Ryan Dzingel’s hard road back to Columbus in search of a Stanley Cup

Charlie Coyle tapped in the overtime winner, his second of the game, to get the Bruins a 3-2 win over the Blue Jackets in Game 1 of the second round.

Ryan Dzingel has always been familiar with the two sides of support. Sometimes it comes in the form of back-patting that gently reinforces an “It’s all going to work out” message. Other moments call for straight talk, something Dzingel has always received from his father, and got another dose of on the eve of training camp with the Ottawa Senators a few years ago.

Dzingel, a seventh-round pick who’d defied the odds simply by playing the 30 games he appeared in during the 2015-16 campaign, was invited to live with fellow American Bobby Ryan before camp kicked off the following fall. Well in advance of any pucks being dropped, Dzingel wanted his temporary housemate’s two cents on an important issue.

“I kinda asked him, ‘What are my chances of making the team?’” Dzingel recalls. “He said, ‘Zero kid.’”

Luckily, Dzingel isn’t easily deterred. And, of course, there was another component to that verbal note from Ryan — one of the guys Dzingel credits with helping him become a full-time NHLer — that underscored the fact another chance would come soon if he just buried his head and got to work.

That’s what Dzingel is doing now, as the rare member of the Columbus Blue Jackets who has first-hand knowledge of what it takes to go on a long playoff run. The 27-year-old winger has played up and down the Jackets lineup since arriving in a trade deadline deal with Ottawa two months ago. After establishing his scoring abilities the past couple of seasons with 23- and 26-goal showings, Dzingel is content being more of a complementary cast member in Columbus.

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As an unrestricted free agent this summer, he can worry about choosing a destination where he’s allowed to shine. Until then, his sole concern is victories. “Points don’t matter, stats don’t matter, [only] winning matters,” Dzingel says. “That’s all we’ve been focusing on.”

When Dzingel was dealt to Columbus, much emphasis was placed on how quickly he’d adapt given his history of playing for the Ohio State Buckeyes in the city. That wasn’t really the case. While there was some air of familiarity, it wasn’t like he just slipped back into an old life that was there waiting for him.

Most of his college friends had moved on since 2014, many of them chasing their own pro sports dreams. Besides Matt Duchene — who was acquired from Ottawa by Columbus one day before Dzingel — he didn’t know anyone in the Jackets room. Yeah, he knew his way around town, but not much about being a poor student correlates to his current seven-figure existence.

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“I was in college, didn’t have a dollar to my name; [I was] eating at different restaurants than I am now,” he says with a chuckle. “It wasn’t really like coming home. It was still coming to a new team. Everyone [said] I’ll feel at home and relaxed, but that really wasn’t the case.”

A little discomfort is nothing new when you’re a seventh-round pick who’s had to prove himself at every level. Chosen 204th overall by the Senators in 2011, Dzingel’s goal and point totals rose appreciably every season during his three-year stay at Ohio State. That earned him a contract from the Senators in the spring of 2014, but nothing more in the way of a golden path to his dreams.

“It’s hard because the NHL [has] the most amazing players in the world and you want to get there as fast as you can, but sometimes you’re not ready and you don’t see it,” he says. “I was an All-American in college and I saw some of the other All-Americans going straight to the NHL and I went down to the AHL. You always doubt things, you always wonder.”

In the down moments, Dzingel leaned hard on his inner circle. Despite the fact they were all competing for the same big-league spots, he really bonded with Shane Prince and Buddy Robinson while the three were with the AHL’s Binghamton Senators. Robinson was a level-headed guy who was easy to hang out with, Prince was the chatterbox who always lightened the mood.

Then there were the phone calls to his best friends from college, guys he became so close to during that formative period of life. Brad Goldberg, a pitcher who had a cup of coffee with the Chicago White Sox in 2017, could share his stories about trying to make it in baseball’s minor leagues. Sam Jardine and Anthony Greco were also former Buckeyes trying to crack the NHL. (Jardine just played half the season on defence with the Toronto Marlies, while Greco’s one and only NHL game came last December with the Florida Panthers.)

“A lot of complaining to them at times when you feel you’re getting cheated or you’re not playing well,” says Dzingel. “It’s nice to know people who know the grind, who know what you’re going through and I’ll be forever thankful to the guys and the friendships I made at Ohio State.”

The constant through it all has been Dzingel’s dad, Rick. Once upon a time, the senior Dzingel was an aspiring ball player who earned a tryout with the St. Louis Cardinals. Eventually he became a salesman who raised a family in Chicago, one who always had the same message for his middle child when Ryan would call home aggrieved about the way things were going.

“‘Would you rather come home and sell glass [with me]?’” Dzingel recalls hearing on the other end of the line. “There was a lot of times he was really, really hard on me. But he tried to make it in the minors of baseball and he never made it, he knows all the regrets he has and I think he wanted it really bad for me. For sure he’s the reason I’m here today.”

If there’s one difficult thing Dzingel can still lament from time to time, it’s the missed opportunity he and the Senators experienced in the spring in 2017. That was the end of the year that began with Bobby Ryan tamping down expectations coming into training camp. Part of that was because the Senators already had about a dozen forwards on one-way contracts, making Dzingel — who was on a two-way deal — much easier to send down than another bubble guy. But when Clarke MacArthur’s concussion troubles forced him to the sideline, the door opened a crack and Dzingel wound up earning coach Guy Boucher’s trust and netted 14 goals in 81 contests.

In the playoffs, Dzingel beat Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray to tie Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final 2-2 with 5:19 remaining in the third period. Then, 5:09 into the second overtime, Chris Kunitz sent Pittsburgh to the final, where they beat a depleted Nashville Predators team playing without — among others — No. 1 centre Ryan Johansen. Unfathomable as it seems 22 months later, had Ottawa — the very definition of dysfunction the past two seasons — snuck by the Penguins, the championship was really there for the taking.

“It’s one goal away from maybe winning a Stanley Cup because the team on the other side was [so] banged up,” Dzingel says. “I think we had a pretty darn good shot at winning the Cup if one goal snuck in. It’s crazy because it happened so quick, you get to the summer and you don’t even think about it, you don’t realize how close you were.

“As the years pass, it kind of shocks you. I know people say that, but it’s sad, you see how close you came and you never know how close you’ll get again. It doesn’t matter how good your lineup is, it’s hard to win the Stanley Cup.”

Make no mistake, that’s the goal now for Columbus in a wide-open draw. Dzingel and his teammates are going to great lengths to make sure a city that’s ecstatic about the franchise’s first-ever playoff series win understands the real goal only comes at the end of a long post-season journey.

“If we don’t win any other series and we look back in a year, it won’t be anything to be happy about,” Dzingel says.

Another tough-but-true sentiment.

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