On His 8th Team, Erik Gudbranson Finds a Home in Columbus

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Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Erik Gudbranson (44) looks on during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Washington Capitals, Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023, in Washington.
(AP Photo/Terrance Williams)
Rachael Millanta @rachaelmillanta Aug 18, 2023, 11:48 AM
  • Erik Gudbranson signed a four-year contract with the Blue Jackets on Jul. 13, 2022.
  • Columbus is his eighth team in less than 12 years.

Trades are an essential part of all professional sports, but for players, a phone call telling you your whole life is about to be uprooted usually isn’t one you want to get.

It’s not a call you want to miss, either.

“Both my first and second trades caught me completely off guard,” Erik Gudbranson recently told me in Columbus. “My first one, Florida to Vancouver, I was in Africa. I missed the call. I was on a safari with no service for two days, and I got to a new hotel, and my phone exploded.

“I’d got traded two days earlier, so I called my wife (my girlfriend at the time, my wife now). I was like, ‘Hey babe, I got traded,’ and she was like, ‘Yeah, I’ve known this for two days, buddy. You’ve been lost.’”

Gudbranson is only too familiar with the uncertainty of life in the NHL. When he signed a four-year contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets last July, the team became the defenseman’s eighth in less than 12 years. Five of those moves were the result of mid-season trades.

Aside from a brief roster freeze over the holidays, NHL teams can make trades and acquisitions at any time during the year, moving players from city to city with little to no notice. If not handled well, trades can be an unpleasant way for a player to be jolted out of their comfort zone. Even when relatively amicable, there’s no option for players but to face the harsh reality:

Hockey is a business. It’s time to start packing.

Erik Gudbranson: Contract & Stats

On Jul. 13, 2022, Gudbranson signed a four-year, $16 million contract with the Blue Jackets. Prior to the 2022-23 season, he played for the Florida Panthers for five years, the Vancouver Canucks for three, and then a total of six teams in three years — the Pittsburgh Penguins, Anaheim Ducks, Ottawa Senators, Nashville Predators, Calgary Flames, and now the Blue Jackets.

This new contract is the longest of the 31-year-old’s career, and this semblance of job security couldn’t have come at a better time. Gudbranson’s wife was pregnant with their second child at the time of signing, so with a toddler and another one on the way, the couple made a big call — they bought their first house.

“I’m really trusting that four-year deal and that they don’t plan on moving me in the middle of it,” Gudbranson smiled.

As one of the few veterans on a rookie-heavy team, Gudbranson’s physical style of play and developed defensive skills have quickly been appreciated. He’s posted 101 hits and 110 blocked shots this season (as of Feb. 19), and while he’s not known for his offense, he’s still managed to rack up 10 points and 76 shots through 55 games.

“I’ve played lots of places, but I mean, in terms of what we have here [in Columbus]? It’s the best possible setup I could have at this stage in my life.”

How To Move Cities With No Notice

Trades, waivers, and general job insecurity all go with the territory of a career in professional sports, but knowing that rarely makes the reality any easier to adjust to.

“It’s part of the business,” Gudbranson said. “You have to be mobile, and you have to be adaptable. It kind of is what it is, even when it’s hard.”

As soon as players are told of a trade, they immediately pack as much as possible and board a plane. Often, they’re expected to start with their new team the very next day (or even that night), so all relocation organization is done from a hotel room between games and practices.

“For [players], it’s really easy because we just jump on a plane, bring a bag for what we need for two weeks, and go play hockey, just like we did the day before,” Gudbranson said. “It’s the significant others and the families that have to deal with what’s behind.”

As well as an undoubted appreciation for their loved ones, there’s also a certain emotional impact that comes with being traded. Players obviously know that teams are in it to win, but after months or even years of being told you’re part of a family in the locker room, there’s no easy way to find out you’ve been traded away.

For players going into the final year of their contract, a trade is often more predictable. On a team essentially out of contention, it may be even more predictable still, at least for top players. Regardless, learning your perceived value in exact monetary terms is something some players deal with better than others.

“It gives you a better understanding of what the overarching organization is, and that’s not a bad thing at all,” Gudbranson told me. “I got to understand the value of relationships I have with people, whether it be three months or five years. 

“You certainly get an understanding that this is a very small league, and it’s very much word of mouth. If a phone call is ever made on your behalf, asking someone about you, you want that phone call to go well, even though you don’t know about it.”

Columbus Blue Jackets: Record

Through 56 games in 2022-23, the Blue Jackets are eighth in the Metropolitan Division with a record of 18-34-4. While no one expected Columbus to be in Stanley Cup contention this season, the year has still been underwhelming. Plagued with injury issues across the roster, an abundance of young players have been called up earlier than expected.

“We’ve got a lot of young guys in their first or second year, and I think for us older guys, we just want to be that good example,” captain Boone Jenner told me. “We want to lead the way of what it’s like to be in this league and have an impact on the day-to-day.

“The season can be a grind sometimes, so it’s about teaching them on and off the ice. They’re full of life and enjoying it, and they’re doing a great job.”

While the team’s record may not reflect it yet, the Blue Jackets have grown a lot this season. Rookies Kirill Marchenko, Kent Johnson, and Tim Berni have solidified their places on the roster, and recent wins against the Toronto Maple Leafs (fourth in the league) and Winnipeg Jets (ninth in the league) show that the future is bright for Columbus.

Veterans like Gudbranson have been a crucial part of that success, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“[Gudbranson] helped me a lot, especially my first ten games when I got into the league,” rookie defenseman Berni said. “He has a lot of experience, and he’s definitely a leader on and off the ice.

“It’s big for young guys to be able to look up to those guys who’ve already played for ten-plus years in the NHL. We kind of follow them around, see what they do on a day-to-day basis, and learn how to be a pro.”

After playing for a quarter of all the teams in the league, it seems Gudbranson has finally found a home in Columbus. His years of experience and adaptability have allowed him to slot in as a role model on an inexperienced blue line brimming with potential, and when speaking to him, you can tell it’s something he takes pride in. 

The fact that he gets to do it all alongside his former Flames teammate Johnny Gaudreau, is just further proof that sometimes, things just have a way of working themselves out.

“Through all the ups and downs, injuries, trades, tough times — we’re so fortunate,” Gudbranson said. “I get to come play a game every single day. Whether you’re getting traded or you’re hurt, it’s the best job in the world, and we’re all so fortunate to do what we do.”

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About the Author

Rachael Millanta

Read More @rachaelmillanta

Rachael Millanta is a Web Content Writer for BetMGM focusing on Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League. Her work has been published in SB Nation, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Slackjaw Humor. Originally from Sydney, Australia, Rachael now resides in Chicago, Illinois.

Rachael Millanta is a Web Content Writer for BetMGM focusing on Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League. Her work has been published in SB Nation, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Slackjaw Humor. Originally from Sydney, Australia, Rachael now resides in Chicago, Illinois.