For Johnny Gaudreau, Family Shaped Choice To Join Blue Jackets

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Columbus Blue Jackets' Johnny Gaudreau plays against the Vancouver Canucks during an NHL hockey game Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2022, in Columbus, Ohio.
(AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)
Rachael Millanta @rachaelmillanta Aug 18, 2023, 11:58 AM
  • Johnny Gaudreau signed a seven-year contract with the Blue Jackets on Jul. 13, 2022.
  • He previously played eight full seasons with the Calgary Flames.
  • His new deal included less money than what was offered by Calgary and a number of other teams.

When Calgary Flames general manager Brad Treliving confirmed Johnny Gaudreau would be leaving the team after eight seasons, ears across the NHL world perked up. One of the league’s top players would be hitting unrestricted free agency, and only too many teams were interested in adding him to their roster. 

The wait for an answer as to where he would go didn’t last long.

A day later, the 29-year-old agreed to a deal with the Columbus Blue Jackets, one of the least likely contenders for the left winger’s signature. A developing team stacked with young players, the Blue Jackets offered less money than others, but for Gaudreau, the decision came down to something much more important — his family.

“My family’s from New Jersey, and my wife’s family’s in Pennsylvania,” Gaudreau recently told me in Columbus. “We both grew up with big families, and that was an important part of our lives. After playing so far away from home for so long, Columbus was a perfect option for us. It’s close enough to home but far enough that we can have our own space to start our own family. That was the reason.”

It’s not exactly rare to hear a player, even one at the top of their game, admit that their personal life played a significant role in a free agency decision. Still, it’s a refreshing humanization of Gaudreau and the league overall, and it begs an interesting question:

At what point in a player’s career do other things in life start taking focus?

Calgary Flames to Columbus Blue Jackets

After being selected 104th overall in the 2011 Draft by the Calgary Flames, Gaudreau made his debut on Apr. 13, 2014, the final game of the 2013-14 season. He played eight full seasons with the Flames, where he made the NHL All-Rookie Team in 2015 and was selected to play in the All-Star Game six times.

On Jul. 12, 2022, the Flames announced that Gaudreau would not return to the team, despite an aggressive internal effort to re-sign him. Flames fans questioned whether he should have been traded earlier in the season. An emotional Treliving stated they did everything they could to keep him in Calgary. It was a tough call for Gaudreau, who took an “it’s not you, it’s me” approach to the situation, but it was time for a change.

“The decision was kind of out of the blue,” Gaudreau told me. “We didn’t get a deal done throughout the season, then the summer came around, and next thing you know, it’s already free agency. It went by super quickly. I always liked my time in Calgary. It was a great city, and they were great to me and my family. For me personally, it was just time to move on.”

Johnny Gaudreau: Contract

On the opening day of free agency, Gaudreau agreed to a seven-year, $68.25 million contract with the Blue Jackets. The deal’s average annual value (AAV) is $9.75 million, which was less than the $10.5 million AAV he was offered to stay in Calgary on an eight-year, $84 million contract. 

Gaudreau also reportedly turned down offers from the New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders, both of which reportedly had an AAV in the realm of $10 million.

“It didn’t have anything to do with money or who was offering the most money,” Gaudreau confirmed. “It was about what was going to be best for me and my family.”

Through 55 games in Columbus, Gaudreau has recorded 15 goals, 37 assists, 52 points, and 144 shots. He made his seventh All-Star team earlier this month, the only Blue Jackets player to make the roster. Gaudreau is producing at an elite level, even if his new team’s record (17-34-4, as of Feb. 17) doesn’t necessarily reflect it yet.

“[Gaudreau] is a special player; we were obviously really pumped to get him,” Blue Jackets captain Boone Jenner recently told me in the locker room. “He just fit in right away. He’s been in this league for a long time, but it’s a little bit different coming to a new team when he’s only been in Calgary his whole career. He’s a great teammate, and you can see what he brings on the ice, the kind of player he is, and what he creates out there for us. We’re lucky to have him on our side.”

Family First

At what point in an athlete’s career do other things in life start taking priority, or at least more focus?

After announcing their engagement in August 2020, Gaudreau married his longtime girlfriend Meredith Morris on Sep. 4, 2021. When he entered unrestricted free agency in July 2022, she was six months pregnant with their first child, a daughter, born in October 2022.

“I definitely sleep a lot less now,” Gaudreau laughed, reflecting on new parenthood. “It’s fun, [my daughter] comes to all the games or as many as she can. She’s still really young to understand that, but playing in the NHL for so long, you get to see guys who have kids, who bring their kids down to the locker room and onto the glass and stuff like that. It’s exciting, and I’m excited to have that in the future here.”

Gaudreau isn’t the only new father on the Blue Jackets, either. Defenseman Erik Gudbranson signed with the team when his wife was heavily pregnant with their second child, and he bought a house for the first time in Columbus to raise a family. Goaltenders Elvis Merzļikins and Joonas Korpisalo also both recently became fathers.

“When everybody comes here, they’re so surprised how nice it is, and we’re part of that,” Gudbranson told me. “It’s so nice. I’ve played lots of places, but I mean, in terms of what we have here? It’s the best possible setup I could have at this stage in my life.”

It’s an interesting juxtaposition to the less-than-ideal rumors that have plagued the Blue Jackets for years. While there’s always a certain bias against smaller-market clubs in free agency, Columbus has copped an unearned reputation for being an undesirable destination for free agents altogether — and no one is sure why. 

Nobody on the Blue Jackets can explain where the narrative comes from (I asked a lot of them), and with the signing of Gaudreau, general manager Jarmo Kekäläinen is ready to see the back of it.

“We can finally get rid of the b——- that this is somehow a bad destination, a bad city, whatever,” Kekäläinen commented after Gaudreau’s signing. “It’s never been true.”

Johnny Gaudreau: Future With the Blue Jackets

While the team’s record puts them well out of Stanley Cup contention this season, it’s not a complete disaster. After all, the Blue Jackets are playing the long game. Plagued with injuries, Columbus has an abundance of young players on the ice, and development takes time.

Still, there have been plenty of bright spots with the younger players to signal great things for the future. 

With the double-digit goal counts of rookies Kirill Marchenko (14) and Kent Johnson (12), this is only the third time in Blue Jackets history that two rookies have at least 10 goals. Newcomer Tim Berni is showing more and more confidence each game and, in turn, has quickly become a steady and reliable presence on defense. Even lower in the system, the team’s prospect pool was recently ranked third-best in the league.

For Gaudreau, it’s an encouraging sign that his decision to move to Columbus was the right one.

“I still want to win the Stanley Cup,” he assured me. “It’s a huge goal of mine, and being an older player on this team, I step into more of a leadership role. I’ve had a blast with it, and it’s fun working with all the guys. This obviously hasn’t been the year we wanted, but they all want to get better each day. It’s going to help us in the future. I’m excited.”

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About the Author

Rachael Millanta

Read More @rachaelmillanta

Rachael Millanta is a Web Content Writer for BetMGM focusing on Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League. Her work has been published in SB Nation, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Slackjaw Humor. Originally from Sydney, Australia, Rachael now resides in Chicago, Illinois.

Rachael Millanta is a Web Content Writer for BetMGM focusing on Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League. Her work has been published in SB Nation, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Slackjaw Humor. Originally from Sydney, Australia, Rachael now resides in Chicago, Illinois.