Transmissions from an American journalist's 44 weeks in Moscow.



A version of this interview first appeared in Sport-Express under the title, “‘Коламбус’ публично опозорил Бобровского’. Взгляд на скандал с русским вратарем из Америки.”

An unspecified incident kept Sergei Bobrovsky off the ice during the Columbus Blue Jackets’ clash against Nashville on Thursday. While it appears that the star’s apology has appeased Columbus management for now, the story is indicative of broader tensions that cloud his outlook with the team. From strained relations with agent Paul Theofanous to the first-round exit in last season’s playoffs, the two-time Vezina winner has hit turbulence in Columbus. Blue Jackets insider Aaron Portzline chatted with Sport-Express on the latest developments in the saga.

SPORT-EXPRESS (SE): Columbus vaguely refers to the situation with Bobrovsky as “the incident.” What do we actually know about what it entailed?

Aaron Portzline (AP): Unfortunately, we don’t know any specifics. It’s odd, I’ll grant you, that the Blue Jackets released a press release and went public with this. A lot of times teams will discipline players internally and not make it public. The team felt it necessary to broadcast to the entire hockey world that he was being disciplined—so that makes you think it was something fairly serious, not just a back-and-forth with players or coaches. Something happened clearly from the time he was pulled in Tampa until the team boarded the flight a couple hours later to Columbus. There was a meeting with members of the Blue Jackets’ players leadership group and Bobrovsky on the tarmac of the airport while the rest of the team was up on the plane. Those players came on to the plane and they flew home; something was decided on the tarmac there. I’ve heard a few suggestions, but nothing that can be verified at this point. The Blue Jackets have put an absolute no-talk rule down on the players and coaches. No one is willing to get into specifics, even though the team threw it out there first to bring attention to the story.

SE: Is there any prevailing suspicion among insiders on what this could have been?

AP: I try not to throw stuff out there that cannot be confirmed, but I think we can say that it clearly has something to do with how Bob acted after he was pulled. He didn’t return to the bench. Typically, the goaltender stays on the bench until the end of the game because what if the guy who comes in to replace you gets hurt? Wow, you could be looking at a disaster in that case. But even that, I don’t think, is enough. 

I was in the dressing room after the game. I didn’t see Bob, and I saw no damage to the dressing room. A lot of times you wonder if a player flips out and starts trashing the room—but no signs of that.

SE: Is there any inclination to whom his anger might have been directed? [Head Coach] John Tortorella, perhaps?

AP: I don’t think it was even that. You know how this game works—it’s the heat of the battle and sometimes things get said that are talked about later, but they don’t really rise to the level of public shaming. I am sure there was a back and forth, but the back and forth may have been prompted by something else that Bob did. 

I’ve covered John Tortorella long enough now to have an understanding not just of how he is, but how people view him. And whenever something happens with a team that he’s in charge of, that’s the first suspicion. People think that there is a really bad relationship between Tortorella and Bobrovsky. I don’t think it’s great right now, but I don’t think that this was what happened here.

The GM has said it was absolutely not Tortorella. Bobrovsky said yesterday that it has nothing to do with him. I think those two have had their moments in the last year and a half or so because Tortorella does not shy away from saying that Bobrovsky needs to be better in the post-season. Historically here in Columbus, people have made allowances for Bob. Tortorella is really the first person to say he absolutely, 100% has to be better in the playoffs. I think there has been some friction because of his frankness.

SE: As you point out, Tortorella has no problem speaking his mind. Why do you think he has stayed silent on this matter?

AP: I think the team wants it to be a very limited message. I think it’s a little unfortunate, frankly, for the team to make it public, and then allow fans and media to speculate on what they think Bob did. You can imagine some of the conclusions that people leap to…truly heinous stuff because you don’t know. It’s nothing criminal, certainly, and nothing that goes beyond the team in this matter. But I think they took a step to publicly embarrass the player, and it could come back to haunt them.

SE: The general perception of Bobrovsky is that he is calm and quiet. Do you think he was totally to blame here?

AP: Not knowing exactly what he did, it’s hard to judge. I think he must have done something, otherwise he would not have issued a form of a mea culpa yesterday. But again, stuff happens within teams that never sees the light of day and may astound people from the outside.

These guys get along very well—they work together, are highly competitive—but that can lead to an atmosphere where sparks fly. There have been fights in the shower, fights on the loading dock…all this sort of stuff. It happens—we are talking about Type A guys here. But Sergei Bobrovsky has always been very in control of his emotions. When he meets publicly with the media, he is very soft-spoken, never an outburst. It does surprise me.

If I may go off on a bit of a tangent: it saddens me that it has come to this because of what Sergei has meant to this franchise. I think of how the relationship was between that goaltender and these fans and the organization ever since he came aboard in 2012. We’re talking almost seven full years of mostly the Blue Jackets absolutely adoring him, and crediting him—almost singularly—with lifting the work ethic and the pride of this team. Management has always had an issue with his agent, and I, for one, have said that it has bled into the relationship between the team and the player. 

SE: The parachute string is uniquely in Bobrovsky’s hands with a no-move clause in effect. Could this public shaming, as you described, have been a tactic to get him to pull it?

AP: It has been speculated that this is part of the reason that the team has been so public. Maybe they do want him to lift his no-move clause. Maybe he’s told them that he won’t. Maybe from the agent’s perspective, this is the chance to really stick it to the Blue Jackets and force them to let a number one goaltender leave town with no return, no compensation for the team whatsoever.

I asked GM Jarmo Kekäläinen yesterday if he had asked Bobrovsky to lift his no-move clause. Jarmo said, “no comment.” He would not respond. So maybe that is the work there.

I’ve been led to believe all along that the Blue Jackets’ plan is to give him one more chance to show if he can play in the playoffs or not. How many teams need a #1 goalie? Probably five or six. How many can handle his salary demands—maybe at 8, 9, 10 million? Probably a pretty small number. Would he rather play for those teams or stay in Columbus? I think we can say with certainty he’s not going to be back in Columbus. This would seem to be something that they cannot get beyond.

SE: The psychological state of a goaltender is so important, so carefully guarded. Could he really get past this noise to have a good run in the post-season?

AP: How bizarre will it be if this is the year he finally gets it together in the playoffs, and then he leaves? A couple of the teams that people talk about him going to play for are Philadelphia and the New York Islanders. They’re both in the division with the Blue Jackets. Can you imagine if Bob figures out how to play in the playoffs, and does so against the Columbus Blue Jackets? If anyone can keep it together and block out the awkwardness and the noise, it’s him.

With Bobrovsky and Panarin [negotiations] going on, I thought it was going to be a season full of disfunction. But it has been a fairly quiet season until recently, and most of the players have performed pretty well.

SE: When Ron Hextall was let go in Philly, I joked that it was a shame because the Flyers are desperate for a keeper. Could they afford an “Act Two” with Bobrovsky?

AP: Yeah, I think they could. With the new GM, there is a keen understanding that they have to fix that position. Hart is a promising, young player, but this is a trap Philadelphia has been in for years.

SE: You mentioned Panarin, so I have to ask—he has been offered free vodka and dental care from local businesses in Columbus to stay. Any word if these have been influential in his negotiations?

AP: He should accept the offer of vodka before he accepts the offer of dental care. He already gets dental care — it’s nice, but he has it through the team. Vodka is the real stuff. But people are joking here: where’s the billboard for Bobrovsky?