Straight Jackets: Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre's journey back to the CBJ
Whether you call him Hyphens, JLGP or Luuuuuc, it's impossible to write the history of the Columbus Blue Jackets without mentioning Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre.
An original Jacket, Grand-Pierre was traded from the Buffalo Sabres to the CBJ during the expansion draft. He played 202 games in Union Blue over the next four seasons. Additionally, he built a life and family while he was here, and returned to central Ohio following his playing days. In 2019, he formally joined the organization's broadcast team as TV studio analyst.
It might not seem all that surprising that a kid from Montreal would have a "hockey life," but Grand-Pierre is clear that there have been times he's taken care to make sure that his is a life "with" hockey, not a life "of" hockey.
Growing up in Montreal with parents of Haitian descent, Grand-Pierre played both soccer and hockey. Indeed, he was "late getting into hockey," he said, starting around age 8. It wasn't until he was 16 that he cast his lot with sticks and skates.
A strong career in major junior hockey caught the attention of pro scouts, but Grand-Pierre admitted "it wasn't something I thought a lot about until people started showing me magazines with prospect talk and my name was in them."
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He was injured twice during his draft year, and as a result he dropped from a projected third-round pick to a seventh-rounder in 1995, taken by the St. Louis Blues. He had traveled to Edmonton, where that year's NHL draft was held, for the event, which ended up being "a pretty long day."
"It's still a big honor," he said, "and it just became a big motivation for me — that there was not much expectation for me, so I was just gonna find out what I could do."
His pro career continued in the Buffalo organization, and he made his NHL debut during the 1998-99 season. That offseason he expected to have a chance to play full-time with the Sabres.
Then he got traded.
"I was in the Dominican Republic [on vacation] when I got traded, and had no cellphone. I was at the bar and I saw my name on the bottom of the TV with news about the expansion draft. I got back to my room and, you remember those little red lights on the hotel phones? It was flashing," he recalled.
"I couldn't even tell you where Columbus was on the map" at the time, Grand-Pierre said with a laugh.
He took the opportunity in stride.
"I remember the opening game (a loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Oct. 7, 2000). The excitement was great. The support was incredible. You could tell maybe there wasn't the greatest understanding of the game, but we got to be part of that," he said.
Off the ice, he met the woman who would become his wife, his first son was born and he learned a lot about Ohio State football. On the ice, Grand-Pierre recalled a bumpy ride those first few years. In the second season, team captain Lyle Odelein was traded. He was "one of my favorite teammates," Grand-Pierre said, and sometimes a defense partner.
"He had a great career, was a hard worker and well-liked in the locker room," Grand-Pierre said. "That was really bittersweet."
Grand-Pierre also recalled a game in St. Louis when the Jackets' jerseys had accidentally been left in Columbus.
"We skated warm-ups in our practice jerseys, and I remember the [Blues] players asking what was up," Grand-Pierre said. "The jerseys made it in time for the game, on a private jet and with a police escort."
He was also making Columbus home, living in the city in the offseason, unlike many of his teammates.
"We made some really good friends in the community. You don't always have the time for that during the season," he said.
During the NHL lockout in 2004-05, Grand-Pierre and his family moved to Europe to play. They spent parts of the next nine seasons overseas.
"It was a great experience for my family," Grand-Pierre said, "but we always knew the time would come to come back to Columbus."
Grand-Pierre had also obtained a real estate license, and he never sought out connections with the Blue Jackets organization.
"I took my kids to a couple [Blue Jackets] games, but I almost had this sense of resentment toward the game in that early period after my retirement," he said. "And I found out real estate was something I absolutely loved. So I stayed away from the game on purpose."
But team president John Davidson had prioritized building a network of team alumni in the area. Team broadcaster and alumni Jody Shelley began reaching out.
"It was Freddy Modin, [Andrew] Cassels, Jody and I early on. We spent a lot of time just hanging out," Grand-Pierre said. "That allowed me to reconnect with the organization a little bit, and, through that, was asked to do some work on the radio [broadcast] during some playoff games.
"I never thought about broadcasting. But what I found was, the time away from the game was so helpful. I had always been known as Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre the hockey player. Building a life away from that was something I needed to do."
When longtime Jackets broadcaster Bill Davidge announced his retirement following the 2018-19 season, the team offered the gig to Grand-Pierre. The nerves were incredible at first, he recalled.
"Everybody was so used to Billy, and he was great. I was sweating so bad," he laughed.
The team and his broadcaster partners have allowed him to find his way, he said, and now he wouldn't trade the decision to be back with the organization.
"I definitely miss the game right now," he said of the league's suspended season due to COVID-19 and the health restrictions it has brought. "But the number one priority, even when it comes back, is to keep everyone safe."
In the meantime, Grand-Pierre joked, "the mulch at my house looks great, my grass looks good."
And with a son who's a freshman in high school doing remote learning and a daughter who's a school teacher doing remote teaching, again he senses there are things besides hockey in life.
"I know fans are missing the games," he said. "The unknown is scary, but it can be exciting too."