I’m just trying to take it all in. I’m really excited. Throughout playing hockey growing up, a lot of these guys were playing in the NHL and I was still watching the NHL pretty (close) when I was younger. It’s pretty exciting to be here. - Johnny Gaudreau
COLUMBUS, OH -- The moment isn’t lost on Johnny Gaudreau.
Surrounded by the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos, Jonathan Toews and John Tavares, the 21-year-old finds himself amongst the NHL’s elite this weekend in Columbus after being selected as one of six rookies to participate in the NHL All-Star Skills Competition on Saturday.
And just four months into his professional hockey career, no less.
“I’m just trying to take it all in. I’m really excited,” Gaudreau said. “Throughout playing hockey growing up, a lot of these guys were playing in the NHL and I was still watching the NHL pretty (close) when I was younger. It’s pretty exciting to be here.”
It was earned.
Gaudreau has thrived in his first season with the Calgary Flames and sits second amongst all first-year players in assists (22) and points (35) heading into the All-Star break.
Four months ago, though, the 5-foot-9, 150-pound right-wing was just trying to survive.
Pointless through his first five games of the season, Gaudreau served as a healthy scratch for Game 6. He scored the game-winner in his first game back in the lineup en route to recording 12 points in the 10 games that followed.
“I think I was pretty nervous getting sent down there and I think I went [five] games without a point or without producing offensively,” he said. “I came back and I was pretty concerned about getting sent down. Ever since that game, I kind of just took off from there. I was really fortunate Mason Raymond was a big inspiration for me and really helped me through that tough time.
“It was a good start to the season after that game.
“I think as each game goes on I feel a little bit more comfortable and get a little bit more experience as each game goes on. I think it’s really crucial for me to make sure to think about things like that.”
There have been other bumps along the way, ranging from the aggressive nature of the NHL -- “Defencemen are flying down on you and you’ve got 6-5, 200-whatever coming down the wall and it’s a little difficult trying to get the puck out.” -- to an eye-opening crunch courtesy Detroit Red Wings forward Pavel Datsyuk -- “I think the hardest hit I’ve ever taken before in my life.”
The lessons haven’t just come from the opposition, though.
Both success and growth, Gaudreau admitted, have been helped by oft-linemate Jiri Hudler.
“He’s just a great teammate and great guy to be around,” Gaudreau said. “He’s really helped me so far my first season here. Just watching him and playing with him on the ice, it really helps me become a better pro. I’m really fortunate to be playing alongside him.”
But the thanks from the reigning Hobey Baker Award winner don’t halt on Hudler.
Helping him to an All-Star experience goes well beyond.
“I’m really fortunate to be where I’m at today,” Gaudreau said. “I’ve had a lot of help from teammates, coaches, friends, family. A lot of thanks to Boston College and what they helped me become. I’m really fortunate to be here right now and I’m just trying to take it all in.
“I’m excited. It’s a great experience for me to be a part of this weekend. I’m really fortunate to be here.”