Shock for Seth Jones and relief for Ryan Johansen turned into good times for both as two of the NHL’s best young players crossed paths at the airport after being dealt.
Seth Jones has just sat down to dinner in Nashville when his phone rings. It’s Predators GM David Poile on the line. Jones has no idea why he’s being summoned. Little does he know, he’ll board a flight to a new home two hours from now. Ryan Johansen knows exactly what’s happening when his phone rings in Columbus. So does his girlfriend, Madison. They look at each other. “I think it’s done,” he tells her. Johansen heads to Nationwide Arena, two blocks from his apartment. Waiting for him are GM Jarmo Kekalainen and the rest of the Columbus Blue Jackets management team. The event every rumor mill, television panel and podcast predicted over the past few months is now a reality. Johansen has been traded.
Two talented players, both chosen fourth overall at the NHL draft and both considered franchise pillars as recently as last year, were swapped for each other Jan. 6 in an old-fashioned barnburner of a trade. One was blindsided, the other relieved after months of anticipation. Both experienced a whirlwind in the minutes, hours and days that followed. What exactly happens when you’re dealt mid-season? We asked two people who could describe it perfectly: Jones and Johansen.
The Nashville Predators clicked their heels when they nabbed Jones fourth overall in 2013. He was a prodigy on defense, ranked in THN’s preview as the draft’s No. 1 prospect, the type of player a team selects and hopes to keep for his entire career. But something changed in Nashville, and it wasn’t Jones’ fault. His fellow 25-and-younger blueliners, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm, got better and better. With all-world Shea Weber leading the group to boot, defense became a position of supreme depth and strength for Nashville. Expendable would be too strong a word, but Jones became available when Poile went looking for a top-line center. Jones was a painful but necessary casualty. “It was a good trade for both sides,” Jones said. “I don’t really think it matters when you’re drafted or how you’re playing. There are very few guys in this league who are deemed untouchable. And even if you are, there could still be a trade that a team couldn’t refuse. It’s a business, and it’s something you know is part of the game and part of pro sports. But you just can’t prepare for it. It’s impossible. So it definitely came to me as a shock. A lot of emotions were flying around when it happened.”
Jones directed that emotion toward his mother, Amy, as soon as he received the news. She’d moved to Nashville after he was drafted, and she lived with him his first two seasons. She got the first phone call. Jones’ father, retired NBA player Popeye Jones, texted him some support as well. “New chapter, new start,” Popeye told his son. “You’ve still got five more trades to catch me.” Jones laughed and told his dad he hopes he never catches him. Along with a text from Dad came a barrage from friends, family and teammates after the news broke. Jones’ phone “was pretty much going crazy,” as he put it. He had a radio appearance booked within 15 minutes of the trade announcement, too, plus he had to pack for a charter flight to Columbus. It was hectic. Less so for Johansen. It was only a matter of time before the Jackets dealt him. The fit was never right from the minute coach John Tortorella blustered into town in late October and called Johansen out for poor fitness. All the goodwill Johansen built last year with a breakout 71-point season evaporated instantaneously. Rumors exploded. He couldn’t ignore them. In this day and age, he said, with all the social media on top of TV and print, it was impossible. “It’s our job to go out and do the best we can for our teammates,” he said. “I wouldn’t say it ever distracted me when I was on the ice, but away from the rink I’d be getting phone calls from friends and family and text messages, saying ‘Hey! What’s going on?’ And that part of it’s a bit annoying.”
So the deal was more a weight off Johansen’s shoulders than a gut punch. With the charter first carrying Jones to Columbus before scooping up Johansen to fly to Nashville, Johansen had a few extra hours to digest everything. He had a good, long talk with the Jackets management at the arena. “They emphasized it was nothing personal at all,” Johansen said. “It was just a hockey trade, and it’s part of the game. So now I’m a Nashville Predator, and I couldn’t be more excited to have an opportunity to play for them.” Johansen’s first call went to his dad, Randall. Johansen then went home to pack a couple months’ worth of clothing, while some Columbus teammates came over to say goodbye. That part wasn’t easy, even if Johansen knew the Predators were an ideal fit for him. He was comfortable in Columbus, used to his routines. He described the city as a second home. He won’t turn his back on the good memories despite this season’s turmoil. Johansen’s yard in his native Vancouver boasts a basketball court branded with Blue Jackets colors, and he has no intention of painting over all of it. He’ll keep some Blue Jackets colors and add Predators blue and gold so the court represents his career progression. The farewell was hard for Jones, too. It meant leaving his mom behind. She loves Nashville too much to leave. He’s quick to point out it wasn’t the first time they’d been separated, as he left her for three years at 15, first for the U.S. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., then for the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks. But it still stung to say goodbye again. “We’re very tight,” he said. “It was probably tougher on her than it was on me.” Jones only had time to pack a few suits but had the comfort of knowing his mom would meet him a few days later, driving all his belongings up to Columbus before returning to Nashville. He caught his charter less than a hockey game’s length of time after learning of the trade and, upon landing, his world collided with Johansen’s. Literally. The first person Jones saw when he stepped off the plane was Johansen. The pair captured the moment in a now-famous Instagram photo. They burst out laughing about the crazy business they work in. They’re both Winterhawks alumni and, though their tenures never overlapped, they’re friends, having met at various charity events. “He’s a great guy,” Johansen said. “We actually had a long chat. His car was waiting there to take him back, and they were refuelling my plane. I’m like, ‘All right, man.’ And he’s like, ‘I’ve got nowhere to go. Let’s hang out for a bit.’ I was like, ‘Perfect, sounds good!’ So we just sat there and chatted for a half hour about everything. He’s a tremendous guy and an unbelievable hockey player. And the Blue Jackets really need a defenseman like him. He’ll definitely help that organization big-time down the road.” They parted ways, Johansen boarded his flight, and each began the next phase of his career. Part of it included administrative tasks. Jones was up at 7 a.m. in Columbus for his physical. Then came the meet-and-greets with new teammates, which both players described as positive experiences. Johansen speaks proudly of the culture of quality people across the league and felt Nashville was no exception. Preds players gave him lots of recommendations of places to hang out and eat. They invited him to join them wherever they went. They were so welcoming he said he couldn’t even single out one Predator who showed him the ropes. Jones got a similar warm reception, though his heart pounded when he met his teammates the morning of Jan. 7. “There were nerves for sure,” he said. “You walk into a locker room and it’s pretty much like Step 1 again. I was in Nashville for two-and-a-half years, had a lot of great friendships, and I’m not going to lose those friendships by any means. You’re stepping into a locker room with 21 or 22 new faces. I knew a couple guys, but not really. New coaches, new system, new management, so it took me a few days to really get the hang of it. But I’m really comfortable now.” Comfortable is an understatement given how much each player has excelled with his new franchise thus far. They’ve found homes with teams that need them more than their previous ones did, and that makes all the sad sendoffs, hurried pack jobs, text-message bombs and charter flights worthwhile.
This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the March 7 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.