgomery explains.

"His dad (Guy) actually worked the rinks that I played at when I was part of the Philadelphia Phantoms, the Flyers' farm team.

"So I called John Stevens, a close friend of mine who was captain of our team that won the American Hockey League, and he told me: 'Sign him. Sign him right away. This kid is special.'

"I remember his first time on the ice. His understanding of time and space, his escapability, were so evident right away.

"With that degree of hockey sense, I knew he was going to make plays for us."

And so he did.

Gaudreau's 60 regular-season starts for the Fighting Saints produced 72 points, goals and assists split equally, earning him USHL Rookie of the Year honours.

During the playoffs - a 3-0 series win against the Fargo Force, 3-1 over the Sioux Falls Stampede and 3-1 versus the defending league champion Green Bay Gamblers - he collected another 11 points in as many games as the franchise claimed its first Clark Cup.

In the years following, Gaudreau's rise to NHL eminence has been, quite simply, meteoric.

Jim Montgomery understands the unique obstacles in being a small man trying to break into a big man's league. At 5-foot-11 and 170-lb., he suited up for 122 NHL contests for five franchises over 10 pro seasons.

"Of course, you're always going to have doubts," he confesses. "But Johnny is just so far ahead of what everyone is thinking on the ice and he does things to create time and space over and over again.

"So I knew he could play there. I also thought it'd take someone to really believe in him, to play him, to be able to show him that he belonged.

"I didn't know that his talent would be so obvious that he'd make it right out of college. I thought he'd probably have to earn his way through the American League.

"But I believed he would get the opportunity, at some point, because he's just so, so good."

 

Years and opportunity separate people.

That's simply the way of the world.

Gaudreau went to BC following that one season in Dubuque, won a Hobey Baker, graduated to the Flames, added a Lady Byng Trophy to his curio cabinet and has morphed into one of the pro game's most compelling talents.

Montgomery, meanwhile, moved from Iowa to Colorado, guiding the University of Denver Pioneers for five seasons that included two trips to the Frozen Four and an NCAA title in 2012, and now on to Big D and his first showtime gig, at 49.

"The way he treated his players, the way he handled us all in the locker-room … I mean, it was seven, eight years ago, and I'm sure he hasn't changed much in that regard," says Gaudreau. "That's who he is and I'm sure that's what helped him here to the NHL.

"Any team he's been on, he's ended up winning it all at that level. It's great to see."

And, scrolling back, memories of that first game when they met as foes, in their college days?

"We played him in Worcester, Mass., in the quarter-finals of the NCAA tournament," Gaudreau recalls. "We had a good team that year. Kevin Hayes, and a bunch of other really good players.

"I gave him a hard time for that, for sure, but I think the next year he ended up winning the national championship, so he put that behind him pretty quick."

The two have kept in touch.

Wednesday they face each other for a second time.

"When I got the job here, he texted me," reports Montgomery. "When he was named an All Star or to the All-Rookie Team, I texted him.  

"When you win a championship together, at any level, there's a bond created.

"He's a wonderful young man. And obviously already such an accomplished player, and really only getting started.

"It's going to be great seeing him again."

And coaching against him again?

Well, maybe not so much …

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