Imagine making a personal decision with your family to decide where you wanted to live and work.
And then imagine being internationally chastised for it.
That was the case this week when Johnny Gaudreau chose to sign with the Columbus Blue Jackets on the first day of free agency.
The decision sent shockwaves across the NHL community, and not just for on-ice reasons. From the comments section of Twitter to the resentful commentary of media personalities in Alberta, the now-former Calgary Flame received far more jeers than cheers for his decision to spend the next seven years in Columbus.
And it was all, as general manager Jarmo Kekalainen called it, bullshit.
Eric Francis of SportsNet seemed to take the news especially hard, who openly criticized Gaudreau's decision both on-air and in print.
The first two words of Francis' web headline was: "Columbus? Really?", and proceeded to go on a driveling diatribe about how Gaudreau wronged Calgary, and that it was particularly insulting that he chose Columbus.
Francis also makes the comedically strange point that he should have told the Flames sooner that he would not be with them in the coming season, so that they could have traded his rights. That's how it works in basketball, but not in hockey. For the Flames to have got anything for Gaudreau, they would have had to move him before the March 21st trade deadline. The Flames were in first place in the pacific division by eight points on that date and were owners of the second-best record in the western conference. Had they moved their leading scorer, Francis (and the rest of Calgary) would have been up in arms.
Maybe some of the surprise in Gaudreau leaving is the realization that, over the last seven seasons, the Blue Jackets and the Flames have won the same number of playoff series: one. They've also been qualified for the playoffs the same number of times: four. In fact, since the 2015-16 season, the Blue Jackets franchise has won a total of ten Stanley Cup Playoff games. The Flames? Eight.
Which presents us with theory number one: Maybe Gaudreau came to Columbus because he saw a better opportunity to win. Gasp.
And perhaps part of that vision is the fact that the Blue Jackets have one of the best prospect pools in the league, and that many of those players are NHL-ready this season. Guys like Cole Sillinger, Kent Johnson, and Alexandre Texier to pair with stars like Gaudreau and Patrik Laine? That's just the beginning of Columbus' deep group of young talent — Kent Johnson, Yegor Chinakhov, Kirill Marchenko, first-round picks this summer David Jiricek and Denton Mateychuk — the pool is deep.
"They’ve got a good young group here," said Gaudreau. "I think that attracted me a little bit too."
Gaudreau figures to be paired up with Laine, which will create a dynamic duo of forwards that immediately thrusts itself into a top forward pairing across the league.
"To be able to play with a player (Laine) who has a shot like that, I find that really, really exciting," said Gaudreau. "When I was doing my research, that's a player that I think, me and him can do well together. I'm kind of a pass-first guy and the way he shoots the puck, I think we could have a lot of success there together."
Columbus exceeded expectations in the 2021-22 season, with a .500 record going into the final game of the season. There were growing pains, sure, but that was the plane all along. Adding a player like Gaudreau expedites what was already showing signs of being a quick turnaround.
But what about the off-ice destination for Gaudreau? Former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi gave his two cents, and needlessly invoked his personal opinion of Columbus.
"I spent a lot of time living and working in Columbus," said Nenshi. "Nice people and lovely vibrant city. But Calgary is so much better. Not sure I'd leave $12+ million on the table to leave here for there." (Note: Nenshi was born in Toronto, raised in Calgary, attended the University of Calgary and Harvard University, and based on his employment history, there is no evidence that he ever lived in Columbus. Asking him is tough, as he turned off replies to the tweet.)
So I spent a lot of time living and working in Columbus. Nice people and lovely vibrant city. But Calgary is so much better. Not sure I'd leave $12+ million on the table to leave here for there. Of course, I will never see $12 million in my life, let alone $80 million.— Naheed Nenshi (@nenshi) July 14, 2022
Would Nenshi have said that about any city Gaudreau chose? We'll never know. What we do know is that he is one of many who have mentioned money, which is, in itself, kind of quirky. When professional athletes make a decision based on money, they're routinely criticized for chasing the money, cashing in, selling out, the list goes on. Gaudreau did just the opposite; he took less money to go to a city that he — and wife Meredith — would feel comfortable in. And he was criticized for it, as if his own opinion of what he preferred for reasons that he wants to remain private was somehow wrong.
"Where are spots I'd feel comfortable with? There were about three or four teams on it and Columbus was on it," Gaudreau said to Bally Sports Ohio.
"Talking with past players and players who have played here before, and players who play here now that I know, I just tried to pick their brain a little bit," said Gaudreau. "I did that with a few other teams too, but I felt like Columbus was my cup of tea."
At least one of those players if former Blue Jacket and current Philadelphia Flyer Cam Atkinson, who still lives in Columbus during the offseason. Atkinson waxes poetic about the city any chance he gets, and for those who have actually lived in the city, it's not tough to understand why.
Another former Blue Jacket, Marc Methot, added his two cents in shortly after the signing was announced. Methot words it well in the tweet below, but the sentiment of a vast majority of Blue Jackets' is the same.
Columbus is such a sneaky great city. It really doesnt get enough love. I was lucky to play there for five seasons and I truly miss it. More than anything tho, Im just really happy for the fans. They deserve this. https://t.co/Hb6oKu36SX— Marc Methot (@MarcMethot3) July 13, 2022
Surely, current Blue Jacket Eric Robinson let one of his best friends in on the hidden gem that is Columbus. They've been close since high school, and as Gaudreau has said repeatedly this week, he already knew and had a relationship with several guys on the team.
This gives us theory number two: maybe this is where Gaudreau would be most comfortable. Not everyone craves New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Toronto, etc. — if they did, everyone would live there. Choosing where to live is an intimate and personal decision, and yet, he was judged harshly for it. (Note: Columbus' metro population is roughly 60% larger than Calgary's, so Gaudreau is actually going to a much bigger city.)
"Our decision was it was best for us not to go back to Calgary, and then we decided to figure out what the best option for us," said Gaudreau, speaking of the conversations between him and Meredith, who are expecting their first child in September. "Columbus was right up at the top of the list there."
Columbus and its suburbs boasts top-ranked schools, an affordable cost of living, and more to do than its falsely-given narrative says. There's also the matter of convenience. No, Gaudreau won't be living in the city he was born and raised in. But less time than it takes to watch a movie, Gaudreau can be in his hometown — and vice versa.
And let's not forget this — Nationwide Children's Hospital is just minutes from Nationwide Arena. It's near the top of every list when it comes to best pediatric hospitals in the United States (and Canada). The potential opportunities that Mrs. Gaudreau — once employed as a neonatal intensive care unit at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia — will have in her career as a nurse has been unfairly left out of the discussion.
That brings us to the final theory, and it's a fool-proof one: Columbus was at the top of the list for his family. Full stop. Bar none. If he owed any explanation — and he didn't — it would start and end with that.
No matter what the reason is, the bottom line is this: Gaudreau chose the Blue Jackets, and you know what? He's going to like Columbus. And sooner rather than later, he's going to win in Columbus, too.