By JOE SMITH
SAN JOSE, Calif — Yanni Gourde sat back in his dressing room stall Wednesday afternoon, reflecting on returning to where his pro career began five years ago.
But the Lightning forward never forgets that San Jose was also where his NHL dream appeared to hit a dead end.
In 2012, Gourde dropped from the Sharks’ AHL affiliate to the ECHL, where he played for the San Francisco Bulls at the Cow Palace. You want the perfect metaphor for the 25-year-old’s steep climb to the NHL? Try the 25-plus steps that exhausted Bulls players had to make to get into the home dressing room between periods.
"It was really high," Gourde said, laughing. "I was like ‘Oh my God.’ Sometimes I’d take a chair and sit there for a second before going up. But it was fun. It was an experience that I kind of grew on, and it made me the player I am today."
Today Gourde is a key cog on the Lightning’s most complete line, joining Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat in shutting down opposing team’s top players. The line is relentless, tenacious and tireless.
That basically describes Gourde.
"What’s that bunny you put the batteries in? He’s kind of like that," coach Jon Cooper said. "He just is a worker."
Gourde, an undrafted and undersized (5 feet 9) forward, had to claw his way into the NHL. He seemed light years away while playing those eight games with the Bulls. He had bounced in and out of the AHL Worcester Barracudas lineup, struggling to find his way. Worcester coach Roy Sommer, who had noticed Gourde’s playmaking ability in juniors (124 points in 68 games with Victoriaville in the Quebec Major Junior League in 2011-12), saw potential in bringing him back after 38 combined games in the ECHL between San Francisco and Kalamazoo in 2013-14.
"Usually when a guy starts down there, they’ve got to take a different path," Sommer said. "Those guys do it the hard way. By the time you get them, they don’t want to go back."
Gourde credited Sommer for helping him make the transition to the pro game.
"Roy always used to tell me to, ‘Slow down, slow down!’ because I was trying to go 100 miles per hour every time I was on the ice," Gourde said. "And I wasn’t doing much because I was all over the ice."
Gourde harnessed his energy to become almost a point-per-game player (four goals, 20 assists) in a 25-game tryout with Worcester in the second half of the 2013-14 season, eventually signing a free agent deal with the Lightning. Sommer said Gourde was tenacious, creating a handful of scoring chances a game.
"The big thing with him was his stick-to-itiveness," said Sommer, who was at Wednesday’s game. "He didn’t give up and played the game the right way. It didn’t surprise me that he made the NHL."
Gourde’s breakthrough callup late last season, during which he score six goals in a 20-game stint, earned him his first one-way contract (two years, $2 million) in June. But Gourde didn’t want to sit on it. He stayed in a downtown Tampa hotel during training camp, refusing to assume that a roster spot was a given. Gourde settled into an apartment when the season started.
"Every time I’m on the ice, I’m like, ‘I want to be here tomorrow,’?" Gourde said.
And if Gourde’s start to the season is any indication — nine points in 15 games and plus-7 entering Wednesday’s late game against the Sharks — he’s on track to remain an NHL regular for a long time. Not that Gourde will stop climbing, never forgetting those steps at the Cow Palace.
"At that point, it was far from the NHL," Gourde said. "But all I wanted to do is get to the pro level, earn my living as a hockey player. It’s been a really fun journey since."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.