SUNRISE, Fla. – The embrace was one of significance, the words meant even more.
Johnny Gaudreau had just finished a subdued post-game scrum with the media when general manager Brad Treliving entered the dressing room and quietly wrapped his arms around his star.
“I’m proud of you,” said Treliving.
The sentiment had far more to do with what Gaudreau faced off the ice the previous 24 hours than what he had just done on it.
Gaudreau revealed after the game, rather hesitantly, that the goal he scored to kick-start the Calgary Flames’ 3-0 win over the Florida Panthers on Sunday was in honour of someone very special in his life.
“My grandfather passed away before our game in Tampa (on Saturday) and I found out after the game,” said Gaudreau, eyes down.
“It was kind of a tough day, but it was nice to find the net there for him in the first. It sucks losing people. I was pretty pumped up to get that one for him.”
Burying a pretty pass from Elias Lindholm six minutes into a crucial matchup with the sinking Panthers, the typically understated winger punctuated his power-play marker by bowing his head and clenching both fists with rigour.
Asked what the goal would mean to his paternal grandfather, Gaudreau smiled briefly.
“Probably a lot,” he said of his 17th of the year.
“He watched a lot of my games and was always a big supporter of me and my brother playing hockey, so it was a special time to find the net there. Emotional. Really cool. It was a pretty emotional day there after the game yesterday.”
It sure put the Flames’ 4-3 loss against the Lightning on Saturday into perspective as Gaudreau reflected on the life of John Guy Gaudreau and all the memories he shared with him in Vermont, where his father grew up.
“Well, it’s an emotional time,” said Mark Giordano.
“We have a really tight-knit group in there, and you could see how crushed he was yesterday on the bus. You feel for him as a teammate. I like to look at him as a little brother, to be honest. We’ve been around each other for so long. So just try to give him support. I know his family really well and our thoughts are with them. For him to show up today and put that effort in, I thought he was great all night. I thought for him to come in and score, that’s really cool and something I’m sure he’ll share with his family tonight.”
Gaudreau followed the goal up with an assist on TJ Brodie’s third-period clincher, giving the Flames seven of ten points on a five-game road trip through some hostile environments. It kept the team in a close playoff race with just 15 games left in the schedule.
It was a memorable trip for a team that continues to grow tighter and tighter through a minefield of adversity that somehow has the team playing some of its best hockey of the season. Gaudreau has been a big part of the team’s improved play of late, but few results will be as rewarding as Sunday’s.
“I’m sure that goal is going to mean a lot to him for the rest of his life,” said Milan Lucic, who scored Calgary’s second-period goal with a net-front whack.
“We were all happy for him, especially when he got that goal. A loss in the family, especially someone that close to you, can be tough at times. But he stepped up and played a good game.”
Read by many fans as disengaged at times, Gaudreau rarely shows emotion, which is why his particularly animated goal celebration caught the attention of many.
The players were well aware of the news Gaudreau was processing leading up to the game, prompting a blanket of support from several of the lads who know what it’s like to play following a familial loss.
“It’s hard, but it can be inspiring,” said interim coach Geoff Ward.
“We have an inner voice, all of us — kind of a voice that we listen to. It’s different people. It could be your wife. It could be your girlfriend. It could be your dad, could be your mom. Maybe for him, it was his grandfather, I don’t know. But you have special people and when something like that happens, it hurts. For him to come and play the game tonight that he did, I thought it was a great performance by one of our best players. He led us in a lot of ways tonight.”
Six minutes after his goal, Gaudreau was tripped on a breakaway and rewarded with a penalty shot. On the ensuing attempt, his series of jukes and jives failed to fool Sam Montembeault.
At the other end, Cam Talbot’s first appearance in five games ended with his second shutout of the season, a 38-save gem that sure seemed to have a rallying feel for a team that continues to bond.
Ward called the third period his team’s best of on a hard, successful roadie.
“It’s a tight room so when something happens to anybody in there, the rest of the guys, they know and they care,” said Ward, whose team hosts the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday.
“Guys want to pick him up and guys want to make sure that they’re doing everything they can in order for our team and for him to have success. I think basically from the standpoint of caring for each other as teammates and being as tight as they are in there … they care.”
On Sunday, it showed.