WASHINGTON — Yanni Gourde got the best wakeup call of his life Sunday morning at 11:19.
In bed in Syracuse, Gourde, playing for the Lightning's AHL affiliate, looked at his cellphone and saw assistant general manager Julien BriseBois was on the line.
"I didn't know (what he wanted)," Gourde said. "But I was like, 'It's interesting.' "
Gourde, 24, knew better than to assume anything. Nothing has come easily for the undrafted 5-foot-9, 167-pound forward from Quebec. A few years ago, Gourde was playing in Daly City, Calif., accepting a demotion to the East Coast Hockey League, seemingly light years from the NHL. He had studied civil engineering as a fallback.
But BriseBois' call changed his life. BriseBois told Gourde he was getting his first NHL callup to help the injury-ravaged Lightning, which is without five regular forwards. Gourde flashed a huge smile and turned to his wife, Marie, not needing words to break the news.
"I made her a sign, 'I'm moving up,' " Gourde said. "A dream come true."
Gourde had a storybook NHL debut Tuesday, his birthday, no less. He picked up his first career point in assisting on the tying goal of a 5-4 come-from-behind overtime win over the Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre. Marie, along with Gourde's mother and two brothers, were in the stands.
"Of course there's always doubts in your mind," Gourde said. "You never know if it's really going to happen. It was a dream, but it's a long road. I kept working and kept giving it a second chance to see where it would go. It's a long road, but it's been great."
• • •
Roy Sommer thought this was "just a matter of time."
Sommer brought Gourde to AHL Worcester, the Sharks' affiliate, the coach having noticed the playmaker in Victoriaville in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Gourde had racked up a league-leading 124 points (37 goals, 87 assists) in 2011-12 before going pro.
But after tallying just eight goals in 54 games in Worcester, Gourde wasn't re-signed.
"He was kind of in and out, trying to figure things out," Sommer said.
Gourde accepted a step down to the ECHL, appearing in eight games for the San Francisco Bulls.
"Not really on our radar at all," BriseBois said.
Gourde hoped to work his way back to the AHL.
"It gets very hard to do that, do that step back," Gourde said. "But it's very gratifying that I did that."
Said Sommer: "The kid stuck with it."
• • •
Gourde returned to Worcester in 2013-14 on a 25-game professional tryout and flourished. He averaged a point per game (four goals, 21 assists), gaining confidence while playing on the top lines and penalty kill.
"He was very tenacious, creative," Sommer said. "Shoot, he would create three, four, five scoring chances a game; that's hard to do coming out of (the ECHL). Coaches aren't stupid; if a guy is going to win you games and get you points, you're not going to not play him."
Gourde also caught Tampa Bay's attention. Scout Jamie Pushor pushed for him.
"(Pushor) emailed me one day, 'If you're looking for a player that's doing really well right now and might become available, you should keep your eye on Yanni Gourde,' " BriseBois said.
BriseBois kept track of Gourde, watching one of his games on the Internet. He noticed Gourde's hockey sense, competitiveness and adjustment to the pro game. Immediately after Gourde had finished his 25th game with Worcester, making him a free agent, BriseBois called Gourde's agent, asking if the forward had an offer from another team.
"What would it take to get him?" BriseBois asked the agent.
BriseBois offered a two-year NHL entry-level deal, figuring Gourde would be at least a good AHL player.
"And here we are today," BriseBois said Tuesday while watching Gourde's NHL debut.
Said coach Jon Cooper: "A pretty cool story, actually."