He wasn't drafted by the OHL. He was passed over by every NHL team in two entry drafts. But by signing a three-year, entry-level contract earlier this year with the Phoenix Coyotes, Tyler Gaudet is a wonderful example of how hard work, dedication, and persistence can pay off.
“It definitely felt good,” the 20-year-old Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds' forward explained. “I knew that going through that meant being missed in both drafts. It’s the thing that a lot of players look at and it’s what they dedicate their whole lives to.
“When you’re 15 years old, you only want to get drafted by the OHL and then when you’re 17/18 years old, your focus is on the NHL Draft. After being missed by them, it was nice to get signed because it showed my hard work was paying off.”
It can be crushing for a young man to see three opportunities to achieve his dream go by, but Gaudet used that as motivation to keep playing the game that he loved.
“You just have to keep pushing forward,” he said. “You’re always going to have obstacles — even when you think things are going well, there are always going to be things that are going to try to bring you down.
“It’s those players who keep moving forward and keep battling through the ups and downs who are actually going to do what they want to do and make the NHL.”
But that doesn’t mean there weren’t down periods where Gaudet questioned his future.
“I’ve had many moments where I was very disappointed and really upset about where my career might be going,” he said. “It’s just a general worry about what might happen. But I enjoy the game of hockey still and I love playing, so I kept going on the ice and doing the best I could do.”
That type of dedication and display of character is appealing to many clubs — and it’s something that Gaudet said he has had to deal with all his life. After all, he hasn’t always been 6’2” and over 200 pounds.
“I think it helps a lot. I had a lot of people over the years tell me I wasn’t going to make it anyway,” he said. “When I was younger, I was really small — I was always the smallest guy on my team, so I was told that I wouldn’t achieve anything.
“Everyone just tries to bring you down, so to battle through that is hard. If you can manage that, then great things can be accomplished.”
Gaudet showed a bit more offensive flair this season, with 26 goals and 61 points in 65 games. But what he takes the most pride in is his defensive game. Gaudet finished the season with a +25 rating, signifying that he knows which side of the rink he makes his living in. He also admits that his focus on defense may have impacted how he’s viewed.
“I’ve never been a standout player. Even when I was a top player in Triple-A, I was not flashy. I played a defensive role,” he said. “I feel like, a lot of times, the flashy offensive players are seen first. I know that’s generalizing, but that’s who gets seen. So to be the underdog and to be not seen is what I was used to.”
In that situation, it’s easy to see how a kid could start to play a little more selfishly and try to get noticed by focusing on themselves. But that’s just not in Gaudet’s make-up.
“It’s just how I grew up playing hockey. I started as a defenseman and I developed a comfort in playing that defensive game,” he said. “I’m actually comfortable in and enjoy that role. I’ve been trying to expand my game without losing that defensive role. It’s just something I’m used to and that I enjoy playing.”
Gaudet said that the Coyotes have asked him to work on his acceleration and improve his overall game. He said he’s well aware of the areas where he needs work.
“I feel my top speed is good, but it’s those first three strides to get there that needs work. But you can always get faster,” he said. “Players are always going to be faster than you, so I think it’s something you’re always going to want to work on. More power drills, a lot of sprints, ladder drills, squats, heavier weights.
“Every summer, I don’t really go into it with a specific aspect that I want to work on — I just try to improve everything. Obviously, defensive play is my strong point, so I want to keep improving my defensive game. I just try to get on the ice as much as possible, I try to improve my shooting as much as possible, and I just work on being a better overall athlete and be in better shape.”
The Greyhounds have wrapped up the second seed in the 2014 OHL playoffs and will open against the Owen Sound Attack. For a team that may have been undervalued at the beginning of the year, Gaudet said there’s a sense of accomplishment for what they’ve done — but there’s more to come.
“There’s some pride. We came into this year with people thinking that we weren’t going to do that well,” he said. “We lost a lot of players this year. It’s good for our team to show that we can play with the top teams and be a top team ourselves.”
Gaudet’s hoping for a long playoff run. And once that’s over — hopefully after the Memorial Cup – he’ll be able to exercise his AHL eligibility.
“I’ve thought about it, but I don’t want to look too far ahead because I want to focus on the rest of the year here,” he said. “But, yes, it’s been in the back of my mind and it’s a little confusing as to what might actually happen — especially in terms of scheduling. I really don’t know. I’m very excited to see what comes out of it.”
Signing an NHL contract would seem to give one ammunition to fire back at some of the people who doubted him in the past. But Gaudet doesn’t blame anyone for overlooking him.
“I don’t really have anything to say to them. If I were in their shoes and I saw the other 15, 16, 17, 18-year-olds who were developing at that time, it just felt like they were better options,” he said. “Looking in terms of potential when it was time for my draft, I was really not a high pick on their radar. Some guys develop a little later than others.”
He does have something to say, though, to those kids who may be looking up at the competition — literally, or may be questioning their abilities.
“Never stop playing. I know many players, like my billet brother, who is 13 and one of the smallest players on his team,” he said. “It can be discouraging to see other 13-year-olds who are almost my size right now while he’s five feet tall. For those kids who are small or later developers, just keep playing.
“There comes an age where you’re 16/17 and there’s girls and partying — kids get distracted and they lose their mindset about what they’re working towards. If you stay focused and keep working, you never know what could happen.”
Follow Jason Menard on Twitter via @JayCMenard