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The Greatest on The Latest: Flames icons talk Johnny Hockey

by George Johnson / Calgary Flames

Secretly, Lanny McDonald pulls for the extra five minutes. Al MacInnis marvels at the hockey IQ, Jarome Iginla the ability, at such a tender age, to handle the adulation of a hothouse Canadian market.

Joe Nieuwendyk, he of the Charmin-double-ply-soft hands, uses the oft-repeated Patrick Kane comparison. Coach Terry Crisp likens the escapability antennae to a pipecleaner-thin maestro of another era, the Great One, Wayne Gretzky.

“I tell people: If Johnny Gaudreau got caught in a phone booth with a 6-foot-4, 220-pound defenceman,’’ laughs McDonald, who knows a thing or two about being popular in this town, “I’m sure the defenceman would still be in there, searching for Johnny, long after Gaudreau had deked him four times and was already out the door and gone.

“This kid is SO much fun to watch. You always hear that term ‘Worth the price of admission.’

“Well, he is.’’

In Year Two of what hints at being a meteoric NHL career, the precocious urchin from Carney’s Point, NJ, has upped his goal total - hitting the touchstone 30 plateau for the first time - his point total, his influence, his profile.

He’s nestled himself into the top 10 in scoring.

So while the Calgary Flames doubtless feel a sense of acute disappointment at how the 2015-2016 season has played out …

Johnny Gaudreau - personally, at any rate -- needn’t.

And it’s not only the cow-licked kiddies who wear his signature No. 13 jersey to bed at night in homage who find themselves gaping at and cheering on his latest feat of hocus-pocus.

Count the most influential players to ever don the Flaming C as unabashed Gaudreau fans, too.

Best let them tell it:

The Greatest on The Latest.

“The thing that sticks out the most, for me, is his hockey sense,’’ lauds MacInnis, indisputably the optimum defenceman in franchise history and these days VP of Hockey Operations for the St. Louis Blues. “When you play against guys like that, guys with elite hockey IQ, they find ways to create enough space and enough time to make the good plays.

“Not always the fastest guys. Not always the biggest guys. But they’re tough on defencemen, believe me. Because you’re always leery of what’s going on all around you.

“Honestly, a good comparison -- when you think of size, of not being the fastest skater -- is Dougie Gilmour. A different mentality, sure, but you measure up everything else and it’s a good comparison. For me, anyway.

“(Gaudreau) has the same ability Killer had to make subtle movements with his body, whether it’s dropping his shoulder or skating by the puck to hold it back towards his foot in order to create space and complete the pass.”

Gilmour, 1989’s Cup-winning table tipper, is reluctant to delve into stylistic comparisons. Suffice to say, he likes what he sees.

“What he does,’’ says Sam Bennett’s old boss with the OHL Kingston Frontenacs, “you can’t teach. It’s natural. I guess I wasn’t much bigger” -- officially listed at 5-foot-10 to Gaudreau’s 5-9 -- “but for guys like us, that’s how you have to play. Change speeds. Buy time. Stay out of harm’s way.

“It’s hard to explain … A lot of it is instinctive.

“What impresses me most? How he reads traffic and gets to the holes. And he’s developed some great chemistry with (Sean) Monahan.

“The year Calgary has had is obviously frustrating for everybody there but there’ve been some bright spots. And he’s certainly one of them.”

That ability Gilmour spoke of, to innately sense when the drawbridge is set to come crashing down and step nimbly out of the way, is born out of necessity.

“You think you’ve got him lined up,’’ says McDonald, delightedly, “and -- poof! -- he’s disappeared. He’s over there, out of reach.”

Crisp, during his three seasons in charge of the Flames, witnessed that maddening now-you-see-him/now-you-don’t phenomenon often enough with Gretzky.

“Try chasing 99 around, the way we used to whenever we’d play the Oilers,’’ he groans. “How often did he get hit? I’ll tell you: Not often. And believe me, people were trying. Gretzky was like a vapour.

“You just couldn’t win. You went out of your way to hit him, he’d burn you. You stayed back, he’d burn you.

“So darned if you do and darned if you don’t, right?

Johnny Gaudreau’s the same way.”

The Flames’ 89 Stanley Cup-winning coach had the opportunity to spend some quality time with Gaudreau and his family during the 2016 All Star Weekend in Nashville and came away mightily impressed.

“What struck me most,’’ he says, ”was the love he has for the game. I mean, they all have it, but the little guys -- the good ones -- seem to have that extra drive. He’s similar to your Fleurys, your Doug Gilmours, those guys told their whole life: ‘You’re too small. You’re good … BUT. We like you … BUT. You have talent … BUT.’

“But. But. But.

“Yeah, but … you put him on the ice, and the little son-of-a-gun can just flat-out play. As a coach, when he’s out there you’re saying ‘Okay, number 13 just hopped over the boards. Someone pick him up -- please -- because he’s going to do something to hurt us.’ “There’s a sense of expectation every shift. From his team. The opposing team.

“We had (Filip) Forsberg come in last year and light up our rink, the way Johnny Gaudreau lit up the Saddledome. It’s great to see little kids wearing No. 13, or 9 here (in Nashville), with Forsberg. That’s a big part of our game.

“You need those players fan love, can relate to.”

Jarome Iginla fully understands that love, its inherent expectations, having spent the final decade of his nearly 16-year stay here as the unofficial symbol of the franchise.

“There’s a lot of pressure playing in a Canadian city, where the microscope is always on you,’’ said Iginla on a recent pitstop into Calgary, “but he seems to be thriving on that.

“As a player, well, he’s just so much fun to watch.

“The anticipation. The plays he makes, at top speed. He just finds a way to produce, wherever he’s been.

“He can score goals, obviously, but he’d be a fun guy to have on your line because he loves to dish it. You can tell, watching him, that he’s just as happy finding the open guy as putting the puck in himself.

“You put him in any offensive situation and he’s going to shine.”

Especially OT.

“I kind of hate to admit it,’’ acknowledges McDonald sheepishly, “but when you see how good he is 3-on-3, you almost want games to go overtime. There was one the other day, can’t even remember who they were playing, it’s tied late in the third period and I’m sitting at home, not even realizing it but thinking ‘OK, nobody score here.’

“Because I wanted to see him get out there do his thing with all that open ice.

“That’s the fan in me. In all of us.”

Aiding and abetting Gaudreau’s rise is the era’s small man-friendly NHL.

"That's a big part of it,’’ reckons a mighty mite from a different era, Theoren Fleury. “I can't imagine him playing 80 games with, you know, Jeff Beukeboom and Steve Smith Velcro-ed to his side for 60 minutes. But it’s a very specialty-teams-oriented game today.

"He's got some skill, no doubt about that. And he's figured out pretty quickly how to play at that level. As a small player, you have to understand how to get room on the ice. And he has.

"The new rules dictate that a guy like Johnny Gaudreau should (score points). Because he has that much more ability than the guys he's playing against.”

The trajectory is inarguably pointed upwards, towards the heavens. The question is: How high can he fly?

“I'm not quite sure where his ceiling is in comparison with, say, a Connor McDavid, a bigger guy,’’ hedges Nieuwendyk, the former Flames’ captain and a Calder Trophy recipient back in the day.

“But he’s obviously a special player, an unbelievable player. Can he dominate? He’s already dominating in some ways. He’s got a little bit of (Patrick) Kane in him. A little quicker than Kane.

“If he has the right team, the right players, around him, he could probably do what Kane is doing in any given season, I’d suspect.

“He’s kind of the face of Flames right now, probably the single biggest people pay money to see the games. They went through a couple of tough years there, but now they’ve got some pizzazz back. They’re a fun team to watch.

“Because of Johnny.”

McDonald. Nieuwendyk. Fleury. MacInnis. Gilmour. Iginla. A glittering lot. Names that continue to shine, to shimmer and sparkle, like the whirling disco ball above a late ‘70s dance floor.

At the very summit of the list of the best that there’s ever been in this town. Men who understand the nuances of skill and mindset required to reach the very gates of Olympus.

Might The Latest one day join The Greatest?

Terry Crisp holds out hope.

“Hell, yeah,’’ he replies. “No reason he shouldn’t be a top player in the league for a lot of years. Johnny Gaudreau’s one of those guys that he does something on a shift, you go ‘Wow!’ Next shift, ‘Double Wow!’

“And he’s just getting started, remember.

“There’s a lot of ‘Wow!’ left.”

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