WASHINGTON, D.C. — The other day, Yanni Gourde was answering yet another question about his remarkable road to the NHL when his head coach burst into the Tampa Bay Lightning dressing room and jokingly tried to break up an interview that was in danger of cutting into his own media availability.
“Coach in two minutes!” Jon Cooper said. “Coach in two minutes!”
Gourde smiled: “Can I finish here?”
It was a reasonable request. After all, Gourde’s been waiting a long time for this moment. It’s taken six years of riding the buses in the minors, where he’s bounced between the AHL and the ECHL, but the five-foot-nine Lightning forward has finally made it where few others believed he would.
At the age of 26, when some players start to earn veteran status, he finally earned rookie status. And he did it while celebrating the birth of his first daughter earlier this month. As Gourde said, “You don’t see many rookies who have a kid.”
Then again, nothing about his journey is typical.
The three finalists for this year’s Conn Smythe Trophy — Mathew Barzal, Brock Boeser and Charlie McAvoy — all have one thing in common — they were selected in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft.
Gourde, who was probably fourth on most voters’ ballots, was draft-eligible in the same year as Taylor Hall, but went unselected in 2010. At the time, the native of Saint-Narcisse-de-Beaurivage, Que., was considered far too small.
Eight years later, Gourde’s height is the same but the game has changed. While Hall was a finalist for the Hart Trophy this season, Gourde finally got his chance and finished third in rookie scoring. His 25 goals were two more than Steven Stamkos had in his first year in the league, and Gourde’s 64 points broke Brad Richards’ 17-year-old franchise record for rookie points.
Not that he had anything in common with those two players’ debuts.
“It didn’t feel that much like a rookie season,” Gourde said. “It felt like I was new to the NHL, but I’ve been pro for five or six years.”
In other words, he’s paid his dues. There’s no need for Gourde to pick up pucks at the end of practice or bite his tongue around veterans. He’s two years older than Nikita Kucherov. And though Kucherov has played in 365 NHL games, Gourde has arguably seen more in the combined 336 games he’s spread out between two minor leagues and four teams.
“It’s unique,” said Tampa Bay’s J.T. Miller, who is a year younger than Gourde but is in his seventh NHL season. “Sometimes it’s not as easy for everybody to crack the big leagues. He’s gotten here on hard work, from what I’ve seen in the last three months.”
After three seasons with the Victoriaville Tigers of the Quebec junior league, where he scored 221 points in 199 games, Gourde signed a one-year contract with the San Jose Sharks’ AHL affiliate in Worcester, Mass. He had just 14 points in his rookie year and the following season was forced to sign a 25-game professional tryout deal. For the first time, his career had an expiration date.
“Of course, I was asking myself the same question,” Gourde said. “But every year, I stepped on the ice and I wanted to get better. And every year I was taking a step closer to the NHL. That’s what kept me driving a little bit.”
Gourde scored 24 points in 25 games with the AHL Sharks, but when his tryout ended the organization was still unsure about his future. That’s when the Kalamazoo Wings stepped in. Though the Wings played in the ECHL, a league one notch below the AHL, it was an opportunity for Gourde to try and noticed by other organizations.
“I paid him the most I had paid a second-year player at the time,” Wings head coach Nick Bootland said.
Though Gourde only played half a season in Kalamazoo, he scored 15 goals and 34 points in 30 games.
“Was he the best player we ever had numbers-wise? No, but his work ethic was unmatched,” Bootland said. “He came with a competitive spirit and a love for the game. It was contagious. I know it was a short time, but there’s still people who talk about him.”
He also attracted the attention he was looking for. The Lightning took a chance and signed Gourde to an entry-level contract. Finally, Gourde thought to himself, he had made it. In his first full season with the team’s AHL affiliate in Syracuse, N.Y., he finished recorded 57 points in 76 games and finished second in team scoring to Jonathan Marchessault. The following year, he made a brief NHL debut.
“I laid it all out there and I got that call,” Gourde said. “I wanted that for a long time. For the first time, I felt like a prospect. I had never felt like that. That was huge for me. Once I got to this organization, they really treated me like I was a draft pick. I felt like I had a chance to make the NHL if I kept developing.”
Gourde had a reason to feel that way. Five years ago, Tyler Johnson was in a somewhat similar position to Gourde as an undrafted, undersized forward who after two years in the minors graduated to a full-time role with the Lightning.
“I think that’s kind of how our organization is,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t matter your pedigree or where you came from, everyone’s trying to help each other succeed and for the team win. He’s older and he’s played a lot more pro games, but I guess you could say that both of us have been overlooked and finally got their chance. He’s definitely making the most of it.”
Gourde said his parents named him Yanni after watching the famous Greek musician in a movie when his mother was pregnant. “I don’t have his hair,” he said. “Fortunately.” But it was Cooper who christened him the Energizer Bunny this season because of a work ethic that doesn’t have an off switch.
“Sometimes when you watch him play you even get tired,” Johnson said. “He’s a guy who is always, always going. He’s always moving his feet and going 100 miles per hour.”
For Gourde, who entered Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final with two goals and six points in 12 games, there really is no other choice. It was hard work that finally got him out of the lower rungs of the minor leagues. Now that he’s here, there’s now way he is going to risk changing.
“I told myself I’m never going back there.”
• Email: [email protected] | Twitter: @Michael_Traikos