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CUTTING HIS TEETH

Playing on the world stage helped prepare a young Gaudreau to excel in the NHL

by AARON VICKERS @AAVickers / CalgaryFlames.com

KOSICE, Slovakia - He was the fresh-faced kid.

Eyes wide open. 

One game of National Hockey League experience under his belt. 

A Hobey Baker Award, as college hockey's top player, in his back pocket. 

Meet Johnny Gaudreau, circa May 2014. 

"I remember, obviously, I was a younger guy coming out of college and didn't know what to expect," said Gaudreau, currently representing Team USA at the 2019 IIHF World Championship in Slovakia - his fourth twirl, and third straight, on the big stage. 

"There weren't as many NHLers on the team as there are now … I got the opportunity to play a lot and had a lot of fun with it. It was a good experience.

"It got me ready for the NHL."

Clearly.

Gaudreau, a five-time NHL All-Star, is now a grizzled veteran at just 25 years old. 

But back then? 

Just a kid ready to play some hockey.

"It was awesome," said Gaudreau, who in years following had 11 points (six goals, five assists) in eight games at the tournament in 2017 and nine points (one goal, eight assists) in 2018. 

"I only got to play for Team USA twice in my life. When they invited me, I said 'yes' 100 percent, real quickly. It was a great experience. Coming to Europe was a little different. Just being around NHL guys and working with NHL coaches and stuff like that, it really got me prepared for the NHL."

 


 
Gaudreau, who had won gold for the United States at the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship just 14 months prior, didn't play it cool upon arrival in 2014. 

Not nearly as much, anyway, as his 10 points (two goals, eight assists) in his men's debut would suggest.

"Oh yeah, definitely nerves," he said. "Nerves being in the locker-room around all the NHL guys, playing against all the NHL players. It's definitely nerve-racking a bit. When it's all said and done it's just another hockey game, doing what you love to do."

Now he's one of the more recognizable icons in the room. 

Gaudreau is one of Team USA's most productive players, having netted an additional 386 points (132 goals, 254 assists) in 393 games since debuting with the Flames some five years ago. 

He's also third all-time in assists, at 21, for Team USA at the World Championship. 

"It's hard for me to look at it that way," admitted Gaudreau, who also took to the international stage as a member of Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey 2016. "When I was in their shoes when I was younger I'd just try to talk to them, help them, make them feel welcome like a lot of guys did to me."

 


 
It's a necessary role on Team USA, no doubt. 

Only seven of his teammates are older than Gaudreau, who won't turn 26 until August. 

A grizzled veteran, clearly.

And the eyes? 

Not so wide open anymore. 

The nerves? 

Almost gone. 

He goes from knowing few, to many. 

A far cry from the 20-year-old wandering around Belarus some five springs ago.

"You get to make new friends and bond with players you play against all year and new guys you've never got the chance to play with," said Gaudreau, who is joined by Flames teammates Noah Hanifin and Derek Ryan. "You get to do that too. 

"You get to create new memories."

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