Blue Jackets defenseman James Wisniewski went on the clock on Sept. 23, 2011, at the end of an exhibition game against the Minnesota Wild.
That night, Wild forward Cal Clutterbuck, a noted agitator, diver and turtler, skated directly at Wisniewski after the final horn. Clutterbuck had his head up. Wisniewski raised his elbow to protect himself, caught Clutterbuck in the helmet and Clutterbuck went down as if he had been hit by a meteorite.
Enter Brendan Shanahan, the NHL’s chief of supplementary discipline. The league wanted to crack down on blows to the head and made Wisniewski an example. The league suspended him for the remainder of the exhibition season and for eight regular-season games, and he had to forfeit $536,585.36 in salary. It was one of the biggest fines in the history of professional sports.
Shanahan said Clutterbuck was “defenseless,” which was a joke.
Wisniewski had been suspended previously, so he had to remain clean for 18 months to clear his status as a “repeat offender.” He had to take the edge off his game until his probation reached term.
The slate is clean now, Wisniewski is off the clock, and last night he gave a glimpse of what his game is like when it is unfettered. He had a Gordie Howe hat trick — a goal, an assist and a fight — as the Blue Jackets defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-4 in overtime in Nationwide Arena.
“That’s the real Wiz,” Jackets forward Cody Bass said. “That’s who he is.”
With 3 minutes, 46 seconds left in regulation and the score tied 4-4, Wisniewski had at it with Penguins forward Joe Vitale. It can be argued that it is not the smartest thing for an important veteran and assistant captain to be fighting in the first exhibition of training camp. The Jackets see it another way.
“You gotta do what you gotta do,” team president John Davidson said. “And if you’ve got to fight, you might as well win. And did you see the way the team reacted?”
The fight was Floyd Mayweather-Canelo Alvarez, and Wisniewski was Mayweather.
“I loved it,” coach Todd Richards said. “When I think of James Wisniewski, I think of what has made him the player he is. It’s the edge, and playing on that edge with intensity. He showed me a lot tonight.”
Wisniewski was a ballyhooed free-agent signing two summers ago. He was an offensive defenseman who could hit — and scrap, if need be. The Clutterbuck affair contributed to the early death of the Jackets’ 2011-12 season, and it weighed on his conscience.
“I missed the first eight games and we started 0-7-1,” Wisniewski said. “Basically, it knocked us out of the playoffs before the season got going. It did not feel good.
“It was sad — no, not sad — but disappointing. The Columbus Blue Jackets and Mr. (John P.) McConnell (the owner) made a big investment in me because I play a certain style of game. I have a lot of pride in the way I play, and if I’m not bringing all aspects, I’m not the same player.”
Wisniewski is not regarded as a dirty player, but he is what you might call “greasy.” He is also known for playing an unfiltered game — more reactionary than cerebral. When he was on the clock, he was forced to think about every move. That is not him.
“Nathan Horton, when he got here, said he always knew when I was on the ice — because I would hit you,” Wisniewski said. “Unfortunately, sometimes the hit was to the head. I’m not trying to do that. I don’t want to do that. I apologize for that.”
He added, “Just to go out and not play timid again, it’s a great feeling.”
Wisniewski — as in the player the Jackets had in mind when they laid out $33 million over six years — might finally be stepping over the boards this season. Keep your head up.
Michael Arace is a sports reporter for The Dispatch.