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Wolves prospect Gaudreau flourishing with Rapids

LEESONBy Ben Leeson, Sudbury Star

Christian Gaudreau makes an hour-long commute several times each week between his home in Val Caron and Noelville Arena, where he suits up for the French River Rapids of the NOJHL.

Gaudreau doesn’t mind travel, however. The big left-winger got used to it last season, when he left his childhood home and moved with his mother to Mississauga, Ont., where he played for the Mississauga Senators, a team in the Greater Toronto Hockey League’s minor midget loop.

The move was a good one, he said, for his development as a player and as a person.

“It made me more independent,” said Gaudreau, who turned 16 last month. “Minor hockey down there was a lot faster in the GTHL. I thought it benefitted me, because I got to play in a different environment, not just at home. I got to see what it’s like to live in a new place, to meet new people and make new friends and teammates and establish a bond again. I liked it. It was a good experience.”

His hometown Sudbury Wolves liked what they saw from Gaudreau, too, and selected the 6-foot-4, 210-pounder with their ninth-round pick in the OHL Priority Selection last spring.

“In the back of my mind, I was thinking I would love to play in Sudbury someday, so when I saw my name pop up under ‘Sudbury Wolves,’ I was even more happy,” Gaudreau recalled.

“Ever since I was seven or eight years old, I have always imagined myself playing for them. I would go to the rink and watch their games, back when the Folignos played.

“Playing for them would be a dream come true, actually.”

He’s inching closer to realizing that dream during a solid rookie season with French River. Gaudreau surely turned a lot of heads during the NOJHL’s showcase tournament at Gerry McCrory Countryside Sports Complex last week, scoring the game-winning goal in French River’s first victory of the season, 5-4 over Kirkland Lake, as well as the lone tally in a loss to high-powered Cochrane, 5-1, pushing his totals to five goals and six assists in 14 games.

“I thought I played pretty good,” Gaudreau said. “We got our first win, and as a team, we played very well together. I was working really hard and I have some good teammates to play with, too.”

Wolves head coach Dave Matsos first got to know Gaudreau in the off-season, when the local product helped out at a summer hockey school, and was impressed by the youngster’s performance at training camp in September. Matsos liked what he saw at the showcase last week, too.

“He’s got good hockey sense,” Matsos said. “He sees the game well and positionally, he plays within a system, a structure, we saw that. I’d like to see him engage a little more physically for a big kid, but I also understand he’s a 16 year old playing in a 20-year-old league.”

Gaudreau is one of a few big-bodied forwards drafted by Wolves GM Barclay Branch last spring whose upside have Matsos excited.

“These guys are all putting in a case for themselves, guys like (Nolan) Hutcheson and Gaudreau,” Matsos said. “I thought Christian had a really strong camp here the first time around, really left an impression on us and just seeing him at this showcase tournament, I think he’s got a real bright future for the Sudbury Wolves.”

Gaudreau’s coach in French River, former NHLer Moe Mantha Jr., is also high on his skill set, and even more so on his attitude.

“He wants to learn how to play the game at both ends of the ice,” Mantha said. “He really wants to focus on becoming a better defensive-minded player, to work on his game without the puck. He’s coachable and he’s got a good work ethic.

“What I do is I sit down with the players and look at their strengths and their weaknesses. One of the things Christian wanted to work at was getting stronger defensively and be better in the defensive zone. With my experience, understanding a bit of what the Ontario Hockey League is about, I’m able to tell him, yes, you have to be able to play at both ends of the ice. A coach has to be able to count on you with two minutes to go, when you need a goal, and if you’re up a goal, to protect a lead with two minutes to go.”

Gaudreau appreciates Mantha’s attention to detail.

“He said he was going to get me ready for the next level, and he has,” Gaudreau said. “He’s a very good coach. Every practice, we’ll work on stuff together, little things. He gives me tips and tells me what I should do to be in the right spots, and my game has improved a lot.”

Gaudreau and his Rapids teammates visit the Rayside-Balfour Canadians on Oct. 26. Game time is 11 a.m.

bleeson@postmedia.com

Twitter: @ben_leeson