Playing video games has become a favored off-ice ritual for a small group of the Columbus Blue Jackets young core. The game of choice? Call of Duty.
Out of regular participants that include Marc Methot, Derick Brassard and Jake Voracek, there is a clear frontrunner.
"Methot's the best," Brassard says of his teammate's innate shooting ability in the virtual wartime world. "He's pretty good.
"Me and Jake are getting there."
There's a definite parallel between the young Jackets performance in Call of Duty and on the ice. Methot is approaching 25, maturing and moving toward the peak of his abilities athletically. Brassard and Voracek, still just 22 and 20 respectively, are gifted, emerging stars trying to reach the vast potential they both possess.
Despite a trying year for the franchise, the two linemates are offering a glimpse of what the future holds in Columbus. Brassard is finding his groove as a legitimate NHL set-up man, while Voracek has exploded offensively with eight goals, 13 assists and a plus-eight rating in his past 18 games.
"Every game, you're learning and becoming more experienced," says Voracek, who is one shy of the 50-point mark in just his second NHL season. "I think that's what we're doing, me and Brass. We're learning from every practice, from every game. It's helping a lot.
"With the great leadership we have in this locker room, it's getting easier."
The two friends, who have been anchored on their line by the veteran presence of R.J. Umberger, are developing real chemistry. It's been a few years in the making but like any high NHL draft pick, they're learning what it takes to compete both physically and mentally.
Rick Nash went through the same growing pains after being selected 1st overall in 2002. In his rookie season, he was a tall, skinny kid trying to make his way in a man's game.
"It's tough coming in," says Nash. "You're trying to find your role, find where you fit in. Some guys come in on a scoring line and others on a checking line.
"The speed's a lot different so you're trying to adjust to that, too. But most of all, you're trying to find your fit."
There's also the physical adjustment. Nash recalls nursing plenty of bumps and bruises because, as he put it, he didn't have the necessary meat on his bones to take the punishment.
That won't be a problem for Voracek. The Kladno, Czech Republic native is quick to let you know that he's tipping the scales at about 214 pounds. The thought of him packing on another 10 or 15 pounds of muscle in the next few years has to be a scary proposition for opponents, who might have a Peter Forsberg clone to deal with.
"I had a good summer," Voracek says. "I worked really hard and now I'm taking advantage."
In Brassard's opinion, his buddy is the perfect guy to see on his right side. Voracek brings energy to the whole group with his infectious personality and on the ice, his abilities are clear.
Voracek and Brassard, they seem to have some chemistry. They know where they're playing and they know where they're going. They've done a good job. - Interim Head Coach Claude Noel
For a center, he's the winger you want," says the appreciative Brassard. "A guy that's 6'2", about 220 pounds, he can move, he can pass, he's got good vision, he's solid in his own end on the boards.
"I feel very fortunate."
The two have shown improvement in this latter stage of the season, particularly with Claude Noel at the helm. The head coach likes what they bring to the table. With Umberger providing the presence down low and ability to defend for them, they have blossomed.
"Voracek and Brassard, they seem to have some chemistry," Noel says, noting the optimism in the franchise surrounding the youngsters. "They know where they're playing and they know where they're going. They've done a good job."
As the two evolve further, it will only add to the Jackets' arsenal behind front liners like Nash, Antoine Vermette and Kristian Huselius.
"We're not at our peak," says Brassard. "We're still young and the better years are coming. We had a few months that weren't every easy but I think it's a good learning process for us to not have everything easy."
Hopefully, the same rule will apply for Call of Duty. And Methot will have some challengers to deal with.