Forget television ratings, ticket sales and the flock of national media at Washington’s Verizon Center on Jan. 5. The most revealing measure of mainstream interest in the NHL is seated on press row, munching popcorn, muttering observations and watching this season’s best story play out before him.
Under typical circumstances in D.C., the pregame spotlight is trained on Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals, runaway Presidents’ Trophy winners in 2015–16. But these are strange times. (Just look a few blocks west on Pennsylvania Avenue next week.) And in hockey, strange times mean ESPN dispatches analyst Barry Melrose, during an otherwise ordinary period in the schedule, for an on-location appearance in the nation’s capital. Why? The visitors, the Columbus Blue Jackets, were looking to run their winning streak to 17 games, the all-time record set by the Penguins in 1992–93.
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On this Thursday night, a 5–0 loss to Washington kept Columbus from tying the record, but Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella betrayed little rage when he walked into his postgame press conference and immediately said, “S—, huh?” The Pittsburgh record holders had Scotty Bowman behind the bench and included four future Hall of Famers (Ron Francis, Mario Lemieux, Joe Mullen, Larry Murphy) and one sure-to-be inductee (Jaromir Jagr) in its lineup. These Blue Jackets, on the other hand, have reached the playoffs twice in their 16-year history and have never advanced past the first round. Streaks come and go—and this one cratered at the end—but the turnaround in central Ohio is nonetheless remarkable.
By this time last season Columbus was already all but cooked, having fired coach Todd Richards before Halloween, and the team was heading for a 27th-place finish. The front office does not shy away from hard truths. “We expected more and it was a thud,” says John Davidson, president of hockey operations. “People gave up on us and should’ve. We lost season tickets and should have. It was very hard to stomach.” Now even Melrose’s conspicuous presence highlights how far they’ve come.
The streak began on Nov. 29 in what would become typical fashion: balance, with nine players recording points against Tampa Bay. The 16 victories included routs (7–1 over defending Cup-champion Pittsburgh), squeakers (one OT, two shootouts) and 10 different game-winning goal-scorers. Number 16 came on Jan. 3, a 3–1 dismantling of Edmonton, after which SportsCenter anchor John Buccigross asked Nick Foligno on air, “What in the wide world of sports is going on?” The captain laughed and demurred: “We’re having fun with it.” But what’s happening in Columbus is no mystery. Strong goaltending, balanced scoring, good fortune, exciting youth, and a coach mashing all the right buttons have crystallized one more glaring truth. “The Blue Jackets are no joke this year,” winger Cam Atkinson says. “We’ve earned that.”
It wouldn’t have been foolish to peg the Blue Jackets as dark-horse contenders entering 2015–16. A furious 15-1-1 finish ended an injury-riddled ’14–15 season, and winger Brandon Saad joined from the Blackhawks shortly after winning his second Stanley Cup that June. Then, as Davidson puts it, “we came out of the gate and fell right over Niagara Falls.” Richards was shown the door after seven straight season-opening losses. Upon Tortorella’s debut Oct. 22, the Blue Jackets fell to 0-8, marking the NHL’s worst start since World War II.
“When players lose hope, it’s hard,” Davidson says. He’s in his office at Nationwide Arena, the day after the loss to the Capitals. On his desk is a sticky note, onto which Davidson scribbled a favorite personal saying, “Motivation Is Simple: You Eliminate Those Who Are Not Motivated.” Near his desk, a small Christmas tree is decorated in red tinsel. Here, it was a very merry December, when the Blue Jackets played 14 games and lost zero. The previous winter was not. “That was a long year of hard,” he says. “Rain and thunderstorms.”
No player wore the team’s struggles more publicly than Foligno. The gregarious winger, who recently donated $1 million to children’s hospitals in Boston and Columbus, had been awarded the sixth C in franchise history in May 2015 before seeing his reign endure the rockiest possible start. His personal production plummeted to 37 points, down from 73 in ’14–15. This led Tortorella to issue a challenge entering the offseason. “He put a ton of pressure on himself, thought he had to take care of everyone,” says Tortorella. “I told him, ‘Nick, I’m going to give you another crack, but we may have to make a change if you don’t understand the responsibility of this.’”
Over the summer Foligno lost seven pounds, the result of a new cardio-heavy exercise regimen, and more important, shed a mental burden. He represented Team USA at the World Championships in St. Petersburg, Russia, where he felt rejuvenated by touring local museums and churches. “The fun came back, the zip came back,” Foligno says. “I just went, ‘I’m still alive. I got through that year unscathed. I’m better for it.” To wit: Foligno matched his 2015–16 goal total (12) on Dec. 29 and is matching a career-best 0.92 points per game through Tuesday. He is also visiting Davidson’s office more, where they discuss “how we could do things better, how we could keep the attitude proper,” Davidson says. “That didn’t used to happen.” (Nor, for that matter, did the team-wide go-kart racing tournament that Foligno arranged in October at a local track.)
Like the tinsel on the tree, Columbus’s whole roster is adorned with reclamation projects. Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who declared he had “zero confidence” after losing his first four outings of 2015–16, spent a week training in Austria with new strength coach Nelson Ayotte to slim down and recently set a personal record of 14 straight wins. The 5'8″ Atkinson, who watched Richards’s final game with Columbus from the press box as a healthy scratch, is ninth best in the league with 40 points, earning Tortorella’s trust at all strengths. And former first-rounder Sam Gagner, who signed a one-year, $650,000 show-me contract in August—a pittance compared with his previous annual salary of $4.8 million—has notched 14 goals, only two shy of his career high. “The puzzle pieces fit pretty good,” Davidson says. “It’s turned around quick.”
In the past, when times grew especially tough, the former NHL goaltender and longtime broadcaster often found comfort in a familiar voice. Years ago Davidson was working for the Blues in the same capacity when Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band played Scottrade Center. He remembers them arriving worn out from the road—“One guy has a bad hip, another has to use our chiropractor to inject his back”—and yet the group still jammed for three-plus hours. He marvels at their humble New Jersey roots, and their enduring chemistry. “They’ve been together so long,” Davidson says, “but they’re not fractured.”
One of the reasons, he believes? “They know who the Boss is,” he says.
The letters arrived by mail, an old method from an old soul. Postmarked from Blue Jackets headquarters and individually addressed to each player, the single-typed page bluntly spelled out the road ahead. It was late July 2016, roughly one month before training camp began. “Usually you’re not talking hockey that early in the summer,” Foligno says, “but guys started calling each other, asking, ‘Did you get the letter?’ It sparked everyone.” The gist of the message? As Atkinson remembers: “You better f—ing come ready to rock and roll.”
Sincerely, John Tortorella.
The implied expectations came as no surprise to Atkinson. Upon Tortorella’s hiring, he quickly sought advice from Martin St. Louis, a workout partner and mentor who won the ’04 Stanley Cup under the coach in Tampa. “If you work your balls off,” St. Louis told Atkinson, “you’re going to get rewarded.”
Sure enough, preseason was brutal. One fitness test demanded players run two miles in less than 12 minutes; the on-ice workout included both timed laps and shuttles. The Blue Jackets left the ice wheezing, some on the verge of vomiting. Tortorella never bothered to check the results. “It’s a mental test,” he says. “Can you get through it? Are you going to give in? I know some guys looked at me [as if] to say, You didn’t break me; you’re not going to.”
Their resolve was threatened fast. When Columbus lurched from the gate, blowing a two-goal lead on opening night to lose 6–3 against the Bruins and falling two nights later to the Sharks 3–2, “it crept into everybody’s minds, like this can’t be happening again,” says GM Jarmo Kekalainen. “I thought we were ready. Then it was a complete thud.” Fortunately, a scheduling quirk gifted them five straight off-days, another minicamp during which Tortorella eased off the conditioning and taught team systems instead. The result: Columbus emerged from the layoff and won five of its next seven behind a four-line attack reliant on swift breakouts and creativity in tight spaces. “It’s not pounding-down-your-throat, robot-style hockey,” Foligno says. “In the offensive zone, go to town.”
The change stems from Tortorella, who has gradually loosened the reins in year two. He bucks NHL tradition by canceling morning skates, trimmed the amount of video clips shown to players in review sessions, and stopped attending power-play meetings, delegating those instead to assistant Brad Larsen. “I think players act differently when the so-called title of the head coach is in there,” he says. “It’s stupid, so I stay out.” Ordinarily inflexible with the schedule, Tortorella nonetheless obliged a team request to move its usual pregame meeting from 5:30 to 5:25, so players could have more time for warmup soccer. “Last year I wouldn’t have done it,” Tortorella says. “I wanted them to be straight-faced.” On Oct. 28, after Columbus closed a western road swing by shutting out Anaheim 4–0, Tortorella delivered on his promise to fund a celebratory night at the bar, handing over his corporate card. “They had a good time,” Davidson says. “I saw the bill.”
The best example came last season, after Columbus honored his 1,000th career game with a tribute video at Nationwide Arena. Later in private, the team showed the video again, except tacked onto the end were clips of Tortorella’s infamous confrontations from his New York and Vancouver days. “He was a celebrity on YouTube,” Foligno says. “We were howling by the end.” Perhaps the most memorable sight, though, was Tortorella in the locker room, laughing alongside everyone else.
“We felt a little helpless last year, where everything was going wrong. I give Torts a lot of credit for helping us through it.” – Nick Foligno
It is tempting to say that the famously testy and confrontational Tortorella is a changed man, that he mellowed during his time away from the NHL after Vancouver fired him in May 2014. But those close to him know better. “I think people see him as an emotional, fly-off-the-seat-of-your-pants coach that doesn’t have a human side to him,” says Penguins coach Mike Sullivan, a longtime friend and former assistant of Tortorella’s with the Canucks and Rangers. “My experience is just the opposite.” Earlier this season, when Atkinson’s fiancée underwent surgery to treat endometriosis, Tortorella gave Atkinson carte blanche to take time away and was the first person to call after the procedure finished. “We were over at his house one time, and my wife made mention of how she loved the dog beds they had,” Sullivan says. “A week later, two were on our doorstep.” Along with his wife, Christine, Tortorella remains deeply involved in rescuing dogs from kill shelters; they are currently fostering a two-year-old brindle pit bull. “It’s kind of an amazing marriage they’ve got there,” Davidson says. “Pit bulls are misunderstood, and so is John Tortorella.”
The day after the Washington game the coach begins an interview about Columbus’s resurgence by setting some ground rules. “First thing’s first,” he says, “Parameters: It’s about the team, not me.” For this same reason Tortorella had the Blue Jackets cancel a planned in-game ceremony honoring his 500th career victory, which had come against Vancouver on Dec. 18.
It is difficult to oblige Tortorella and not give him some kudos, though, with so many witnesses testifying otherwise. Here’s Foligno: “We felt a little helpless last year, where everything was going wrong. I give Torts a lot of credit for helping us through it.” And Atkinson: “Torts coming in was the best thing for our organization.” And Jody Shelley, Fox Sports Ohio’s color analyst, who played for Tortorella in New York: “He’s brought this team to life. It’s been the perfect storm. Young guys, embarrassed veterans, and John Tortorella implementing what he has with the attitude.”
The boss prefers to praise his Nationwide Boulevard band. At 34, veteran left wing Scott Hartnell is tracking toward a fourth-straight 20-goal season, despite diminished minutes. Rookie Zach Werenski has excelled on the top defensive pairing alongside Seth Jones, whom Columbus acquired from Nashville in January 2016. Alexander Wennberg, 22, leads the team with 26 assists and quarterbacks the NHL’s best power play (26.7%). “It’s fun to be around,” Tortorella says. “And last year, it was boring as hell.” Proof of the change hangs above a doorway to the Blue Jackets’ dressing room, the last thing seen before leaving, where a sign blares Tortorella’s old Tampa motto for an offensive-minded attack: SAFE IS DEATH.
In their first game after the streak, a standing-room-only crowd greeted the Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena. “C-B-J! C-B-J!” they bellowed, as Columbus led the Rangers 4–2 after two periods on Saturday. But backup Curtis McElhinney—who was since waived and claimed by Toronto—ceded a pair of soft goals in the third. Then Jones flubbed a pass at the offensive blue line, leading to Michael Grabner’s decisive breakaway with 16.5 seconds left.
Coincidentally, the clock stopped at the same moment the next night when the Flyers’ Brayden Schenn spoiled Bobrovsky’s shutout, tying the game 1–1. “We’re going to have some adversity here,” Tortorella warns. “That’s when we’re going to find out who we are.” Indeed, the end of an emotional back-to-back was a likely spot for a letdown. But in overtime Jones dropped down to block a pass that sparked an odd-man rush. Deep in the Philadelphia zone the defenseman hit his trailing captain, who whipped a wrister past goalie Steve Mason. “We won 16 in a row,” Foligno said later, reminding not only everyone else but himself. “We can’t forget that.”
So strike up the band. The Blue Jackets were f—ing ready to rock and roll again.