Zach Werenski's weird week

Chris Gaitten
Blue Jackets defenseman Zach Werenski donned a full protective face mask after suffering an injury in Game 3 of the team's first-round playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Could someone stop the rollercoaster? Zach Werenski would like to get off now.

Last Thursday afternoon, the NHL announced that the Blue Jackets’ star defenseman had been named a finalist for the Calder Trophy, the annual award given to the league’s best rookie, along with the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine of the Edmonton Oilers. It’s an enormous honor, but it was just one peak in a five-day stretch that also saw plenty of valleys, including an inopportune get-together with the business end of Phil Kessel’s wrist shot.

Things had been going pretty well for the young Jacket with seven minutes to go in the second period of the Easter Sunday game against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Down two games to none in their first-round playoff series, the Jackets were hanging onto a 3-2 lead and Werenski had contributed the crucial third goal, a blast that hit the back of the net so hard it burrowed itself in the upper mesh and momentarily disappeared. Everything was finally breaking toward the Jackets.

Unfortunately for Werenski, the next thing to break was his face, after a wicked shot from the Penguin’s Kessel caromed off Werenski’s stick, flew under his visor and smashed into his right cheek. The Jackets’ defenseman lay prone on the ice, stunned and bleeding, while play continued. He eventually gathered himself and skated toward the bench as the Penguins evened the score at 3.

After getting stitched up in the locker room, Werenski returned to the rink for the third period, eye blackened and face puffy under a full protective mask. It was prototypical hockey toughness, an annual playoff tradition, but it immediately endeared him to fans in Nationwide Arena.

Despite his effort, the Jackets lost 5-4 in overtime, going down 3-0 in the series. The news got worse Monday, as Werenski was ruled out for the remainder of the playoffs. His broken-open face was fully broken—facial fractures, the team reported.

By Monday, though, Werenski’s toughness was taking on mythic proportions after he tweeted out a photo of his battered mug accompanied by his simple assessment: “Playoff hockey…” The photo of his purple eye nearly swollen shut, with cotton gauze sticking out of his nostril, was retweeted more than 33,000 times and liked nearly 84,000 times. By the start of the Jackets do-or-die game against the Penguins on Tuesday night, at least two fans arrived at the arena with customized T-shirts honoring the young star. The first featured a blown-up version of his Twitter photo; the second showed a picture of his face surrounded by the phrase “balls as big as the building,” a colorful description of him offered by coach John Tortorella after the Game 3 loss. As Werenski watched, the Jackets escaped Game 4 with a 5-4 victory to stave off elimination.

Mike Dennis of Columbus wears a T-shirt inspired by Zach Werenski's gruesome injury and coach John Tortorella's bawdy quote. Photo by Kyle Robertson/Dispatch

Everything appeared hopeful again by the time of the Calder announcement Thursday afternoon, but the week took a final downward turn that evening as the Jackets lost Game 5 and were eliminated from the playoffs, ending their season shortly after his.

Werenski’s status as a Calder finalist—the trophy will be awarded to the winner during the NHL expansion draft in Las Vegas on June 21—was likely little consolation for the season’s disappointing conclusion (or for the trauma to the right side of his skull), but it’s an impressive accolade for a 19-year-old who had been playing hockey in the NCAA tournament a little over a year ago.

In an interview in March for a forthcoming Columbus Monthly feature, Werenski discussed making the transition from college hockey, where he played 36 games in his final season for Michigan, to the rigors of the 82-game NHL regular season, not counting playoffs. He tried to prepare himself, he said, but he didn’t feel settled until the bye week in late February. “It’s hard on the body. You get in late nights to different cities and you play early games the next day, so it’s been definitely an adjustment. It’s probably been the hardest thing this year for me.”

Perhaps it was the second hardest in retrospect, though his grit in the aftermath of the frozen puck to the face has earned him a spot in fans’ hearts that will endure long after the pain fades.