The stands were crowded with fans and media, watching every shot, every pass, every lap on the ice turned by Calgary Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau on Tuesday.
And that was just for the morning skate.
Gaudreau has been the center of attention since Saturday when the Flames arrived in Philadelphia. The 21-year-old grew up just across the Delaware River in Carneys Point, N.J., and the rookie’s return to the Delaware Valley has seen him treated like a hero.
“It’s been exciting getting the chance to come home,” Gaudreau said after the Flames morning skate Tuesday. “I think this is one of the biggest breaks we’ve had in our season throughout the whole season [and] I’m fortunate it’s here in Philly where I get to go home and get home-cooked meals and sleep in my own bed. See my little sister who I haven’t seen, see my older sister who is due in a couple days for her first kid. Just a great time to be home right now.”
On the ice Gaudreau has drawn attention for his strong play; his 44 points are second among rookies and his 15 goals are tied for fourth.
And because of that strong play, he has been the center of attention off the ice in his return to the Philadelphia area for the first time as an NHL player.
The party started with some private time Saturday and Sunday at home with family and friends. Then Monday, Gaudreau had his No. 3 jersey retired by his high school team at Gloucester Catholic. He signed autographs and took pictures with current students after the ceremony.
“It was exciting for me,” Gaudreau said. “Got to head back to my old high school, see a ton of the teachers that helped me improve on the school side of it. Never would have got to BC [Boston College] and would never have done as well at BC if it wasn’t for a ton of help from people from that school.”
Then came practice Tuesday morning ahead of the Flames game against the Philadelphia Flyers and a media horde that surrounded Gaudreau in the visiting locker room as soon as he came off the ice.
Gaudreau has played at Wells Fargo Center before Tuesday; last season he led Boston College to the Frozen Four here, and as a youth player he played in between-period mites games during Flyers games.
“This is my dream come true,” Gaudreau said. “Growing up watching the Flyers I dreamed about playing for the Flyers. Now I play in the NHL and it’s not the Flyers I’m playing for, but it’s an NHL team and I get to play against a team I grew up watching.”
Gaudreau isn’t the only one getting to live a dream. Guy and Jane Gaudreau, Johnny’s parents, are enjoying their own special time. Since the Flames started their Eastern swing last week they’ve seen their son play at the New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders. But having him in their house the past few nights have been extra special.
“We’re just excited to have our son home for a couple days,” Guy Gaudreau said. “I think he’s excited to sleep in his own bed, in his own room. I think he’s excited to have some home-cooked meals.”
Guy Gaudreau played college hockey and coached his son at Hollydel Ice Arena in nearby Sewell, N.J., where he is director of hockey, and at Gloucester Catholic. He marvels as a coach and a parent at what his son, listed at 5-foot-9 and 150 pounds, has been able to accomplish.
“He’s worked real hard for it,” Guy said. “He’s sacrificed a lot of things, and being undersized, being told more than a million times he’ll never make it, he’s overcome a lot of odds because of his desire to become a hockey player.”
All the attention has made getting tickets for Tuesday difficult. Guy said he got a suite, which comes with 30 tickets, but it was nowhere near enough.
Those who didn’t get tickets through the Gaudreaus managed to get them on their own.
“I couldn’t even tell you how many people are coming,” Johnny said. “I got a lot of great support from family, friends, people around the area that are big hockey fans.
“My dad and his business partners had to shut down [Hollydel] because everyone was canceling their practices and no one was going to be at the rink, so it was a waste of time to keep it open. When I went back to Gloucester Catholic people were telling me they were coming to the game. I really have no idea [how many are coming] but I hear it’s a lot.”
The party won’t stop once Gaudreau leaves Philadelphia. The Flames next play Thursday at the Boston Bruins, giving Gaudreau two days to reconnect with former teammates and classmates from Boston College, where Gaudreau earned his “Johnny Hockey” nickname. Last season he led all NCAA players with 36 goals and 80 points, won the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s top player and helped BC reach the Frozen Four.
And Guy and Jane Gaudreau will be there, as much to see Johnny as their younger son, Matt, who is a sophomore on the BC hockey team.
“Last year was better, we had them both at BC so we could see them both play,” Guy said. “This year one’s way out west and one’s here so we’ve missed some of Matty’s games to see John and missed some of John’s games so we could watch Matty’s games. You’d like to not miss any of them. … I’m just happy they’re both having fun playing hockey and enjoying playing the game.”
It’s been a long two weeks of hockey and travel, but Guy Gaudreau has enjoyed every minute of having his oldest son on the East Coast.
“I’d like to maybe send a couple dollars to whoever does the [NHL] schedule,” Guy said. “Because if we can get him again next year that would be great. It’s worked out really great. I don’t think it’ll ever happen again, but it’s always wishful thinking.”