Ask any player who’s been part of a Stanley Cup run about the turning point in their team’s playoff push. They’ll almost always tell you it happened off the ice.
It might have been a moment of realization in a hotel lobby, or a breakdown of film on a flight, or, in the case of the 2013 Blackhawks, something that happened in the locker room.
We were down 3–1 to the Red Wings in our second-round playoff series.
We were the No. 1 seed, we had just beaten Minnesota in five games and we were rolling — but through most of the first four games against Detroit the Wings just stopped us. They didn’t let us play our game. We knew we were capable of coming back, we just needed to come together.
Before game five, Jamal Mayers came down to the locker room to talk to us. He was a veteran forward who wasn’t playing at the time, but he had played for us in the regular season and we all knew this was going to be his final run at the Cup. I could hear the urgency in his voice.
“Do you guys know what kind of opportunity we have?”
“Look around. Look around at all the talent we have here. Are you guys really gonna waste that? Let’s go! C’mon, get hot!”
It might not sound like much, but I was only 20 years old at the time, just a rookie. At that point in my career, it was a big deal to hear a veteran player talk about how much the moment meant to him. I realized right then and there that it didn’t matter if you had played 100 or 1,000 NHL games — some guys play their whole careers and never get a shot like we had. Sometimes, you need someone to show you the opportunity you have, and it changes your perspective.
He was right, we couldn’t waste it.
We got hot, and we stayed hot.
One month later, we were Stanley Cup champions.
It’s hard to put into words what winning, one, let alone two Stanley Cups meant to me. It’s something I’ll look back on in 15 or 20 years and probably have a better perspective on. I will say, I tried to enjoy the second one in 2015 as much as I could. I took more deep breaths. I looked around more. I tried to savor every moment of the parade down Michigan Avenue. You really never know when you’ll be there again.
I’m forever grateful to general manager Stan Bowman and the entire Blackhawks organization for my time in Chicago. I’ll truly cherish it for the rest of my life.
But the summer after that second Cup, the high of success wore off pretty quickly — and abruptly.
One of the few downsides of being on an elite team like the Hawks is that, with the salary cap, it is hard to keep everyone together. So when their situation was getting tight, and my contract was running down, I felt like something was coming.
On June 30, 2015, I got a call from Stan.
“Hey Brandon, tough news: We’re trading you to Columbus.”
My first thought was, Columbus?
My next thought was, O.K., that might work. It was close to where I had grown up in Pittsburgh. I knew the Blue Jackets had good young talent, and that they had finished the 2014–15 season with 15 wins in their last 17 games. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more excited I got.
Alright, I can do Columbus.
But the first eight games of 2015–16, well … yeesh. It was a rough start to our season — and to my Blue Jackets career. Seven losses and a coaching change — not what I had pictured.
Then John Tortorella was hired.
I remember meeting him for the first time and thinking, This guy isn’t at all what the media makes him out to be.
You might not believe me, but Torts is a pretty down to earth guy. He loves his players, and he loves hockey. He just wants you to get better every single day. His mantra is to make sure that in two weeks, we’re better than we are today.
Also, he hates to lose. I mean really, really hates it. Like, I think it makes him physically ill to lose. That may come across in a strange way to some, but as a player, you know he’s fighting just as hard as you are to find a way to win.
I’m thrilled my journey has taken me to Columbus.
I remember on one of my first days in town. I was out driving around downtown, running a few errands, and I had sports talk radio on. It was the middle of the summer, and all I heard was Buckeyes football talk. It was still seven weeks from their first game, but the discussion was nonstop Ohio State.
I get it, it’s a football town. Luckily, I come from one of those.
Growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1990s and 2000s, I was part of a generation of kids who were raised in the glow of two of hockey’s biggest legends, Mario Lemieux and Jaromír Jágr.
When I was in elementary school, my mom would take me and my older brother, George, down to our local rink as soon as class would end and he and I would spend a couple of hours down there. She would come back and pick us up, take us home, feed us dinner and then we would head outside, under the streetlights, for more hockey. Our whole cul-de-sac would come out to play.
The Penguins’ back-to-back Stanley Cups in ’91 and ’92 changed Pittsburgh forever, and the kids who were born in that era reaped the benefits. More parents than ever before signed their kids up for hockey. The talent level in the area grew, and the competition improved. Some of the best youth teams in the country were coming out of the Western Pennsylvania region.
After spending a few years playing for the Pittsburgh Hornets, and in the U.S. Developmental Leagues, my family and I decided that the best route to the pros was through the CHL. So, I headed to Saginaw, Michigan, to play for the Spirit. It was there that I made another Steel City connection: Vincent Trocheck. We became linemates, roommates and good friends.
In the 2011 draft, I went 43rd and Vince went 64th. Another Pittsburgh kid actually went four picks before me. You’ve probably heard of him — John Gibson.
If it weren’t for the success of the Pens, who knows how many kids would have been as hockey obsessed as we were?
I’m not going to lie, I really thought I would go higher in the draft. But to be selected by Chicago was fantastic. I would have been happy to go anywhere, but with the talent on the Blackhawks, I knew I had a real opportunity to showcase my ability.
My time in Chicago was filled with memorable moments, and I was very fortunate to play on a great team. But there’s one thing I’ll never forget: the first time I heard the national anthem in the United Center. You hear about it from ex-players and analysts, but when you’re actually on the ice — wow. The arena is so big and the lights are so bright that when you look up to the rafters you can’t see the back of the stands … it seems to go on forever. And you know, based on how loud it gets in that building, it might actually be the case.
Nationwide Arena isn’t at that level yet, but I know it can be.
My first season in Columbus had its ups and downs, but we were building toward the future, especially with the addition of Seth Jones.
When Seth arrived last January, I understood what he was going through and I was ready to help him. We had first met at a world-juniors camp a few years back. I knew how talented he was. He’s a great person, and a great player. With him, our blue line is in safe hands for years to come.
Our team learned a lot last year. We won four of our last five heading into the summer, including coming from 3–0 down to beat the Blackhawks 5–4 in overtime in the final game of the season.
Now, this year, we’re playing the hockey we knew were capable of. People have asked nearly everyone in our room the same question over and over again: What’s changed?
We learned a lot about each other last year, put the work in during the summer and have all bought into the roles we’ve been asked to play. We focus on what’s directly before us, whether it is practice or a game, and we don’t worry about anything else.
My first season in Columbus had its ups and downs, but we were building toward the future, especially with the addition of Seth Jones. Brandon Saad
Last year, there were high expectations around our team. This year, people were counting us out in the summer. “Experts” told everyone that we were a lottery team even before the puck dropped, and said that we might as well not show up.
We didn’t care.
We only cared how we felt about our team.
We knew we were capable of being better than we were last year. There’s a lot of talent in our room, including one of our under-the-radar guys — Alexander Wennberg.
He’s only 22, a soft-spoken guy, but he’s got a killer instinct on the ice, and his hockey IQ is unreal. Check this play out:
Wenny loses the draw, chases his man into the corner, baits him into turning up the boards and then pokes the puck down low and brings his stick over his man. Next, he positions his body so Garrison can’t reach the puck and fights off his stick. What he does after that, though, is the difference between good players and great players. Before Wenny even touches the puck, he lifts his head up to see what’s around him and who is in front of the net. Then he puts his head back down and delivers a pass straight to my tape. I do the easy part.
That was the game-winning goal, on the road, against a top Eastern Conference opponent. That was a big-time play.
Our room is filled with players who have talent like that – talent you probably haven’t seen much of. Zach Werenski is one of the best rookies in the league this year.
As tempting as it is to look at the standings, or to try to picture where this team is going, we can’t do that. We really are taking it slow. We’re just trying to improve on what we’ve started here. Torts makes sure we run a very professional locker room, and that we don’t get too high or too low.
For now, we’re hot — and we want to keep it that way.
We’re flying under the radar, even in our own city. Ohio State still dominates the headlines, and understandably so — the Buckeyes are a great team and playoff bound — but you can tell that people here are starting to take notice of what we’re doing.
So, can a city be a football town and a hockey town?