PITTSBURGH -- Midway through the 2013-14 Quebec Major Junior Hockey League season, and years before he'd become an unlikely Stanley Cup playoffs hero for the Nashville Predators, Frederick Gaudreau was at a career crossroads.
The forward was 20 and nearing the end of his junior eligibility when he was traded to the Drummondville Voltigeurs. Gaudreau had played a marginal role with the Shawinigan Cataractes team that won the Memorial Cup in 2012. With mere months remaining in his junior career, Gaudreau was little more than an underused, overlooked player facing hockey mortality.
Gaudreau didn't even have an agent and had been completely passed over in both the Quebec junior and NHL drafts. But he found new motivation in Drummondville.
"He was never drafted junior; he was never drafted pro. I was likely to think he was good enough and ... smart enough to play at a minor pro level or in Europe," said former NHL player Denis Gauthier, who was an assistant coach with the Voltigeurs the season Gaudreau arrived. "He never quit. He persevered the whole time. He was rewarded for all these years of hard work, and he deserves everything he's got right now, that's for sure."
What Gaudreau has right now is three goals in the Cup Final against the Pittsburgh Penguins -- two of them game winners -- and a unique place in hockey history. After playing much of this season in the American Hockey League and just nine regular-season games with the Predators, Gaudreau was called up from the Milwaukee Admirals only after Nashville's top center, Ryan Johansen, was lost to a season-ending leg injury. But he has made the most of his opportunities against the Penguins, who host Game 5 of the deadlocked series on Thursday night (8 ET) at PPG Paints Arena.
Gaudreau's first score in the series completed Nashville's comeback from a three-goal deficit in Game 1. With those monumental contributions, he became just the second player in NHL history to score the first three goals of his career in the Stanley Cup Final. The first was John Harms in 1944.
"He doesn't shy away from these moments. We see it again in the Stanley Cup Final," Gauthier said. "He's the talk of the town here. He's making our organization and city proud here in Drummondville. Across Quebec, they all have it for Freddy G. It's a pretty cool moment for him."
That cool moment almost never happened. Gaudreau's hockey career appeared to be over when he was 16. Playing in a playoff game for the Magog Cantonniers' midget team, he sustained a wrist injury so severe that two bones were exposed through his skin. In his final year of midget hockey -- and with junior scouts scared off by the injury -- it appeared that Gaudreau might have to pursue a new path away from the game.
"It's one of the worst injuries I ever saw," said Martin Bernard, Gaudreau's coach in Magog, who was reunited with the future playoff hero for one season in Shawinigan. "He was very sad in the hospital. He said to me, 'I don't think I'm going to play again. Look at my wrist.'"
Gaudreau's hockey career was only salvaged by a rule change instituted that summer allowing 17-year-olds to play midget hockey in Quebec. Gaudreau took advantage of the new lease on his hockey life.
"He was so focused to recover very quick. He was ready at the beginning of the season, and we expected him only to be back in Christmas," Bernard said. "He's a great kid. I'm very proud of him."
For the fans in Drummondville, Gaudreau's Cup Final performance no doubt brings back memories of his lone playoff run with the Voltigeurs. With his hopes for a pro career hinging on how he performed in the 2014 QMJHL playoffs, Gaudreau didn't waste any time making his mark.
Leading their first-round series 3-1 against the archrival Victoriaville Tigres, Drummondville returned to their home arena with a chance to eliminate a big, physical opponent. Gaudreau dominated that game, scoring all five Voltigeurs goals in a 5-4 win. He completed the playoffs with 10 goals in 11 games, an impressive total that ranked seventh in the QMJHL playoffs despite Gaudreau's squad being eliminated in the second round by the Val-d'Or Foreurs.
"I will remember that game for the rest of my life," said Louis Robitaille, another assistant coach from that Drummondville team who is now the head coach in Victoriaville.
"He probably could have had six or seven goals, easily," Robitaille said. "But that's the type of guy he is. In big moments, on the big stage, he seems to always rise up. That's why I'm not surprised with the success he's currently having with Nashville in the playoffs."
Gaudreau's remarkable, if short, playoff run with the Voltigeurs earned him the attention of JP Glaude, a first-year amateur scout for the Predators who was responsible for surveying Quebec. A former defenseman in Drummondville, Glaude championed Gaudreau to the Predators' brain trust, which eventually offered Gaudreau an AHL contract.
After trying out with the Milwaukee Admirals, Gaudreau was dispatched to the Cincinnati Cyclones of the ECHL. He came out flying the following season, making the Admirals out of training camp and leading the club in scoring through the early parts of the season. It was midway through that breakout AHL season that he signed an entry-level contract with the Predators. Two days later, he was named an AHL All-Star. He has now engraved his name in the record books less than 18 months since earning his first NHL contract.
It's the high point so far of a career pivot that started the day he joined the Quebec junior club located just 50 miles from his hometown of Bromont, Quebec.
"When he first got here, he wasn't the fittest guy. He wasn't out of shape, but he wasn't a very strong guy in the gym. That kind of made me shy away from thinking that he could ever make it at a high level, at the NHL level," Gauthier said. "At 19 or 20 years old, if you're not that strong already, you're so far behind that it's hard to catch up. But something happened here."
Almost immediately after arriving in Drummondville, Gaudreau developed a bond with team strength and conditioning coach Francois Pellerin. That relationship endures to this day. Gaudreau spends his summers training with Pellerin alongside fellow NHL players Sean Couturier and Mathieu Perreault.
Now he and his Nashville teammates are two wins shy of hoisting the Stanley Cup. Whether they win a title or not, Gaudreau will return to Drummondville a hero this summer. If he can bring the Cup home with him, it will be the high point of a path to the NHL that truly took shape the day he found himself traded with his career at a crossroads.
"He was on a mission that year. He wanted to get a contract, wanted to get a shot to play at the next level, and he knew he needed a good last season to fulfill his dream," Robitaille said. "He had a plan. He knew he wanted to be a hockey player, and for that he had to roll up his sleeves and work extra hard. He didn't have the chance that a first-round or second-round pick in the NHL did. He had to earn everything that he wanted."