For the first time since he left, Johnny Gaudreau has returned to the city where he rose to league stardom.
A Calgary Flame his first eight seasons of professional hockey out of Boston College, the left-winger stepped back onto Saddledome ice Monday in Columbus Blue Jackets colours.
His teammates gave him a taste of what he might expect in his first game back in Calgary by booing him when he touched the puck in the morning skate.
“It was funny,” Gaudreau, from Salem, N.J., said after the pre-game skate. “Just lightened the mood a little bit. I could barely stickhandle I was laughing so hard going up and down the ice.”
The 29-year-old’s departure from Calgary as an unrestricted free agent for an American market last July was less surprising than his choice of destination.
The Blue Jackets missed the playoffs by 19 points last season and ranked last in the NHL heading into Monday’s game at 14-30-2.
“We’ve been battling with a lot of injuries this season,” Gaudreau said.
“Some kids are getting called up that I didn’t really know very well. It’s been great getting to know them, gives me an opportunity to kind of get to know a lot more people in the organization.”
Gaudreau and the Blue Jackets agreed to a seven-year, $68.25-million US contract.
The Flames subsequently signed left-winger Jonathan Huberdeau for eight years and $84 million, which suggested Gaudreau left money on the table to sign with Columbus.
“I wouldn’t change anything,” Gaudreau said. “I knew how special this place was to me. It was a really long time figuring out what I was going to do. It was super, super hard on me. A long month there figuring out if I was going to go or not.”
Gaudreau led the Flames in points in all but two of his eight years in Calgary.
He posted career numbers last season with 40 goals and 75 assists in 82 games.
His 115 points tied with Huberdeau for second in the league behind Edmonton’s Connor McDavid.
Gaudreau added three goals and 11 assists in a dozen playoff games.
His Game 7 overtime winner versus the Dallas Stars electrified the Saddledome and catapulted the Flames into the post-season’s second round for the first time in seven years.
“I was disappointed to lose Johnny,” Flames head coach Darryl Sutter said Monday. “I enjoyed coaching him and enjoyed seeing his progression last year.
“He’s a puck possession guy. Not only a transporter, but he’s a guy that did a lot of changing the tides of games.”
The burning question after Calgary’s second-round exit at the hands of the Oilers was would “Johnny Hockey” stay or go?
As the players headed into the off-season, Gaudreau stated “everything about this city I love.”
Gaudreau’s desire to eventually play in a U.S. market closer to his family on the East Coast was known, said Flames teammate Mikael Backlund.
“The whole time he’s been here, he’s always said he wanted to play in the U.S. at some point and you’ve got to respect that,” Backlund said.
“Going into free agency last year, it sounded like he was more positive staying and wanted to maybe re-sign, but at the same time you always knew he wanted to go back to the U.S. and play there at some point.”
Gaudreau, whose wife Meredith had a baby daughter in October, said Columbus was simply the right fit for his life circumstances.
“I’ve got a growing family now,” he said. “We have that distance now where we can kind of do our own thing, but close enough where our families can just walk in the door.
“I don’t know how many times I’ve seen my dad walk in the door. Not knowing he was going to show up and just show up out of the blue. He’s been loving that. That was important for me.”
Blue Jackets head coach Brad Larsen acknowledged Gaudreau could be in for an emotional night.
“Your first one back is always the hardest, no matter if it’s hostile, not hostile,” Larsen said. “It always has special meaning no matter what.
“The player has a right to make a decision, whether we like it or not. That’s what the [collective bargaining agreement] says.”
Both Gaudreau and Huberdeau were well back of their 115-points paces of last season.
Gaudreau had 13 goals and 31 assists heading into his 47th game Monday, while Huberdeau had nine goals and 23 assists in 44 games.
Unlike Columbus, Calgary was in the playoff hunt entering Monday’s game, albeit scrambling to stay in wild-card position in the Western Conference.