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The brutal honesty of the Columbus Blue Jackets

Written by 
Published in Hockey
Monday, 29 April 2019 07:18

COLUMBUS -- The cannon is a lie.

There's a hand-crafted replica of a 1857 Napoleon cannon, once called "the best gun for all round field service" in the Civil War, that rests on two large wheels in Section 111 of Nationwide Arena. It fires at the start of Columbus Blue Jackets home games. It fires after they score. It fires after their home victories. Only it doesn't fire. It flashes, and it smokes. The "BOOM" emanates from the rafters through a concussion charge. The cannon firing is merely perception.

David Baker predates the cannon by a decade, as it arrived in 2007 and he became a Blue Jackets season-ticket holder on day one in 1997. The president of the Jacket Backers, the official booster club of the team, he's had the unique experience of witnessing both the "everything" and the "nothing" in the franchise's previously ignominious history.

Until 2017, coach John Tortorella's first full season with Columbus, the Jackets made the playoffs twice in 15 years of existence: a meek sweep at the hands of the Detroit Red Wings in 2009 and a spirited but ultimately fruitless six-game loss in 2014 to the Pittsburgh Penguins, currently their only semblance of a rival.

There have been some moments of individual glory -- goalie Sergei Bobrovsky winning the Vezina Trophy twice, former goalie Steve Mason winning the Calder Trophy, Rick Nash's goal-scoring title in 2003-04, which he shared with two other players -- but not many. Despite their futility, the Jackets' draft history saw top-10 picks that were outright busts (Alexandre Picard, Nikita Filatov), eventual trade fodder (Jakub Voracek, Ryan Johansen) and Nash, the face of the franchise for nine laborious seasons until the pressure reached a boil in 2012 and a contentious trade to the New York Rangers ended his tenure in Columbus.

And that's not even getting into the off-ice stuff: The shadow of Ohio State blocking out attention. The infantilizing "Lumbus" nickname for the franchise on social media. Oh, and that time they attempted to introduce a new mascot that resembled that 1857 Napoleon, only to scuttle it quickly because everyone thought it resembled a phallus.

(The cannon, again, was a lie.)

Every season had a flicker of optimism for the fans, some smoke ahead of the fire. But the "boom" was never there.

"I think our fans have been tremendously loyal. And we have sucked some games. In certain situations, they wanted to get behind us and we have laid an egg," said Tortorella.

If Baker's being honest about it, he doubted if he'd ever see playoff success in Columbus.

"It has been a tough road. The excitement of having a NHL team lasted for the first five to seven years but it wore off quickly after that. To see the team not getting any better was hard. I did lose faith in the organization and thought at times they would never make the playoffs or be good. Then we make the playoffs and there is a glimmer of hope until the rug is pulled out from under us again," he said.

But not this time. This time, the Blue Jackets swept the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round, shocking a team that tied the NHL record for most regular-season victories. The Jackets had never won three playoff games, let alone a series. They now return home for Game 3 of their series against the Boston Bruins, tied 1-1.

"It seems a little unreal doesn't it? Uncharted territory," said Sara Chapman, also a Jackets season-ticket holder since day one.

"When Game 4 [of the Lightning series] ended, the noise was deafening in Nationwide Arena. People were crying around me. It was a very emotional moment that seemed to last for days," said Baker.

To finally achieve the postseason victories that had eluded the franchise since the moment those first fans put their deposits down, honesty was the only policy. At least in the Columbus Blue Jackets dressing room.

"If you want to say those meetings helped, I think they did," said defenseman Seth Jones.

Someone's going to earn their doctorate in psychology one day for a case study on the 2018-19 Blue Jackets.

The season began with modest expectations. The Jackets had made the playoffs in two straight seasons, falling to Pittsburgh in five games and then Washington in six games, after taking a 2-0 series lead on the road last year. Both of those opponents would go on to win the Stanley Cup.

But everything about this Blue Jackets team was overshadowed by the fate of two players: Bobrovsky, the 30-year-old franchise goalie with an apparent allergy toward postseason success; and forward Artemi Panarin, 27, the dynamic scoring winger acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks in June 2017. The worst kept secret in the NHL was that both were likely to leave the Jackets as unrestricted free agents in the summer of 2019. The season, then, was a countdown clock to the trade deadline to see what Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen decided to do with them.

So the Jackets decided to talk about that.

"Earlier in the year, it was something in our locker room that wasn't positive. It was kind of in the way of things. During camp there were a lot of media questions and everything. So we sat down as a team and had a meeting about it -- coaches and players. These guys ... it's their right to do what they want to do. I think it was an issue at the start of the season, but I don't think it is anymore," said Jones.

Behind locker room doors, the Jackets would joke about the players' next destinations. They'd laugh about the latest rumors. Comedy, with a pinch of nihilism, was the right formula.

"We had some truthful talks. Ever since training camp, it seems like," said Jones. "It's been an interesting year for all of us. We've all grown through a lot of it, because a lot of us have never been in this situation before. I'm not even talking about the playoffs. I'm talking about what happened throughout this season. I think it's great for how young we are."

What happened later in the season was that the countdown clock hit zero. Kekalainen had to decide whether to keep Panarin and Bobrovsky or deal them. On Feb. 25, the day of the NHL trade deadline, the Jackets were barely in playoff position, with their 73 points just two points away from being on the outside of the bubble.

"You discuss every scenario. We just came to the conclusion that we've got a Panarin. We've got a Bobrovsky. These are really good players. Why don't we just go for it here?" said John Davidson, the Blue Jackets' president of hockey operations.

And went for it they did, not only keeping their stars but acquiring four more players: forwards Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel, as well as defenseman Adam McQuaid and goalie Keith Kinkaid. None of these players is signed past this season.

"The reason we were able to do it was because we gave up picks for players. Some of these players might stay, some of them might not. We don't know yet. However, our young players we drafted and signed ... we have a good group. A really good group," said Davidson.

That's the managerial approach to "all-in." For the players in the dressing room, the reaction was different.

"I think our team felt a little pressure ... I don't know if it was pressure, but at the trade deadline there was so much attention on us being all-in. I think sometimes when players aren't used to being put into a position where you're supposed to win, it's a different kind of pressure," said Tortorella.

They didn't respond well to that pressure, going 5-7-1 in the 13 games after the trade deadline, culminating in a humbling 4-1 loss at the lowly Edmonton Oilers on March 21 during a Western Canadian swing. "We went into Edmonton, and we laid an egg. We lost again, and we were brutal. I mean, brutal," said Davidson.

Something had to change.

It was time for more honesty.

The Jackets had two days between their game at Edmonton and their next game at Vancouver. Management held meetings. Coaches held meetings. Players chatted with each other about how to change course.

The day before the game, at the University of British Columbia, the players and coaches held a closed-doors meeting. Whatever was said there, it's now become the stuff of legend.

"The players and the coaches had a meeting that was an all-out meeting. As raw as it can be. As honest as it can be. John Tortorella ... I don't care what people think of him, he's the most honest guy with everything. You want honest? He's your coach. This was a cleansing-type meeting," said Davidson.

"It was nice to hit the reset button as a team. We had some talks about what we thought we were. Put it all out there. And we came a little bit closer together in that road trip," said Jones, who said the meeting was uncomfortable in the best of ways. "That's a big part of leadership. A big part of the room taking over for itself. It's everyone holding each other accountable and to a certain standard."

Davidson and the other members of the management team weren't in that meeting, but they were in the stands watching the practice after that meeting.

"That was by far the best practice they had all year. Whatever was discussed in that room was weighing on these guys. How that got cleared is their business. Their department. They took care of it. In my opinion, at that moment, we were either going to go north or we were going to go south. We've gone north ever since. That was the turning point for us," he said.

The Jackets would beat Vancouver, and win seven of their next eight games to make the playoffs. They'd sweep the Lightning out of the postseason. They earned the split they needed in Boston.

Tortorella watched the team galvanize in front of him. It was during the Tampa series that he realized how locked in they were.

"I'm standing behind the bench, and I'm listening to the bench and I don't have to say a word, because it's coming from them. Hearing guys screaming at each other about back-checking. For a coach to see that is really cool," he said.

Jones said the "chemistry off the ice is the best I've been a part of" in the NHL, and credited his coach with the semi-annual airing of grievances that helped lead the Jackets to their best postseason in franchise history.

"I think Torts helps that. He's never going to bulls--- you. He's never going to tell you what you want to hear. And he encourages you to do the same. We should be able to do that with any other teammate, and not just with Torts," he said.

Nick Foligno, the Jackets' captain and a Columbus mainstay since 2012, said it was all a matter of separating the "real issues" from the noise.

"We've addressed things that need to be addressed in this room, but all the other stuff is just noise. We've dealt with it. Throughout my time here, we've made deals throughout the season where we 'should have' won the Stanley Cup. And then you have years where no one's expecting anything out of you and you have a 100-something-point season. You go through things. And as the core group has gone on here, you realize that it's all just noise," he said. "You just have to have a belief in the room. That has to be manifested by everybody and bought into by everybody. It's a big part of our success."

Not just success, but an unprecedented amount of it for the franchise.

Honestly, who among us thought the "all-in" trade-deadline thing would work? Not could, but would?

Honestly, who among us thought that goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, previously a playoff pariah, would have a .930 save percentage and 2.01 goals-against average in six postseason games, five of them wins?

Honestly, who thought they'd get past Tampa Bay? Or claim a legitimate shot at winning the Stanley Cup this season if they advance past Boston?

"That's a burden that's been here. Not winning a round. I'm thrilled for the people that grinded through this," said Tortorella.

"I'm not a big touchy-feely guy, who starts talking about 'all the people.' The people have been fantastic. Since I've been here, they've just been fantastic. I'm thrilled that they get to taste this. We're hoping to keep on progressing here to make this into a full-fledged hockey town. I'm not going to look back to the past of the organization, but for us to gain respect in the league, we have to keep getting into the playoffs and find a way to be successful."

Isn't that the truth?

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