COLUMBUS, Ohio - A penguin—not one from Pittsburgh—helped deliver Nathan Horton to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Horton, a 28-year-old, playoff-hardened free-agent right wing, signed a seven-year deal on Friday worth $37.1 million with the Blue Jackets. He left the Boston Bruins, with which he won the 2011 Stanley Cup and went to the finals this year.
During a visit to the city on Wednesday to talk with team officials, Horton, his wife Tammy, 5-year-old son Dylan and 15-month-old Zach, joined Blue Jackets director of hockey operations John Davidson on a trip to the Columbus Zoo.
"They brought out all the baby animals. We got to see a big cheetah, they brought him out of the cage and it was pretty cool," Horton said with a laugh. "Not too many people get to do that. It was really exciting; it was kind of scary at the same time."
Dylan loves penguins. So the zoo brought one out so he could pet it. The family was won over.
"It was unbelievable," Davidson said. "They brought a penguin out and the little guy was holding a penguin! I even went over and gave him a little pet."
Horton said he felt at home everywhere he went around Ohio's capital city.
"This is the place I wanted to be," he said. "It feels like home."
Horton, who still needs off-season shoulder surgery which may sideline him until at least December, provides the Blue Jackets with punch it lacked a year ago when it just missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker.
"The recovery is 4 to 6 months; I'm hoping it's 4," Horton said of the rehab from surgery which he hopes to have within the next week or two. "I just want to be 100 per cent and come back and never have a problem with it again."
Columbus finished finishing 25th in the NHL in goals. Horton has averaged 23 goals over the last eight seasons.
"He was the No. 1 guy on our list," Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. "We went after him and got him."
The Blue Jackets' are built around Vezina Trophy-winning goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who recently signed a two-year contract. The club badly needed a scoring threat to go with Marian Gaborik and several rising young forwards.
The signing was one of the biggest free-agent moves ever by the franchise, which made a surprising leap into playoff contention after dawdling near the NHL cellar for the first third of last year's abbreviated season. The Blue Jackets have made the playoffs just once in their 12 seasons, and were swept by Detroit in that one trip in 2009.
Horton said he realized that some people in Boston might not be able to understand the move.
"I'm thankful for my opportunity in Boston. I met a lot of great people, I've had great teammates, I had a great time there," he said. "I just think that to be in this city, it's a great opportunity for me and my family to be in a house and for it to be a little bit more quiet. That's what I was looking for."
Horton's new contract will result in a $5.3-million cap hit. He'll collect $29 million in the first five years of the contract.
Davidson was angry that panelists on a TV sports show out of Canada put down Horton for coming to Columbus, saying that he was "going into the woods" or moving to "Green Acres."
"Family is a big part of this," Davidson said. "Columbus is a terrific city. It has so much to offer."
A skilled player with an edge, Horton was a central figure in the Bruins' run to winning the 2011 Stanley Cup and in their trip to the finals this past season.
He injured his shoulder in this year's playoffs. Horton held off getting the operation until his new team's doctors were involved. He also had a concussion in January 2012 that caused him to miss the remainder of that season. He also missed the last four Stanley Cup finals games in 2011 because of a concussion.
"Obviously, we'd like to have him right away, but it's a long-term commitment," Kekalainen said. "There's going to be lots of hockey left after he gets his shoulder fixed. We have realistic expectations based on our doctors' reports that he'll be back in December when there'll still be over 50 games to play."
The Blue Jackets are considered by many to be a franchise that has turned the corner after years of bad drafts, bad trades and bad luck. They went on a 19-5-5 run to finish last season to tie for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West but lost out on a tiebreaker.
Horton said he was ready to contribute as soon as he's healthy.
"I want to bring what I can to the team: scoring goals, battling, putting pucks on the net like a power forward does," he said. "But I'll do anything it takes, wherever I'm slotted and wherever the coach wants me to play. I want to be in the playoffs and everybody else does (here) and we've got the team to do it. That's why I'm so excited. There's a buzz going around here. I felt it since I got here."
There is no disputing Horton's effectiveness in the post-season, particularly for a club striving not only to make the playoffs but also to win there for the first time. This past season, he had the seven goals and 12 assists—and a remarkable +20 plus/minus rating—in the Bruins' 22 playoff games that ended with a six-game loss to Chicago in the finals.
During Boston's run to the title in 2011, he had eight goals and nine assists in 21 games before being injured.
He put up 13 goals and nine assists in 43 regular-season games with the Bruins during the truncated 2013 season.
Horton was the fouth-overall pick by the Florida Panthers in 2003, and then was traded just over three years ago to the Bruins. It was not a coincidence that Boston suddenly became a Stanley Cup contender soon after, with Norton a valuable leader of the club.
He has totalled 198 goals and 204 assists with 543 penalty minutes and a cumulative plus/minus rating of plus-57 in his 591 career NHL games.
The Blue Jackets also signed minor-league forward Cody Bass, goaltender Jeremy Smith, forward Ryan Craig and defenceman Thomas Larkin to contracts.
Rusty Miller can be reached at http://twitter.com/RustyMillerAP