At the conclusion of a series of one-on-one Kraken sprint and puck-battle drills Thursday, center Yanni Gourde locked up with young teammate Will Borgen, and both dropped their gloves.
Gourde typically sports a smile even when engaged in a real fight during a game, so it was momentarily tough to tell how serious their wrestling match was. But after several long, jostling seconds the pair eventually separated without further prodding, a little winded but no worse for wear, as the still-smiling Gourde made his way to a quick player meeting near center ice.
“He kept winning races against me,” Gourde said of Borgen once the morning session concluded at the Kraken Community Iceplex. “So I just went pushing him around a little bit. But all for fun.”
It wasn’t all fun for the Kraken on a day the team announced that winger Jaden Schwartz will miss 4-6 weeks and undergo surgery for a hand injury suffered last week against Philadelphia. Schwartz had the team’s second-highest point total with 20 and was a top line fixture alongside Jordan Eberle.
That means more of the offensive load falls to guys such as Gourde, coming on strong since his return from a bout with COVID-19 and a candidate to be the Kraken’s representative at next month’s NHL All-Star Game in Las Vegas. Eberle, who has a team-high 22 points, and 13-goal scorer Jared McCann are other All-Star possibilities for a Kraken team that must have at least one player chosen.
But Gourde, tied with McCann’s 19 points for third-most on the team, is also coming off a notable Stanley Cup-winning performance with Tampa Bay last spring, and that tends to carry weight when All-Stars are picked. Gourde’s 0.76 points-per-game average leads the Kraken, and his enthusiasm can be a big lift for a team that has lost leaders Schwartz and Brandon Tanev just weeks apart.
Even at practice. Gourde said the smile he sported when winning — and losing — some of Thursday’s workout sprints for the puck was authentic.
“The whole practice was about competing and winning your battles and winning your races,” Gourde said. “And I think everybody enjoys doing that.”
Maybe not as much as Gourde, though.
He’s spent most of his hockey life learning to impress in practice to avoid being cut from his teams. Overlooked in junior and NHL drafts before battling his way on to rosters, Gourde rarely takes a shift off in games or practices. And that’s tough to do without enjoying it.
“I love going out there and trying to get better every single day,” Gourde said. “It’s not always fancy. It’s not always pretty. But I enjoy doing that.”
Kraken coach Dave Hakstol said Gourde’s attitude has rubbed off on teammates. And that’s important, as Hakstol uses this unexpected nine-day layoff as somewhat of an intense, almost training-camp-like restart for a struggling team that has lost eight of its past nine games.
Hakstol gave the Kraken a day off Wednesday and plans another Saturday. But in between he wants intensity and relies on players such as Gourde to keep it that way.
“It’s every day that he’s on the ice, the life that he brings, the competitive level that he brings,” Hakstol said. “He’s a guy that loves working extra on his game, and that drags other guys along with him.”
An All-Star appearance at the NHL level once seemed unthinkable for Gourde given the backdoor route he took to make this level. Online fan balloting concludes Saturday night, with captains named for each of the four division teams from the highest vote-getters.
From there the NHL hockey operations department picks 40 remaining players to round out the Pacific, Metropolitan, Central and Atlantic Division All-Star rosters for a series of three 3-on-3 games against one another.
Gourde missed nearly three weeks between COVID-19 protocol and the league’s expanded Christmas break. In three games last week upon his return, he notched two goals and an assist and tallied points in all three matchups.
The Kraken will need Gourde’s aggressive forechecking with Tanev out for the season and Schwartz missing until roughly the middle of next month. Tanev and Schwartz knew how to fight for pucks, something Gourde excels at and seemed enthused about working on in Thursday’s drills — even when others, such as Borgen, occasionally beat him.
“It’s going to help us bring the best out of each other,” Gourde said. “I’m going to practice harder, because I want to win that puck. And I’m going to make sure that if he wins it, I’ve got to make it tough for him.”
Even if that includes dropping his gloves and taking some shoves with a smile.
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