Blue Jackets captain Boone Jenner — ‘a coach’s dream’ — reaches a fitting franchise mark

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — There have been winning seasons and losing seasons, memorable highlights and unbearable lows. Boone Jenner’s career with the Columbus Blue Jackets is in its 11th season — almost half of the franchise’s existence — and it has run the gamut of emotions and experiences.

On Saturday in Washington, Jenner, 30, will play his 675th game in a Blue Jackets sweater, the most in franchise history, surpassing one of Rick Nash’s many records. Jenner may never touch Nash’s numbers for goals or points, but this mark is the one that perfectly encapsulates Jenner’s career to this point.

For all that has come and gone around here — Jenner has played for four head coaches, watched star players arrive and leave, enjoyed a 16-game winning streak (2016-17) and the organization’s only playoff series win (2019), and suffered through miserable seasons, none worse than the past two — Jenner has remained an unflappable competitor.

Work ethic is a base requirement for any NHL player, but Jenner’s sustained level is almost legendary, likely starting with his childhood on the family’s farm in Dorchester, Ontario. While players with immense skill and outrageous offensive production are held in the highest regard, Jenner is revered in Columbus and beyond because of his competitive spirit.

He’s also well-known for being uncomfortable talking about himself. That’s why The Athletic reached out to Jenner’s former coaches — both at the NHL and junior levels — as well as his former and current general manager, and two former Blue Jackets teammates.

Jenner arrived in the NHL in 2013-14, skating on a line with center Brandon Dubinsky and right winger Marian Gaborik on Oct. 4, 2013.

In his time with Columbus, the Blue Jackets are 333-268-73. He is third on the franchise list for goals (177), eighth in assists (161) and third in points (338). He’s won more faceoffs than any other Columbus player. The number? 3,838.

Here’s what those around Jenner had to say:

D.J. Smith

Smith was a first-year coach with the Ontario Hockey League’s Oshawa Generals in 2012-13, and Jenner was his captain.

“Boone made it easy for me my first year,” Smith, now coach of the Ottawa Senators, said. “When your captain is the hardest-working player, and a player who plays with aggression and heaviness, it makes it easier to get your message across. For me, it was a perfect fit.

“He never took a night off. Never took a shift off. He scored (45) goals that year. He had a heck of a year. But his effort night in and night out was second to none.”

This is a common theme when coaches talk about Jenner. What Smith noticed, however, was that Jenner didn’t just get up for games. He practiced as he played, which helped elevate the group.

“You almost have to follow when your captain plays that hard,” Smith said. “I thought he’d be a good pro. He’s too good, too heavy. He doesn’t waste opportunities. He gets to the net. He can check. He’s a farm boy that outworked the other kids on his way to the NHL.”

Smith said he and Jenner have stayed in touch, mostly when the Blue Jackets play Ottawa two or three times per season. The length of their postgame interactions depends on how their respective teams are playing, an offshoot of their competitive sides.

“When one team is going good and one team is going bad, it’s more of a nod,” Smith said with a chuckle. “Not much is said. If both teams are going good, we’ll stop and talk about some of the guys we played and coached back in Oshawa.

“He’s got his team to worry about and I’ve got mine, but I’m always rooting for him when they’re not playing against us.”

Scott Howson

The 2011 NHL Draft arrived at a tumultuous time for the franchise. Howson, the Blue Jackets’ general manager, made a blockbuster trade on the eve of the draft, trading Jakub Voracek and the Blue Jackets’ first-round pick that year to Philadelphia for center Jeff Carter.

Voracek had a great career with the Flyers. The first-round pick turned into Sean Couturier. Carter never wanted to play in Columbus and was gone before he finished his first season.

But the draft was salvaged in the second round when the Blue Jackets landed Jenner with the No. 37 overall pick.

“I was pretty convinced that we were going to move back from No. 37,” Howson said. “I didn’t think Boone would be there. He was the highest guy left on our list, somewhere between 15-20 overall.

“I started talking to teams before the second round started: ‘I’m gonna move this pick, so I wanted you to know.’ If Jenner wasn’t there, we were for sure going to move it.

“As soon as it got to 36, my phone rang off the hook. Probably three or four calls. I had to tell them we were gonna make the pick, but I was as surprised as anybody that he made it to us.”

Howson said Jenner’s scouting report “checked all the boxes — skill, grit, good character.” But there was one big question mark: his skating.

“You just worried he wasn’t going to be able to skate well enough,” Howson said. “There are a lot of guys just like him who can’t get it done because they can’t skate. He had heavy feet.

“But he’s made himself a better skater. That’s an aspect of that character. He was going to make himself a better skater, and he did. He’s also very smart, so that helps. He has great anticipation, so he doesn’t take the long way around. He’s a straight-line player.”

Howson sent Jenner back to Oshawa for the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons. By the time Jenner debuted in Columbus in 2013, Howson had been fired and replaced by Jarmo Kekalainen. He’s now commissioner of the American Hockey League.

Foligno’s first season in Columbus was 2012-13, when the Blue Jackets started 5-12-4 and finished 19-5-3, missing the playoffs by a standings tiebreaker at the end of the season. Jenner arrived the following season as a rookie.

“You could tell he was a guy who would be around for a long time,” Foligno said. “He just did everything all the way, the right way, with no corners cut. Those guys tend to stick around, right? He just got it right away.

“We sat next to each other (in the dressing room) my whole time there. He probably feels so lucky having to sit next to me, but I enjoyed the way he saw things. It usually lined up with the way I saw things, so it was neat to watch him grow up and grow into a man.”

Foligno was named the captain of the Blue Jackets near the end of the 2014-15 season. He would turn the “C’ over to Jenner when he was traded to Toronto at the end of 2020-21.

“I’ve always said that if you do your job right as a leader, there should be guys who go naturally into that role after you,” Foligno said. “Boone was a no-brainer to me that he’d be next. I mean, he’s been a leader ever since he got there.”

Foligno has played with Toronto, Boston and Chicago over the last three seasons, so he’s seen Jenner from an opponent’s perspective now. The Blackhawks play in Nationwide Arena next Wednesday.

“I always appreciate those guys where you know it’s never going to be easy,” Foligno said. “No matter the score, no matter the time of the game, he’s gonna bring it. Those are the guys I love to compete against.”

Foligno has become friends with actor Jared Keeso, who plays Wayne in the Canadian TV comedy “Letterkenny.” The show is filmed near Foligno’s offseason home in Sudbury, Ont.

Asked if Jenner reminded him of Wayne, Foligno roared in laughter.

“Oh, absolutely,” he said. “They’re both farmers, too, so it makes sense.

“I’ve come to know Jared a bit around Sudbury. He and Boone are actually identical people, just salt of the Earth. And when Boone first got here, he talked just like Wayne.”

Todd Richards

Richards was the Blue Jackets’ coach before Jenner arrived in 2013-14, but for two years prior he could sense the anticipation of Jenner’s arrival in Columbus.

“That first practice, every time he touched the puck the crowd went ‘Boooone,’” Richards said. “He came with a little bit of hype.

“I’ve made some wrong calls on guys, like probably every coach, but the second you saw Boone, you just knew he was going to be a real solid player in the NHL. You could sense his character was off the charts, and that’s the biggest underlying talent that determines who makes it.”

Young players typically need steering and nudging, both from veteran teammates and coaches. But Richards said he only had a couple of early conversations with Jenner.

“He was a guy you didn’t worry about,” Richards said. “I would classify him as very, very low maintenance. A coach’s dream.

“He just conducted himself, even as a young player, in a really impressive way. He’s turned into a really good leader and a captain. I’m not really surprised at all.”

Richards wasn’t the least bit surprised when Jenner was named captain of the Blue Jackets in 2021.

“Not at all,” he said. “Even at a young age, we were talking about him as a future leader. We didn’t necessarily want to say captain, but he was a leader. He was always a leader.”

That was obvious to Richards even after he was fired as the Blue Jackets’ coach early in the 2015-16 season. His son, Justin, signed with the Blue Jackets as a free agent before the 2021-22 season.

“Boone really took him under his wing,” said Richards, now an assistant coach in Nashville. “That’s just Boone. It’s just what he does. But it meant a lot to all of us.”

Brad Larsen

Larsen was coaching the Blue Jackets’ top minor-league affiliate, then in Springfield, Mass., when Jenner got his first taste of pro at the end of the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons.

“We lost (to Syracuse) in the second round of the playoffs, and by the end of that series, he was the best player on the ice,” Larsen said. “He just got better and better, even as the games got harder and the stakes got higher. He didn’t flinch.

“I remember saying to Jared Bednar (now coach in Colorado) and Nolan Pratt, ‘We will never see this kid back here again.’ You could just tell. Everybody questioned his skating, but he was just too determined. He was going to make it and never look back.”

Jenner was told by Larsen at his year-end meeting in Springfield that he needed to get in touch with the Blue Jackets’ training staff to get a jump on the next season.

“And he did just that,” Larsen said. “He may have spent a week or two at home that summer, but he was in Columbus, getting ready. It paid off.”

A few years later, Larsen was named assistant coach of the Blue Jackets, in charge of the club’s forwards. He later ascended to the head coaching job for two seasons before he was fired at the end of 2022-23.

“You could always see that Boone had special qualities,” Larsen said. “Not flash, just the right mindset and determination. He’s worked on his skating and gotten better. He makes a living within three feet of the net. He’s found a formula that most guys don’t ever work hard enough to find.”

Larsen grew up on a farm in rural British Columbia, so he can relate to Jenner’s upbringing on a farm. The work ethic is instilled.

“You can’t fake it on the farm,” Larsen said. “If you have to get the hay in before the rain. There are no other options, you have to do it. Even when you’re sick, the horses have to eat. It doesn’t matter how you feel, there’s work to get done.

“Boone has always had that mentality.”

John Tortorella

It’s not like Tortorella to get all sentimental. But at the end of a long comment about how much he appreciated coaching a player like Jenner, he relented.

“I was fortunate enough to coach (in Columbus) for six years,” he said. “He’s one of the guys I miss most. I do. I miss him.”

Tortorella coached the Blue Jackets to a franchise-record four straight playoff berths (2017-20), including the 2019 season when they pulled off a major upset and swept Tampa Bay in the first round. Jenner was one of the players he leaned on the hardest that postseason.

“The highest compliment I can pay him is this: You’re not going to win in this league or compete for a Stanley Cup if you don’t have a guy like that,” Tortorella said. “He is selfless. He is probably one of the most coachable guys I’ve ever been around.

“If the young players in Columbus don’t stick to him like glue, they’re crazy. On the ice, off the ice, in the locker room. It’s not with words, it’s just … follow him around you’ve got a chance to be a good pro.”

Tortorella watched Jenner play through bumps, bruises, and all manner of maladies to be in the lineup each night. He does not play a gentle game — lots of checking, hits, net-front clashes, etc. — so he never quite feels 100 percent.

“So many of the athletes now in our game, if there’s a little bit of soreness, it’s tough to get them in there to play,” Tortorella said. “Playing sore for Jens was just a regular day. He plays hurt. He plays injured. We had to take him out of the lineup at times.”

Tortorella, now coaching the Philadelphia Flyers, had a front-row seat for six seasons in Columbus. There were challenges with coaching Jenner, he said.

“I used to get caught up during the games watching him,” Tortorella said. “Listen, he’s not a sexy player. He can be ugly as s— along the way. But I’d get caught up in the game, just watching him battle and play. Not fancy moves, just how he goes about his business.

“People ask me all the time for my favorite player I’ve coached, and I never answer that. I can’t give you one player. But, for me, it’s a guy like Jens that always sticks out in my mind, not the top-scorer types. It’s Jens. He’s a leader without saying a single word.”

Jarmo Kekalainen

Kekalainen, the Blue Jackets’ GM since 2013, knows better than anybody how much a player like Jenner is revered and in demand across the NHL. He’s reminded of it before every trade deadline and every summer.

“The reality in this league is that every other team is watching you and your players,” Kekalainen said. “The wishful thinking from many teams is that Boone Jenner would be available (via trade), which he’s not. But that level of interest is a testament to what he does on the ice.

“Every team wants a Boone Jenner. Every team needs a Boone Jenner. That’s why he’s our captain and the best example of leading by example.”

Kekalainen is under pressure like never before in Columbus, with the Blue Jackets off to a dreadful 4-9-4 start, including seven straight losses, heading into tonight’s game vs. the Capitals.

Jenner has not been the problem — he leads the Jackets with seven goals — but the club’s top offensive weapons, Johnny Gaudreau and Patrik Laine, have not produced.

“Boone rarely goes through slumps, and if he does, he snaps right back out of it because he keeps working and working and working,” Kekalainen said. “Good things happen to those who work as hard as he does.”

When Kekalainen laded in Columbus in February of 2013, he faced a crash course on the Blue Jackets’ roster after leaving his job as manager of a club in Finland. Jenner, then finishing his final season of junior, was a focal point, he said.

“He came to Springfield at the end of the season, which was a real eye-opener,” Kekalainen said. “We knew what we might have there, but with the young guys, you have to wait and see if the expectations or the bright lights or playing with and against NHL players was going to overwhelm him.

“He wasn’t overwhelmed by any of it. He never looked back once he got in the NHL lineup. You could tell right away that he was going to be a really good NHL player for a long time.”

Rick Nash

Nash never played with Jenner. He was traded before the 2012-13 season. Jenner came along for the 2013-14 season, when Nash was playing for the New York Rangers. But they knew each other well.

“I knew Boone through our agent, Joe Resnick,” Nash said. “And I think he came to training camp once while I was still there.”

Now, as the Blue Jackets’ director of player development, Nash is charged with fostering the organization’s young players into their pro careers. Part of that, he said, is encouraging them to emulate No. 38.

“He sums up what I believe any NHL organization would want as the captain,” Nash said. “He’s always going to show up … every game, every practice. It’s never a question about his work ethic. He leads by example, and you’d hope that guys would be smart enough to follow him.”

Nash was one of the NHL’s most consistent goal-scorers in his career. There’s a reason his No. 61 is the only retired sweater hanging in Nationwide Arena.

“To have a 10-year career or 15-year career and be as consistent as Boone has been, that’s one of the most difficult things to do,” Nash said. “He’s had a 30-goal season. A couple of 20-goal seasons. And on top of that, you have a player who battles 100 percent of the time. That’s something that’s tough to find.

Nash spent six seasons with the Rangers, so he faced the Blue Jackets (and Jenner) frequently in Metropolitan Division clashes.

“Boone is a respected player in this league, for sure,” Nash said. “You know you’re in for a hard night because he’s not going to stop working. He’s going to finish body checks. He’s hard on pucks. He has a heavy stick. Position-wise, he’s going to be good. In the defensive zone, he’s around the net a lot.

“And he’s not ever going to back down from anyone.”

Pascal Vincent

Vincent was an associate coach in Columbus for two seasons before becoming head coach this season. He has had a tough start to his first NHL head-coaching gig, He’s benched veteran players, scratched young players and juggled the lineup trying to find traction.

But Jenner has required no corrective measures.

“He’s just so consistent in his approach, such a good pro,” Vincent said. “You just don’t worry about him. You know he’s prepared, and even when he has an average game, it’s still going to be a good performance because he’s going to find a way to contribute.

“A big faceoff. A blocked shot. He’s gonna find a way to contribute somehow, and he’s zero maintenance for a coach. Absolutely zero.”

Vincent called Jenner “an amazing captain.”

The Blue Jackets rely on Jenner to score goals, check the other team’s best players, play net-front on the power play and kill penalties. He takes the opening faceoff in three-on-three overtime and is always on the ice late in game’s to protect leads.

The challenge, Vincent acknowledged, is not overplaying him. Jenner, after all, has had two seasons cut short by a back injury.

“We talk about wanting to manage his minutes because you can use him in so many different situations,” Vincent said. “He’s a guy we rely on quite a bit, right?”

Vincent is trying to lift the current club out of its doldrums. He ran a high-energy, feel-good practice on Friday. Maybe Jenner’s milestone, even on the road, will be a rallying cry in the dressing room.

“It’s a great accomplishment,” Vincent said. “More games than any other player with this organization. That’s pretty cool. We’re happy for him.”

Boone Jenner

Jenner said he remembers his NHL debut — Oct. 4, 2013 — like it was yesterday. “It doesn’t seem like that long ago, but here we are.”

The Blue Jackets made the playoffs in his first season, losing a first-round series vs. Pittsburgh in four games. He’s made the playoffs five times in 10 seasons (this is No. 11).

“What sticks out the most so far in my career is the playoffs and what it’s like here in Columbus,” Jenner said. “It creates this hunger to get back to it. We have some new guys here on the team who haven’t experienced it. So that’s the big thing, trying to get back there now.

“But a lot of memories go through your head when you hit a milestone like this.”

He remembers sitting in the Blue Jackets’ dressing room as a rookie, and how coaches put his locker between veterans Nick Foligno and Mark Letestu.

“I just tried to be a sponge,” Jenner said. “They’d been around for a while. They helped me out tremendously.

“They had a bunch of guys on that team who got there a year before and they just missed the playoffs. We made the playoffs the next year and it was so much fun. Brandon Dubinsky, Foligno, Cam Atkinson, Derek MacKenzie, Jared Boll … all those guys helped me out as a young guy.”

Those are some pretty significant players in the Blue Jackets’ record book. And tonight, Jenner passes all of them, playing more games in the sweater than any other player.

“It’s special to me,” he said. “I’ve been able to be a Blue Jacket for this long and play this many games wearing that Blue Jackets jersey. It’s pretty special to me.

“The biggest part is, you think of all the other people when you hit a milestone like this. Past teammates, coaches, training staff. You think about all those people and the memories.”

(Photo of Boone Jenner: Jason Mowry / Getty Images)

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