Blue Jackets' Cam Atkinson enjoys career year despite still being the 'smallest guy on the ice'

1:18 | NHL
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Friday February 3rd, 2017

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Back home, the traveler was taking stock of his souvenirs. The prize money would help fund wedding celebrations next summer. The jersey, white and gray and No. 13, would be framed. The helmet, meanwhile, would live inside one of those glass display boxes. No word about padlocking the case, but given that it had been autographed by each participant in the 2017 NHL All-Star Game…"Everyone and Gretzky," Cam Atkinson corrects. "Adds a little more value to it."

Does MasterCard run those "priceless" commercials anymore? If so, can the Blue Jackets winger score a sponsorship using footage from the festivities? A week and a half ago, just before the break, he was fielding an 11 p.m. call from GM Jarmo Kekalainen, who delivered word that Atkinson was named an injury replacement for the Metropolitan Division. Then he was cancelling a getaway to New York City, jetting instead to Los Angeles. Then he was skating onto the ice at Staples Center, fist-bumping some of the league's 100 greatest players. Then he was winning a share of $1 million in the three-on-three tournament, recording five points in two games while being coached by—and chatting with—the Great One.

"He asked a bunch of questions, where I come from, where I grew up playing, the path that I took," Atkinson says. "I don't know how much he would've really known."

Slowly, the hockey world is learning. To those who don't, Atkinson has grown fond of cracking that he was drafted sixth overall in 2008 by the Blue Jackets…please hold for the punch line…in the sixth round. "Always the smallest guy on the ice," Tom Atkinson says of his 5'8" son. "By far." Which is to say that few expected Cam Atkinson to become what he did. But look at him now.

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Even before Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin bowed out with an upper-body injury, Atkinson was already considered a deserving All-Star candidate, maybe the best skater left off the Metro's initial roster. In his fourth full NHL season, the 27-year-old is tied for fourth league-wide in goals (24) and tied for 15th in points (46), through Thursday. He's the leading scorer on the upstart Blue Jackets, their shifty triggerman on the top power play unit, a steady penalty-killer, and what coach John Tortorella calls, "arguably been my most consistent player since I've been here."

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Tortorella arrived at an ideal time for Atkinson. A healthy scratch for ex-coach Todd Richards's last game, in which Columbus fell to 0-7 to start the '15-16 season, Atkinson saw "a fresh, clean slate to prove [himself]" within the new regime. He'd called former Tortorella charge Martin St. Louis, a close friend and off-season workout partner who hosted Atkinson's engagement party, for advice. He was told, "If you work your balls off, you're going to get rewarded."

Off the ice, he and Tortorella bonded over their mutual affection for dogs; the coach's charitable work is well chronicled, so after Atkinson expressed interest in helping, Tortorella sent over some links. They also found a unique connection: Tortorella's son, Nick, serves overseas in the elite U.S. Army 75th Ranger Regiment, while Atkinson's cousin is in the 82nd.

"Yeah, he might ruffle some feathers," Atkinson says of Tortorella. "But he's only doing that to push you, because he knows there's a whole other level for you to get to. Some people take that, use that. Some people might shut down."

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Clearly, Atkinson has taken off. He hit 20 goals for the fourth straight season by Jan. 10 and is averaging roughly one every two games, by far a career best. Ten of those goals came during Columbus' 16-game winning streak, the second longest in league history, including a pair New Years' Eve against Minnesota, which entered riding its own dozen-game surge.

"He's getting a little bit of notoriety," Tortorella says. "He's been a pretty consistent player. Now there's more responsibility that falls on your shoulder to be better. That's the phase he's in, I think. He's a really good player when he stays on top of himself. I think he can be even better."

Of this Atkinson seems ever mindful, particularly concerning his health. When SI.com called for an interview Thursday afternoon, Atkinson had finished a session of cupping and needling with the Blue Jackets' training staff, which recently got certified in the practices this season. (Cupping, intuitively enough, involves putting suction cups on the body to help stimulate blood flow, leaving some gnarly marks; needling equates to acupuncture.) His personal chiropractor was supposed to come over Wednesday—she uses a table that he bought and keeps at home—but Atkinson was too exhausted from All-Star weekend and napped instead.

He's also gotten into something called Graston Technique, which bills itself as a method of "instrument-assisted soft tissue mobilization." Simply, doctors use stainless steel tools—they resemble folded-up pocket knives—to treat scar tissue. "It hurts like a bitch," Atkinson says. "But it actually helps if I have bruises or anything like that. I do it all, man. Whatever I can do to get my body feeling somewhat normal. It's all about longevity, man."

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More than most, Atkinson knows how quickly it can be taken away. When he was 15 years old, attending prep school at Avon Old Farms in Connecticut, Atkinson broke his tibia and fibula. At the hospital, the attending doctor told him, "You'll never play hockey again." Atkinson hadn't cried when the injury occurred, but he started tearing up then. "Wasn't too happy about it," he says. "I was yelling. A guy I didn't know was telling me my dreams were shattered. I didn't want some Joe Schmo telling me what I can and can't do."

The next day, Atkinson rode home from the Massachusetts tournament and saw his family doctor in Connecticut. This prognosis was more optimistic, especially after surgery left a rod and two pins in Atkinson's broken leg. Tom Atkinson remembers his son sneaking onto the ice at night to start rehab alone. Two months post-op, Cam was skating again. "Somehow he procured a key," Tom says.

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Passed over his first year of draft eligibility, Atkinson eventually went 157th overall to the Blue Jackets in 2008, and that fall he enrolled at Boston College, a historic haven for smaller, talented forwards. Around that time, Atkinson first met his agent, George Bazos. "He looked like a baby," Bazos recalls.

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Indeed, that perception must've informed Atkinson's low selection. Clearly, talent clearly wasn't the issue. As a sophomore, he led the country with 30 goals, steered the Eagles to the national title. He one-upped himself as a junior, striking 31 goals in three fewer goals and finishing as a Hobey Baker Award finalist.

For Columbus, he grew particularly adept at reading power plays from the left faceoff circle, often diving toward the net for rebounds or backdoor one-timers, and the Blue Jackets feast in the slot when he's on the ice. The uptick in shorthanded time indicates trust from Tortorella, and overall Atkinson is averaging 17:54 per game, a career high. Entering this weekend's divisional back-to-back against Pittsburgh and New Jersey, Atkinson is three goals, four assists, and seven points shy of his single-season bests, all of which came last season.

Thinking back to All-Star weekend, particularly his conversations with Gretzky, Atkinson mentions something noteworthy. "No one asked me when I got drafted," he says. On the one hand, this means that no one in Los Angeles cared; he belonged just the same. On the other, he never busted out the sixth-overall-sixth-round zinger. "But I would've," Atkinson adds. "That's my go-to line."

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