From almost the middle of the season, the signs were out there that the relationship between the Blue Jackets and Vinny Prospal might not be as rosy as fans thought. After Prospal came in and helped kick a great deal of respectability and competitive fire into the club, we were overjoyed to see him choose to stay in Columbus at the 2011-2012 trade deadline, and the news that Prospal and then-GM Scott Howson had a "handshake" deal that the winger would play a season or two more before joining the club's front office in some capacity seemed like a beaming ray of hope after the negativity around Rick Nash, Jeff Carter, and the cratering on-ice product.
There, we said, you see? Someone understands us. He knows we're a great town. He likes it here.
Leading the team in scoring for the past two seasons despite the fact he's much closer to 40 than 30, it's been a treat to see him hit career milestones in Columbus, and continue to play with a boundless enthusiasm and joy for the game.
We loved the way he demanded accountability from all his teammates on the ice, in practice, at workouts. He clearly stepped up to become a leader in the room, and it's not surprising that a lot of fans hoped he'd be named a "transition" captain for a year or two while the post-Nash locker room found their way.
Oh, and it doesn't hurt that he gave the team a nice injection of swagger when they needed it.
But things were clearly changing after Jarmo Kekalainen came to town. When he and new team president John Davidson were asked about the "handshake" agreement in interviews or season ticket holder events, they usually said it would be a discussion for the offseason, or gently deflected the discussion to another subject - most often the team's impressive growth of young players, which was a message in and of itself.
When the team said they wanted to wait for free agency to discuss re-upping Prospal's contract, it was concerning, but made some sense. With the club on the hunt for scoring help, and trades being a real possibility at the draft, you had to see what shook out before addressing the rest of the market.
But in Prospal's eyes, it must have hurt to be relegated to "a player on the market", and not "a member of our team." Not long after that, Prospal, who had commented how much his family loved Columbus, made the decision to return to the Czech Republic, taking the family with him.
It doesn't seem like that was a co-incidence. The first public fractures had appeared, and they were deep, indeed.
If you've read the tweets from Aaron Portzline, or the recent commentary from Michael Arace, you see the writing clearly on the wall. Prospal, it seems, is almost certainly not going to return. The team's forward depth, enhanced with the addition of Nathan Horton, puts his spot up for grabs - particularly with the growth of Boone Jenner, who seems to be the main challenger to break through to the NHL this coming season.
It is still possible that the team could offer Prospal something if he's still on the market in August.
It's possible that Prospal could decide to make that transition to the front office, if he doesn't get offers to play for any other NHL clubs.
But more than likely, the relationship is over, and the fans are left in their wake, conflicted and heartbroken.
Vinny and the Jackets are getting a divorce.
So how do we deal with that?
When a family breaks up, the kids always get hit the hardest. You want to stay involved with both parents. You need to understand that you are still loved, and you want to enjoy the time spent with each side of the family without feeling guilty or conflicted.
For parents, it's often difficult to balance what you feel inside and what you express in front of others, and I suspect we're going to see slip ups on both sides.
For fans in Columbus, staying involved with the Jackets is easy - even during this offseason we're going to be seeing a lot of events in town to keep the 'buzz' from last season going, and I'd expect a big PR blitz when the Eastern Conference schedule is finally announced.
Many fans spent time at Development Camp this week, and the team has done a fantastic job of integrating a "virtual" camp for fans who cannot take time away from jobs, or need to follow the team on social media from out of state.
Spending time with Vinny, on the other hand, may be trickier. If he signs with another NHL club, of course, you could follow him there - and I suspect many fans will do just that, rooting for his success even if they aren't as fond of the jersey he's wearing. The Jackets fanbase picked up more than a few people doing the same for Dubi, Bob, and AA. I'm sure other fanbases will be happy to include us as we keep tabs on him.
On the other hand, if he should sign with a team abroad (the KHL is a possibility, but more likely he'd rejoin his home town club, HC Ceske Budejovice, in the Czech league), you can still follow his stats and perhaps find some game reports or youtube videos, but it's not quite the same as watching him in action.
Should he retire, painful as it may be to think about, the best option would be to wish him well. I think most fans would hope he'll spend a little more time on ice with us, but he's certainly earned a chance to kick back and enjoy time with his family.
There's also no doubt that both sides still love the fans. John Davidson's recent spirited defense of the city spoke volumes, and the way the team sold Nathan Horton on the team by giving him a chance to experience the city shows they value the community for much more than just season ticket sales.
Meanwhile, Prospal has made a point of reaching out to fans as he prepared to leave town, telling them how excited he is about the team, and how much he loves the city. To his credit, as frustrated as he must be, he seems to know that a lot of this is business, not personal, and how fans hope to see him back.
Where it gets tricky, then, is that rule about not getting negative about the other side in front of the kids. If and when the breakup becomes official, you're probably going to hear a lot about cap space, contracts, and room on the roster. We're already seeing some of that in the quotes used by Portzline and Arace, and even though Jarmo and JD are making sure to couch their remarks with praises of Prospal's work ethic, talent, and drive, it's still telling the fans that there's no longer room for a player who quickly endeared himself to them. It's important they be honest, but respectful at the same time.
On Vinny's side, he's done the best thing he can: Stayed quiet. At this point it seems like he doesn't want to burn bridges with the team or the fans, and certainly doesn't want to say anything that could put getting another NHL offer at risk.
That said, it's odd, in some ways, that we haven't heard about clubs like New Jersey, Boston, or even Florida looking into Prospal's services. If there's a market for Jaromir Jagr, there should be a market for Vinny, who has continued to be a consistent scoring threat. It might even be a bit of a relief to find out that he's "dating" again, because it means he's not going to hold onto the relationship to the point that it becomes toxic.
Adjusting To A New Family
The next step will be tricky for fans - when guys like Horton take the ice, or if Prospal's spot is taken by Jenner or perhaps Blake Comeau, there will be a temptation to root against them a bit, particularly if they struggle.
"Should have been Vinny."
"Vinny would have had that pass."
"Vinny would have scored there."
Like telling a step-parent that they aren't your real Mom or Dad, it's anger and anxiety at the situation being painted onto a convenient target. We have to be honest: It's not their fault, it wasn't a decision they had any control over, and they're going to be trying as hard as they can to show us that they love us, too, and want us to be happy.
They're not trying to replace what Prospal brought to the room in terms of personality or character - and I'd even say that aside from the rough concept of goals / assists, they aren't trying to replace him on the ice, either. They're different players, who will have different styles and different contributions. The main similarity is that they're here to help the Columbus Blue Jackets win, and that they want to be accepted by the fans for who they are and what they can do.
Meanwhile, if Vinny does play for another club, it's important to remember that he likely holds a lot of good memories of Columbus as a city and our community of fans, and that it's no reflection on us. Unless you can personally offer him a few million dollars to play for your CAHL team, we aren't in a position to keep him playing professional hockey in Columbus. He'll be looking for the chance to keep doing that, and we have to understand and appreciate that.
No matter what, remember that you're not going through this alone. There are fans all around Columbus who can support you and offer a laugh, a beer, or a shoulder to cry on. You have to keep an eye on the bigger picture, remember that there's a bright future out there, and when all else fails, never hesitate to lean on your friends.