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Transcript: Yanni Gourde's unlikely journey to the NHL

Transcribed for accessibility: Yanni Gourde talks about his winding path through the ECHL, AHL, and now finally into the NHL.

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NHL: Florida Panthers at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Lightning Power Play Podcast is a weekly show hosted by Matt Sammon (@SammonSez), Director of Radio Programming for the team. New episodes of the podcast are released every Thursday on the Lightning Radio Network (@TBLPowerPlay & SoundCloud). In this episode, Sammon recounts Yanni Gourde’s unlikely journey to the NHL. It’s a worthwhile read (and listen!) for anyone curious about how an undrafted player rose through the ranks of the ECHL and AHL to land a spot on the Tampa Bay Lightning roster.

Quick Note: For the sake of clarity and fluency, I have omitted extraneous uses of the phrases, “and,” “but,” and “so.”

Intro: This week on Lightning Radio’s Power Play

Matt Sammon: Tenacious and full of energy, he's become the latest great story to emerge from the Tampa Bay Lightning organization.

Cut to radio broadcast of Tampa Bay Lightning game.

Dave Mishkin: Jonathan Drouin. Cross-ice, [Victor] Hedman, left point. Shoots. Deflected in front. SCOOOORE! YANNI GOURDE AGAIN!

Yanni Gourde has always had that potential, that upside, that promise to make it in the NHL [National Hockey League]. This season he may have just broken through the surface. While he joins a growing group of undersized undrafted players to come up through the Lightning system, Gourde’s path is decidedly different than the others.

Given that just a few years ago, he was ready to make a career change because hockey wasn't going to work out. He's made it work, providing excitement to the end of this season while giving fans a glimpse at his talent going into next season. Getting to know Yanni Gourde.

Commercial break

Regardless of how this season ends for the Tampa Bay Lightning, one thing the fans of this team can look forward to is seeing more of some of the young talent we saw take its first steps in the NHL this season. Much like at the tail end of the 2012-2013 season where we saw the NHL careers of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Alex Killorn start. This season we've seen Brayden Point, Jake Dotchin, and Adam Erne make their debuts. Just a handful of young players who answered the bell for the Bolts in an injury-plagued and trying season.

One of the young players who made an impact and who is certainly making a case to stick around beyond this season has had the Lightning’s eye for just over three years now. But if you go back to that point in time, or even just a few months before it, you'd be hard-pressed to see Yanni Gourde living out the dream of playing in the NHL. It's not because Gourde didn't have the talent or the drive. It's simply because for one reason or another, he just wasn't sticking wherever he went.

A native of tiny Saint-Narcisse [de Beaurivage], Quebec about a two-hour drive north of Montreal near the Saint Lawrence River, Gourde joined me and Brian Engblom for our post game show The Last Call on New Year's Eve 2016. It was following his second game of the season, and at the time his fourth NHL game of his career after a two-game cup of coffee the season before. Being from Quebec and listed at 5'9" 172 pounds, there's no surprise when it comes to his favorite team growing up and his favorite player.

Cut to The Last Call from December 31, 2016

Gourde: I grew up in Quebec, so obviously Montreal Canadiens. I’m sorry guys. [crowd laughs] But my favorite player was probably Martin St. Louis though. [crowd cheers]

Engblom: ‘Atta boy. Get yourself off the hook there. Smart man.

Sammon: The ultimate unsigned forward story. There you go. The crowd was getting rather restless here. It’s New Years Eve. Calm down, we’ll let you go.

Engblom: If they start throwing stuff, I’m sitting too close to you too. [laughs]

Sammon: So with Marty [St. Louis], was it just more size and style? Or you were just at that age where he was hitting his peak?

Gourde: Well Marty’s career was unbelievable. He started undr - well, I don’t know if he was drafted, but he...

Sammon: He was undrafted, yes.

Gourde: He was undrafted and then he was a small player, like I am. He worked his way to the NHL. I think he played his first year [at] 23 or 24 years old. It’s fun to see a guy like that get success in that league. For all these reasons I guess, he was my favorite player.

When you look back at the undersized, undrafted free agent story, Marty St. Louis leads it front and center - and so does the Lightning. Even well after Marty’s departure from the team in 2014, the list of smaller undrafted free agents continues: Cory Conacher, Tyler Johnson, Jonathan Marchessault, and Gourde. While there are similarities to all those other players’ stories, Gourde’s really is unique.

Yes, he was a scoring star at a young age, like Johnson and Marchessault were in junior [level hockey] and St. Louis and Conacher were in college. Yes, he did get a later start in the NHL because he was an overage junior player. Gourde’s lead scoring season didn’t happen until he was 20. That’s the downside of a December birthday. Unlike all of those other players, Gourde’s career post-junior league didn’t ascend. In fact, it was alarmingly going backwards despite being productive everywhere he went.

Gourde’s ascension in the QMJHL (Quebec Major Junior Hockey League) was like many other players. The more games he got, the more points he racked up. By his third season with Victoriaville, he was average a point per game with 26 goals and 42 assists in 68 games. The next season, he nearly doubled that point total scoring 37 goals and 87 assists for 124 points in 68 games. That performance earned Gourde the Jean Béliveau Trophy in 2012, awarded to the top scorer in the Q[MJHL]. There was no parent organization waiting to invite him into their farm system. In fact, Gourde had to wait for a chance in Worcester, Massachusetts [with the San Jose Sharks affiliate AHL team].

Gourde: I had a ATO [Amateur Try Out contract]. My season ended and then I spent a week home. Then all of the sudden I get a call for an ATO tryout in Worcester. I went, played four games. After those four games, they decided to offer me a contract for one year in the American Hockey League [AHL] - contract, one-way. I accepted, so I played the next year for the Worcester Sharks.

I had a good season that year. I had good numbers. I figured that probably somewhere in the summer I was going to get a call. Those four games were very important, obviously. I guess I made the most of it. I did good, but right away they put me on a very good line. I was playing on first line, right off my first game. It was very nice. I think I had three points in those four games. It’s not too bad, yeah.

Cut to Worcester Sharks broadcast

Announcer: Shuffled away by Greenham and out. Trying to jam it into the side of the net is Kennedy. Greenham a save, back to the point. [Matt] Irwin, a shot. Save. Puck loose in front. SCORE! YANNI GOURDE! His first professional goal from on top of the face-off circle, ripped it through a screen. Up high, past Greenham. Yanni Gourde at 8:12 has tied the score at 1.

It was only four games, but it was three points. You don’t accidentally get thrown onto the top line. You’re doing something right. Going into the 2012-2013 season, the trajectory was following the usual path for Gourde. That is until late in the season. With his scoring pace down, Gourde was sent to the ECHL’s San Francisco Bulls.

Normally when you make the fall from the AHL to the ECHL, it’s a monumental climb to get back to the AHL and your hopes of ever making it to the NHL - they should be tempered. Despite the pressure of trying to make it back to the AHL, Gourde took the demotion in stride by not seeing it as a demotion.

Gourde: They told me that - just to get some game, get some more ice time, get that confidence back. I went to San Fran[cisco], I had so much ice time. I played well. I gained the confidence back and I went back up and I felt better. All of the sudden, I was playing better. Hockey is a lot about confidence. When you get that vibe, that energy, that drive - hockey’s easier.

I guess that was a good thing. I didn’t see it like too much of a demotion. I saw it like, “Okay. It’s time to get more hockey and get on the ice and feel the puck more.” I took it like I should. I went down there with a positive attitude and went back up two weeks later.

Gourde did find his confidence and the back of the net again as he scored four goals and ten points in eight games. The season would end in Worcester with a total of 62 games between both teams and 24 points split between the two. And also a positive stint in the ECHL to boot. It also ended with an injury, a broken foot sustained in a fight.

Again, the phone wasn’t ringing in the Gourde household. Considering studying civil engineering as a Plan B, at the least - or at the time at the very most, Gourde had to start the season in the ECHL again.

Gourde: After that year I didn’t get any call for a one-way AHL deal or an Entry-Level [Contract with a NHL club] obviously. Kalamazoo [Wings of the ECHL] called me and they were like, “We’re going to offer you a deal. If you want to play for us, we’d love you to come down in Kalamazoo and try it out for us.” I went down in Kalamazoo, played 35 games.

That was kind of a setback, that year. Because I was like, “I played the whole season in the American Hockey League and then all of the sudden I can’t get a try-out anywhere? Or I can’t get a deal?” That one kind of bugged me a little bit, but after that, I went to Kalamazoo. I’m like, “Okay. Let’s figure it out. Let’s see where it goes. We’ll see at the end of the season what happens.”

Gourde figured it out.

Cut to Kalamazoo Wings broadcast.

Announcer: Gourde to Panich[?]. The shot. The save. Rebound in front. FALLING BACK IT'S GOURDE AND HE SCORES! YANNI GOURDE, OFF BALANCE, FLIPS IT IN! DA-DA-DA. DA-DA-DA. SPORTSCENTER MOMENT. YANNI GOURDE, TIES IT AT 1.

30 games, 34 points, and a boatload of confidence later, Worcester called again - but with only a 25 game tryout. Again determined to finally get something long-term with a clearer path to the NHL, Gourde worked his tail off scoring 24 points in 25 games.

It was March 2014, two years after his pro career began and it was finally seemingly beginning to right itself. Mysteriously after the 25 game tryout, the Sharks didn’t extend a contract offer. It was an extremely frustrating time for Gourde.

Gourde: It was tough, but I gave myself a good year to make it back to the American Hockey League. I wanted too, so bad, to get a NHL chance at some point. I focused on that and I finally got my chance.

Engblom: That’s a lot of guts, folks. You’ve got to hang in there. [crowd cheers] It’s a big hill. It’s a big hill to climb. Every year too, there’s more young kids coming up. More guys like you who don’t have a contract or are fighting for it, on top of the guys who have already been drafted. I admire that. That’s a lot of guts and you stuck with it. It’s obviously paid off. As it progressed now, what were coaches telling you that you should work on? What needed to be better in order to get a chance to come to the NHL?

Gourde: Be more consistent. AHL is a tough league. To make the step to the next level, you’ve got to be consistent. You’ve got to be good every night and that’s what I’ve been trying to work on.

Fortunately for Gourde, his good works weren’t going unnoticed, at least outside of Worcester. Lightning pro scout Jamie Pushor, a former NHL defenseman who’s seen his fair share of talented forwards, put Gourde on Assistant General Manager Julien BriseBois’s radar. When Gourde’s deal with the Sharks ended, BriseBois and the Lightning jumped in to offer him a two-year, two-way deal which was reached on March 10, 2014.

Dan D’Uva, the [Syracuse] Crunch’s play-by-play announcer hadn’t seen much of Gourde in the few games the Crunch played against the Sharks. But D’Uva could tell there was something to Gourde’s game that made the Lightning take notice.

D’Uva: What you knew of Yanni Gourde was just he can’t find a place to stick - maybe he’s a bubble guy. The one stat I remember about Yanni Gourde is that one junior game, he had seven points in one game. That’s the number that says, “Well this guy’s got the potential to be something.”

Why is it that he can’t stick anywhere? I suppose the Sharks organization had the same feeling because when his 25 game tryout contract expired, not only did they not offer him another contract or an AHL deal, they just let him go.

Tampa Bay just swooped in and signed him to a contract. When that happened, I was wondering - they see something. Maybe those junior numbers stand out. I remember there was that one stat line, that he had seven points in one junior game. I guess that probably is the thing that I remember most before he came to the Crunch.

Shortly after signing with the Crunch, Gourde joined D’Uva in an interview on the Crunch’s website.

D’Uva: Well it’s been an interesting year for you, having been in the ECHL, a PTO [Professional Try-Out Contract] with Worcester, and now you find yourself with a brand-new contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning organization. Describe how have you felt over the last couple of weeks here, coming to the Crunch?

Gourde: For sure, it’s exciting. I’m really excited to join that organization, Tampa Bay. I’m really excited to finally get started on Friday.

D’Uva: For you to go from the ECHL last year in San Francisco, a little bit in Worcester. This year Kalamazoo and Worcester. To have a tryout contract and not know what your future might be, how did that affect your mentality this season?

Gourde: I don’t know. I was just going to Worcester, trying to do my best every game. Feeling no pressure, just playing the game like it’s supposed to be played. I was more confident this year than I was last year. Obviously it felt better.

Gourde would finish the 2013-2014 season with eight points in 18 games in Syracuse. He was able to benefit from the positions opening up with more young players making their way to Tampa.

Finally, with a long-term deal in place and a steady spot in the lineup in Syracuse, Gourde flourished with a team-best 29 goals, including eight power play goals, in the 2014-2015 season.

With things settling down off the ice, D’Uva feels that things on the ice flowed much more smoothly for Gourde.

D’Uva: I think that when you see what has happened with the Lightning organization in the last few years, and even at that point, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat were relatively new to the National Hockey League after having so much success in the American League. Cory Conacher - the smaller guy who can demonstrate skill even in a “tough man’s sport.”

You don’t have to be big to play tough. You don’t have to be big to put up points. When Yanni Gourde can look around and see players who might have similar builds or similar skill sets, he can see himself in some of those other guys. I think that that has indeed given him a boost in this organization, whereas in maybe some other places he couldn’t see that.

There’s always that maturity, that growth. He’s still just in his mid-20s. I think that he was in a situation where he was trying to find an identity. When you find an organization that really will give you a chance, even if you don’t fit the stereotypical mold, I think that did give him success. I ask guys that all the time here in Syracuse.

There are plenty guys that have had success with this organization, even if they’re not as big as Steven Stamkos. I think that Yanni Gourde sees that for himself and why not take advantage of it like all the other guys he sees around him.

After being one of the final cuts in the 2015 Lightning training camp, Gourde would again shine in Syracuse with 44 points in 65 games. Also during that season, he finally had his dream come true.

After almost four years of scratching and clawing, he made his NHL debut - in Toronto on December 15, 2015. Along the way, earning his first point in the NHL on a goal by Mike Blunden.

Cut to radio broadcast of Tampa Bay Lightning vs Toronto Maple Leafs (12/15/15).

Mishkin: [Andrej] Sustr, a feed for Gourde. Down to the middle, it’s Mike Blunden barreling out to center. Blunden walks it across the Toronto line, left circle. Blunden looking to knife in front. SCORE! MIKE BLUNDEN! 3-3!

After two games with the Lightning, Gourde would finish the season in Syracuse. He was once again one of the last players cut from camp in 2016. Gourde put his head down in Syracuse and he started plugging away again.

With a plethora of injuries to Lightning forwards in late December, the door was open for Gourde once again. After another cup of coffee in Tampa Bay and a return to Syracuse where he would go on to score 46 points in 54 games, Gourde got the call for the rest of the regular season in early March as the Lightning was again dealing with more injuries and the recent trades of Valtteri Filppula and Brian Boyle.

Gourde’s tenacity quickly got Lightning fans’ attention, including former captain Vinny Lecavalier who noted to onlookers that Gourde’s style of play was impressive even if he wasn’t yet getting on the score sheet. But that would change, in an impressive fashion.

On March 11, with the Lightning in a frantic playoff push needing to beat the rival Florida Panthers to keep the Panthers down and the Lightning’s playoff hopes alive, Gourde delivered not just a key play in the game, but a milestone long in the making of his career.

Cut to radio broadcast of Tampa Bay Lightning vs Florida Panthers (3/11/17).

Mishkin: Left side, [Jonathan] Huberdeau to the red line. Back for Vincent Trocheck. He got checked by Yanni Gourde. Gourde on the counter, short-handed. Yanni Gourde trying to come in alone short-handed. Gourde holds, shoots, SCOOORE! SCOOORE! YANNI GOURDE! YANNI GOURDE! HIS FIRST NHL GOAL! SHORT-HANDED! AND WE’RE TIED AT 2.

It was a game-tying, short-handed goal in a 3-2 Lightning win that kept the playoff push going. Gourde became just the fourth player in Lightning history, the first since Eric Perrin in 2006, to score his first NHL goal short-handed.

Gourde is quickly becoming the go-to guy for dramatic goals as he showed in another must-win game just 16 days later against the Chicago Blackhawks.

Cut to radio broadcast of Tampa Bay Lightning vs Chicago Blackhawks (3/27/17).

Mishkin: Palat, in the left corner. Palat is checked. Palat trying to stay hard on the puck. [Patrick] Kane grabs it though. With under a minute to go in OT [overtime], Patrick Kane slowly out to center. Lifts it for [Duncan] Keith. Right wing [Artemi] Panarin. Ran into a poke-check. Puck taken away.

Yanni Gourde on the counter. Maybe a breakaway. Gourde trying to come in alone. Shoots. SCOOORE! SCOOORE! SCOOORE! YANNI GOURDE! YANNI GOURDE, BABY! HE WINS IT FOR THE LIGHTNING 5-4 IN OVERTIME!

Cut to interview with Dan D’Uva

D’Uva: When I think about Yanni, I think about his smile. I don’t know that there’s a fan in Syracuse who has watched Yanni Gourde and had a disparaging comment about him. You can’t help but get behind Yanni Gourde.

As much as you want to see the players succeed here in Syracuse and help the team make the playoffs, when Yanni Gourde goes up to the National Hockey League and is scoring goals - and not just any old goals, he’s scoring short-handed unassisted game-tying goals and overtime game-winning goals.

Those are the kinds of moments where you step back and you say, “Wow. It’s pretty neat that we got to see him transform himself in Syracuse.” Now he’s at that level of making meaningful contributions to the NHL club.

As big as Yanni Gourde’s smile is, the smiles in Syracuse are pretty darn close to see Yanni Gourde perform the way that he has.

Lightning fans will certainly smile if Gourde continues to deliver in the clutch. Even though this season of Lightning hockey has had the pendulum swing from high to low all too often, Gourde is one of the many young players we got to see, not just this season, emerging at this level of hockey. We have a hunch you’ll probably see him in the NHL for many years to come.

My thanks to Yanni Gourde, Dan D’uva, also Erik Erlendsson for their assistance in this podcast. My thanks to you for listening. I’m your host Matt Sammon. Join us next Thursday for another edition of the Power Play Podcast from Lightning Radio.

Outtro: Access all episodes of Lightning Radio’s Power Play at TampaBayLightning.com and follow the Lightning Radio network on Facebook and Twitter (@BoltsRadio). This is Lightning Radio.