Johnny Gaudreau barely looked up while his tribute video was playing. Maybe the former Calgary Flames star was doing his best not to get overly emotional.
Maybe he was feeling a little detached given the boos that preceded the on-screen thank-you.
Either way, rarely has a player been involved in the fabric of a single game the way Gaudreau was in his return to the Saddledome.
His Columbus Blue Jackets ultimately lost the game 4-3 in overtime, but Gaudreau did everything he could to push the Flames to the limit.
He channeled any emotion into outcomes on the ice.
There was a penalty shot. A standing ovation. He played setup man and decoy. Gaudreau displayed the dipsy-doodle the Calgary Flames have lacked offensively this season and reminded the fans why they are still bitter that he chose to depart as a free agent this summer — selecting the Blue Jackets as his new ride-or-die.
When the Blue Jackets were down a pair of goals, Gaudreau found another gear. He helped set up Kirill Marchenko and Patrik Laine for a pair of powerplay goals just 49 seconds apart.
Both were trademark tape-to-tapes.
And in the third period when the Jackets found themselves down again, Gaudreau served as the decoy on Boone Jenner’s tying goal on the two-on-one.
“It wasn’t like it was a surprise,” Calgary Flames head coach Darryl Sutter declared, stating Gaudreau did just what he expected he would do if given the chance.
The booing was constant, the only respite of about a minute or so during the video tribute (which was followed by a standing ovation in similar fashion to the Matthew Tkachuk homecoming).
The crowd may never have been louder than when Gaudreau was awarded a penalty shot after having a breakaway thwarted by all kinds of abuse right out of the gate. The deafening boos turned to a raucous roar of approval when the slick shooter somehow missed Dan Vladar’s net by a wide margin.
He said he’d like that one back, but there’s no need for a re-do on what was still a spectacular night for the former fan favourite.
“It was great. It’s what I expected. It’s a great fanbase and they’re passionate fans. I loved it — it was a special night for me,” Gaudreau told reporters post-game. “It’ll probably be easier next time but I’m sure I’ll still get booed.
“The first time back, a lot of emotions. A little nervous before the game started.”
It looked like it might be a lopsided decision in the early going with Walker Duehr scoring his second NHL goal in the first period and Nazem Kadri putting the hosts up 2-0 just a minute and a half into the second.
But at the midway point, the Blue Jackets battled back — on Gaudreau’s back — before Andrew Mangiapane gave the Flames the lead again with his 10th of the year.
In overtime, Mangiapane earned his third point of the night with the assist on Dillon Dube’s winner, finding is speedy partner with a perfect pass on a two-on-one.
Gaudreau was part of that play, too. It seemed like he rarely left the ice. Noah Hanifin poked the puck off Gaudreau’s stick, and their feet might have collided as the Blue Jackets dynamo went down to create the odd-man rush.
Looking back in the hopes someone would call a penalty to negate the winner, Gaudreau eventually left the ice with a final glance over the shoulder.
A few minutes later, he said his goodbyes to Calgary one more time.
“Just the non-stop support I had since my first day — and even in college they were big fans of me,” Gaudreau said. “I was drafted in 2011, so part of this organization for 11, 12 years.
“They gave me an endless amount of support, gave our team endless amount of support. I just want to thank them all for just being great fans and welcoming me to the city and treating me very well and my family very well.”