One of the NHL’s Biggest Free Agents This Year Was a Dubuque Fighting Saint
This offseason has been one of positive press for the Dubuque Fighting Saints. For starters, Matthew Savoie was drafted ninth overall in the 2022 NHL Entry Draft, making him the highest drafted Fighting Saint in the franchise's history. Savoie was taken by the Buffalo Sabres, and while time will tell what he can be on NHL ice, his career with the Fighting Saints undoubtedly played a role in helping him be drafted so high.
Then there's the curious case of Johnny Gaudreau. Gaudreau was among one of the most-sought after free agents during this offseason.
On July 13th, the opening day of free agency, Gaudreau, nicknamed "Johnny Hockey," stunned the hockey world when he agreed to a seven-year, $68.25 million deal with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Columbus has not been regarded as a free agent destination, which prompted his new head coach, Jarmo Kekäläinen, to give one of the best quotes of the offseason so far:
We can finally get rid of the b******* that this is somehow a bad destination, a bad city, whatever. Because it’s never been true.
Since his career began with the USHL's Fighting Saints, Gaudreau has become a fan and league-favorite in the NHL during his nine-year stint with the Calgary Flames. Gaudreau was selected to play in the 2015 NHL All-Star Game and was a Calder Memorial Trophy finalist for the NHL's best rookie. He also won the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy, which is awarded to the NHL's most gentlemanly player, for his play in the 2016-17 season.
So how did he get here?
In a new, fascinating feature piece about Gaudreau's time with the Fighting Saints, The Athletic's Ryan S. Clark takes a deep-dive into the 2010-11 season. The season marked the Saints' return to Dubuque following relocation to Tulsa. A kid from South Jersey, Gaudreau moved all the way to Dubuque, lived with a billet family, changed high schools, and decided to take up the USHL before college.
But from the jump, Gaudreau was at a physical disadvantage. He was a comparatively diminutive player, at only 5'6'' and 141 pounds.
In Clark's piece, numerous people commented on Gaudreau's short stature. One source said he looked like a player's little brother. Derek Docken, a former defenseman for the Saints, put his initial reaction to Gaudreau very pithily:
This kid is going to get murdered out there.
One of my favorite aspects of Gaudreau's early beginnings with the Saints was reading about his diet. One of his host parents said he ate like a five-year-old: PB&J sandwiches, cheese pizza, noodles with no sauce, and dry meatballs. That's about all I have to relate to the star 28-year-old winger.
Jim Leitner, the Telegraph Herald sports editor, said it best when he talked about the Fighting Saints' first year back in Dubuque.
That team, the whole franchise in general has always been a real team-oriented group. It was never like Johnny was the superstar and it was a collection of guys. It was always a group effort. That is why they won.
The year was a roaring success as Gaudreau and the Saints went 37-14-9, and made it to the Calder Cup where they defeated Green Bay (the cherry on top in this Chicagoan's eyes).
Gaudreau's contributions to the Saints were good enough to get him Gaudreau drafted by Calgary in the 4th round (104th overall) in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. At a listed weight of 5'6'', he was one of the shortest players drafted that year. Before making his debut for the Flames, however, Gaudreau went to Boston College. By 2014, he won the Hobey Baker Award, which is awarded to the NCAA's top player.
Now, Gaudreau is a Blue Jacket, He enters a team that was under .500 last season, failing to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. If he brings the same kind of tenacity and persistence in his game that he brought to Dubuque, Boston, and Calgary, he'll undoubtedly be successful.
I love stories like Gaudreau's. It's an against-all-odds saga. Best of all, a piece of Gaudreau's legacy will always be rooted in the Tri-States.