YORK, Pa.— The line of eager kids stretched down the hall, past the vending machines and through the double doors, looping back to the rink at York Ice Arena. A full schedule of activities awaited them on the third day of Bob Hartley High Intensity Hockey Camp, including the annual nighttime tournament at the nearby putt-putt golf course. But the true attractions were right here, posing for picture after picture and signing autograph upon autograph, until each of the roughly 260 attendees had keepsakes of the time they met Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau.
An awkward situation, given the circumstances? Not quite. Sure, the Calgary Flames had dismissed Hartley, the only NHL head coach Monahan and Gaudreau ever knew, in early May, replacing him with Canucks assistant Glen Gulutzan some six weeks later. Still, there was a commitment to be honored. “Whether he was fired or not, we’re not going to bail on someone like that,” Monahan says. So he puddle-jumped from Toronto to Harrisburg, “on the smallest plane I’d ever been on.” Gaudreau, meanwhile, made the easy 100-minute drive from his parents’ home in southern New Jersey. On Tuesday morning, they arrived to find massive cardboard signs made by the campers, welcoming MONNY and JOHNNY HOCKEY to town.
“Last week I did it by myself,” Gaudreau says. “It’s a lot more fun coming here with a player, one of your buddies.”
It made for a fitting scene. Born almost exactly 14 months apart, the 22-year-old Gaudreau and 21-year-old Monahan have become close friends through two full seasons with Calgary. Deployed on the Flames’ top line, they spent nearly 1,000 minutes together at even strength in 2015-16 and ranked 1-2 in average ice time among Calgary’s forwards. In September, both will skate for Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey. And now, as restricted free agents both are set to receive whopping raises this summer from the $925,000 value of their entry-level deals.
Not that their conversations veer toward dollar signs.
“We don’t talk numbers and stuff like that,” Monahan says. “We let our agents do that. They’ll talk to us, and if we had the same agent, it would be different. But we have different agents, and we’re both letting them do their job. We want to play in Calgary together. We think we have a good chance to win there and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
With several veteran off-season additions, like goalie Brian Elliott and forward Troy Brouwer, the Flames have marched closer to that aim. Locking up the marquee members of their young core represents another checkpoint. (Calgary GM Brad Treliving and the agents for Gaudreau and Monahan all declined comment, citing ongoing talks.) Both Gaudreau and Monahan have expressed interest in signing long-term deals, the CBA-allowed maximum being eight years, but they enter negotiations with slightly different bargaining chips.
Since Monahan has three full seasons under his belt, he can enter unrestricted free agency in four years and was eligible to sign an offer sheet this summer; Gaudreau, on the other hand, would be eligible for the open market in five years. Gaudreau’s leverage, then, comes exclusively from his on-ice performance—78 points in 79 games last season, tied with Joe Pavelski for sixth in the league—and his unquestionable status as Calgary’s most recognizable player.
“The first barometer of it is how many requests you get to sign stuff,” Flames executive Brian Burke said in February. “Everyone and his dog have come to us, ‘Can you get this for my kid’s birthday party?’ It’s double or triple what we did for Sean Monahan, who actually out-performed him as a rookie. And Sean’s a great kid too. But Gaudreau is bigger. He’s off-the-charts popularity wise.”
Still the unassuming, baby-faced winger who gets mistaken for a paperboy, is currently taking nighttime online classes to finish his degree at Boston College. Gaudreau shows little interest in discussing a payday that will likely eclipse $7 million. “Honestly, I don’t really know what’s going on half the time,” he says between photo and autograph sessions at Hartley’s camp. “I let my agent do all the work. I’m not a big guy with contract stuff. Whatever he thinks is the best contract, that’s what I’m going to sign. I don’t really enjoy going through this stuff, but it’s part of the job. Hopefully it gets done here soon so I can get back to hockey.”
Monahan, who finished second behind Gaudreau in goals (27) and points (63) for Calgary last season, took a similar approach. Picked sixth overall in 2013, Monahan has seen peers like Seth Jones (six years, $5.4 million average annual value), Aleksander Barkov (six years, $5.9 million AAV), and Nathan MacKinnon (seven years, $6.3 million AAV) re-up over the past six months. Now, it’s his turn.
“It’s going to be different, for sure,” Monahan says. “At the end of the day, to be honest, I don’t even look at it as the money. We just play because we love to play. Getting paid to play is pretty cool, but at 21 years old, my friends are still doing their thing, in school and stuff. It’s pretty easy for me to not think about the money, live my life and enjoy what I do. It’s easy to keep my mind off the huge business side of my job.”
Indeed, if Gaudreau and Monahan discuss anything about their prospects as long-term teammates, the assumption that they’ll re-sign already comes baked into the equation. “We don’t really talk about contract stuff together,” Gaudreau says. “We don’t feel like getting into that kind of stuff. Just how excited we are, how we have a young team, guys like [Sam] Bennett and Michael Ferland and [2016 first-rounder Matthew Tkachuk. It’s a bright future for our team.”
Standing near the poster that the campers made, decorated in hand-drawn Flames logos, Gaudreau looks onto the ice, where another session has just kicked off. He seems anxious to join the drills. “I could just be out here, going through camp for the whole year, playing hockey, and I’d still enjoy it,” he says. But if he has to endure all this contractual stuff, at least it helps to have a friend experiencing it too. “It’s a great city and we want to win in Calgary,” Gaudreau says, “so it’s great to have two minds like that working alike and being on the same page.”