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Dear Jakub Voracek

An open letter to my favorite player

Los Angeles Kings v Columbus Blue Jackets Photo by Ben Jackson/NHLI via Getty Images

Hey, Jake.

I would say I hope this letter finds you in good health, but unfortunately, we both know that’s not the case. Concussions suck. They were my greatest fear playing hockey growing up, and they continue to be my biggest fear as I play beer league. I’m lucky enough to have escaped them through my career, if you can call it that. You aren’t. And that’s why I’m writing this.

I was debating saying I’m your biggest fan, but that comes with some connotations that 1) I’m not comfortable with, and 2) I don’t find applicable here. But you are my favorite player. You have been since I can remember.

My early memories as a Blue Jackets fan are fuzzy at best. I must’ve been following the team somewhat when we drafted you 7th overall in 2007. There’s a story of me finally being able to see “the white team” once I got my half-prescription glasses in kindergarten, and my excitement at being able to actually see the puck at my next game, with my full-strength pair. That was in the 2007-08 season. And by the time you made your debut in October 2008, I certainly was, because that was the beginning of our first playoff season. And I remember going to Game 4, the two furious comebacks in the second period, and the heartbreak of Johan Franzen’s series-clinching goal with 47 seconds remaining.

Columbus Blue Jackets v Detroit Red Wings - Game One Photo By Dave Sandford/Getty Images

And while RJ Umberger was the hero of that series, something drew me to you. Maybe young Matt thought that your number 93 was weird, or your beard was fun. Or he was excited to finally have a player that could play with Rick Nash. Knowing me, I probably just thought Jakub Voracek was a sufficiently weird yet charming name. Either way, I latched onto you. I wore your number for the first three years of playing on youth teams. I got extra pumped when you scored, excitedly informing my mom “Jake got a goal!” or “Jake got an assist!” as she was trying to convince me to go to bed. It was great.

I know there’s a kinda weird dynamic that goes on between us fans and you players. We don’t hesitate at all to elevate y’all to practically god status, or if you play poorly, drag y’all through the mud. I mean, look at what happened to Elvis Merzlikins earlier this season. I think a major fuel of that dynamic is the fact we know so much more about you that you do about us. I can look you up on Wikipedia and find out you wanted to be a dumpster truck driver as a kid. You have no way to do that for us. I have to tell you I wanted to be train driver. And even if you could, there’s too many of us for you to keep track of. At any given time, there are 23 Columbus Blue Jackets. There are hundreds of thousands of fans. But beyond that, we get 82 chances a year to learn about you, see how you carry yourself in warmups, see how you play, see how you interact with the media after the game. And while I obviously wasn’t attuned to that as a kid, it did effect me. You effected me. In the weird, para-social way sports works, I loved you. At the very least, I loved watching you play.

And that’s why the only time I’ve ever cried about sports was on June 23, 2011, when I learned you were traded to the Philadelphia Flyers.

Los Angeles Kings v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

It sucked. That trade sucked. You brought a fun personality and excited youth to our team. Jeff Carter was an old curmudgeon who didn’t want to be here and singlehandedly gave us an inferiority complex that didn’t heal until this off-season. It was a bad, dark time that I don’t particularly want to revisit. At least for us Jacekts fans.

We watched you grow, as you put up 62, 81, 85 point seasons with the Flyers. You created your own identity; a fast-thinking, elite passer who was also able to scare goalies with his shot. You grew into your role as Claude Giroux’s setup man. You grew into a leader on the ice while keeping your amazing demeanor that made you a locker room favorite. Hell, you received a write-in vote to become president of the United States. All that as we wondered why Scott Howson thought giving you away was a good idea, not to mention the picks that turned into Sean Couturier and Nick Cousins.

2012 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic - New York Rangers v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images

Back in Columbus, our Blue Jackets grew, too. We made the playoffs again in 2014, and even won a few games. Around a new core of Cam Atkinson, Sergei Bobrovsky, and Zach Werenski, we won consistently. 16 games in a row consistent. We made the playoffs four years in a row from 2017 through 2020, shocked the world in 2019 with The Sweep, and knocked Toronto out of a tournament held in their own building a year later. We became the 5th Line. Nationwide Arena was a barn to be feared. While OSU football is unsurmountable as the top ticket in town, we firmly established ourselves at #2.

Finally, I literally grew up. After bouncing between using RJ Umberger’s 18, James Wisnewski’s 21, and Fedor Tyutin’s 51 as my new jersey number, I grew out of using a player as my jersey number, and made my own trail. I made 52 my own, and became a modest, defensive defenseman who likely won’t score all season but will play smart and make the right first pass to get it out of the zone. Off the ice, I grew as a person. Friends came and went. I became obsessed with graphic design, and started collecting jerseys. I learned about apologetics, the reasoning behind my faith, and learned to lean on it when I lost my mom. I moved out of my dad’s house, then was his best man when he remarried. And while I no longer wanted to be an engineer, I took up photographing trains as a hobby, and kept my models running.

2015 Honda NHL All-Star Game Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

I think a smaller part, but probably more applicable in this context, of that growth included the 2015 All Star Game, which was incredible not only for the experience, but because I could, for the first time in four years, unashamedly root for you. I cheered for all three of your goals as loudly as for any of Team Foligno’s, and was overjoyed when I realized you tied Mario Lemieux’s record for most points in an All Star Game. I think the idea of cheering for non-Blue Jackets clicked for me then. I began to try to convince my dad to get tickets for every trip the Flyers made to NWA. I picked up Philadelphia as my second team, despite us being in the same division. I watched Flyers games when you played on nights we didn’t. I even got a Flyers jersey with your name and number on the back. You once again became my favorite player, you were just not on my favorite team. And that was okay. I was at peace with that. I kept slim hope you’d sign with us when you became a UFA in 2024, but didn’t expect it.

And then, on July 24, 2021, you were traded again. I didn’t cry this time.

Jake, these last 16 months have been a blast. Despite going 45-51-9 during your second stint here, I enjoyed your return as much as I could. Now that I could actually, vividly remember individual games and moments, I savored it. While you became a pass-first player more than any other time in your career, my favorite memory is your goal against Boston. Remember? It was the night Rick Nash’s 61 was sent to the rafters, and we surrendered two goals in the third to give the Bruins the lead. You scored with two seconds to go to tie it. The only Blue Jacket remaining who played with Nasher. I was there, in Section 116. I’ve only heard that building pop that loudly once, and that was for an overtime playoff win. I was looking forward to the next season and a half, and hopefully more if you resigned.

Which brings us to today. Or more specifically, Monday. The fact that a concussed player, with a history of concussions, who hasn’t played in a month, is having a press conference. That is almost never a good thing. I and many other Jackets fans thought you were announcing your retirement. And it’s understandable. You’ve played over 1000 NHL games, earned over 800 points, scored over 200 goals. As you said in that press conference, if this is what a high stick can do, what could a bad hit into the boards do? It’s terrifying.

But, despite our differences — despite the fact you’re a multi-millionaire, star NHLer from the Czech Republic, and I’m a 20-year-old from Westerville whose greatest accomplishment is getting third in the state in a graphic design competition — there is one core thing we have in common. Jake, we both love this game. This stupid sport played on ice with knife-shoes and too many offside reviews. Hockey. It’s why you didn’t announce your retirement Monday, but instead your commitment to return, if at all possible. Your passion for it is one of the main reasons I was drawn to you as a fan. And you are one of the main reasons I now have a passion for hockey.

2022 NHL Global Series - Finland - Columbus Blue Jackets v Colorado Avalanche Photo by André Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images

Another similarity is coming, Jake. After my mom died, I decided to step away from playing competitive hockey to focus on other aspects of my life. Faith. School. Becoming a functioning adult. This same decision is facing you now. Will you step away from playing competitive hockey to focus on your health? Your family. Your future.

I really hope you make a comeback. I hope you win that Cup that you and I both know you desperately want. And I hope you do it here, in Columbus. But it’s your decision. I’m not going to give you advice. But I will say, I found my way back to this game, both through writing for this blog and playing in a beer league. I have no doubts you’ll find your way back to this game as well.

Jake, I pray that this isn’t the end. But if it is, thank you for everything you’ve given us.

Sincerely yours,
Matt Burke