Brandon Dubinsky will reach a significant milestone in his career tonight.
When the puck drops at Nationwide Arena between the Blue Jackets and New Jersey Devils, the 29-year-old Dubinsky will officially suit up for his 600th NHL game.
A journey that began as a second-round pick of the New York Rangers in 2004 and continued with the junior hockey powerhouse Portland Winterhawks before breaking into the show has been filled with peaks, valleys, ups and downs – but Dubinsky has made a point of embracing the challenges and using them to move his career forward.
He made plenty of mistakes early in his career with the Rangers, as all young people do. He earned his first call-up from the Hartford Wolf Pack and made his NHL debut against the New York Islanders on Mar. 8, 2007 – and Dubinsky never returned to Hartford from that point forward.
One of the major influences early in his career was that of John Tortorella, who joined the Rangers as head coach in Feb. 2009 to replace the fired Tom Renney. He helped guide the Rangers to the playoffs that spring and Dubinsky, a fiery 22-year-old at the time, contributed four points in the seven-game series loss to Washington.
Tortorella and Dubinsky spent parts of four seasons together and “went through the process” as the coach often likes to say. Translation: they often disagreed, butted heads, and went after each other - but it all came from the right place. They cared. They were invested.
Tortorella’s goal was to show Dubinsky what it takes to not only establish himself as an NHL player, but to be a successful player with a long and productive career.
“We grinded. We grinded together, we had some situations where we didn’t see eye-to-eye on a number of different things,” Tortorella said today. “I look at that, and I look at him now: married (with) kids. He couldn’t even take care of himself back in those days in New York, and now I look at his maturity. It’s pretty neat, at least for me, because I spent so much time with him during his young years, and to see him now, he’s transformed himself. He still says some stupid things, still does some stupid things, but his maturity is really nice to see.
“One thing about Dubi that has never been in question, from the first time I met him until today, is how hard he competes. He’s a warrior and he’s contagious to a team because he drags people into it. I’ll always respect that about him.”
On Oct. 21, 2015, Dubinsky and Tortorella were united again when the latter was named head coach of the Blue Jackets to replace Todd Richards.
The speculation was immediate: this marriage did not work in New York, so there’s no way it could work in Columbus. In fact, it was quite the opposite; Dubinsky said he learned a lot from Tortorella back then and still does. Tortorella leaned on Dubinsky in his early days with the Blue Jackets and Dubinsky responded with some of his best hockey in a Columbus sweater.
He’s not shy in admitting that, as he sits on the brink of the 600-game milestone, his coach has had a profound influence on his career.
“I said when he first got here how much he’s helped my career,” Dubinsky said. “He’s a guy that demands a lot out of you and he always talks about the process and growing into a good pro. He has certainly helped me along the way to get there. He’s helped me out a lot.”
Growth can be measured strictly by a players’ statistics and production, but perhaps equally important, by his role.
Dubinsky was a young guy trying to find his way when he and Tortorella first crossed paths. Fast forward seven years later and Dubinsky is a cornerstone piece for the Blue Jackets, signed to a six-year extension in July 2014. He’s their emotional leader, once described as the team’s “heartbeat” and a player who gives you everything he’s got every single night.
“You do your best to learn as you go and I’ve had some great teachers along the way that have helped me,” Dubinsky said. “You realize that this game is all about trying to be consistent – not just with numbers but with preparation, practice habits, off-ice habits, summer habits and things like that. As you grow up and the games pile on, you learn to do those things better.”
“You know what you’re going to get from him,” Tortorella said. “He’s been a very important guy for us. I just see a tremendous maturity in him in how he handles himself. I’m glad I’ve gone through the process with him – I have that much respect for him. You enjoy seeing that transformation and I’m glad I’ve been part of it.”