BUT THAT'S NOT THE WHOLE STORY—WHAT'S CAPTIVATING THE NHL IS THE TALE OF A STARLESS COLUMBUS TEAM THAT, AFTER WINNING ALL OF 34 GAMES LAST SEASON, WON 16 STRAIGHT AND HAS THE BEST RECORD IN THE LEAGUE
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.
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 two 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 went—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. "People gave up on us and should've," says John Davidson, president of hockey operations. "We lost season tickets and should have. It was very hard to stomach." Now Melrose's conspicuous presence only highlights how far they've come.
The streak began on Nov. 29 in what would become typical fashion: balance. Nine players recorded 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, which prompted SportsCenter anchor John Buccigross to ask Nick Foligno on air, "What in the wide world of sports is going on?" The captain demurred: "We're having fun with it." But it's no mystery. Strong goaltending, balanced scoring and good fortune have crystallized one more truth in Columbus. "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." Columbus dropped its first eight games, marking the NHL's worst start since World War II.
"When players lose hope, it's hard," Davidson says. He's behind his desk at Nationwide Arena, the day after the loss to the Capitals, sitting by a small Christmas tree adorned in tinsel. It was a very merry December in Columbus, as the Blue Jackets played 14 games and lost none. But the previous winter was a cold one. "That was a long year of hard," he says.
No player wore the team's struggles more publicly than Foligno. The gregarious winger had been awarded the sixth c in franchise history in May 2015, and his reign had endured the rockiest possible start. His personal production plummeted to 37 points, down from 73 in '14--15. "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.'"
Foligno lost seven pounds, the result of a new cardio-heavy exercise regimen, and more important, shed a mental burden. "I'm still alive. I got through that year unscathed," he says. "I'm better for it." Foligno matched his 2015--16 goal total (12) on Dec. 29 and is averaging a career-best 0.95 points per game. He is also visiting Davidson's office more, where they discuss "how we could do things better," Davidson says. "That didn't used to happen."
Like his captain, goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who says his confidence was "zero" after his first four outings of 2015--16, slimmed down over the summer and has rebounded, recently setting 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 seventh best in the league with 39 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, while on the fourth line. "It's turned around quick," Davidson says.
When times grew especially tough in the past, the former NHL goaltender and longtime broadcaster often found comfort in a familiar voice: Bruce Springsteen. Years ago Davidson was working for the Blues in the same capacity when the E Street Band played Scottrade Center. He remembers the group arriving worn out from the road, and yet they still jammed for three-plus hours. He marvels at 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. On Blue Jackets letterhead 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 played 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. 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."
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. 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."
Tortorella has loosened the reins elsewhere too. He bucked NHL tradition by abolishing morning skates, and he doesn't even attend power-play meetings, delegating those to assistant Brad Larsen. 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."
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-by-the-seat-of-your-pants coach who doesn't have a human side," says Penguins coach Mike Sullivan, a longtime friend and former assistant under Tortorella with the Canucks and the Rangers. "My experience is just the opposite.
"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. Says Davidson, "Pit bulls are misunderstood, and so is John Tortorella."
THE DAY after the Washington game the coach begins an interview 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, 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."
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. Meanwhile 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."
A standing-room-only crowd greeted the Blue Jackets in their first game after the streak ended. "C-B-J! C-B-J!" they bellowed, as Columbus led the Rangers 4--2 after two periods on Saturday. But backup Curtis McElhinney ceded a pair of soft goals in the third, and Jones flubbed a pass at the offensive blue line, which led 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." The end of an emotional back-to-back was a likely spot for the predicted letdown. But in overtime Jones dropped down to block a pass and sparked an odd-man rush. Deep in the Philadelphia zone Jones hit his trailing captain, who whipped a wrister past goalie Steve Mason. "We won 16 in a row," Foligno said later. "We can't forget that."
Strike up the band. The Blue Jackets were f---ing ready to rock and roll again.
"WE FELT HELPLESS LAST YEAR," FOLIGNO SAYS. "I GIVE TORTS A LOT OF CREDIT FOR HELPING US THROUGH IT."