Blues player Robert Portozzo survived and thrived to reach 500 NHL games
We’re boycotting regularly scheduled blues of gloom and doom to bring you Robert Portozzo.
The veteran defender played the Blues in his 500th game in the National Hockey League on Tuesday in Philadelphia. It’s a great milestone for any professional hockey player, but even more meaningful for someone who performs like Bortuzzo.
For most of his career, he wasn’t too confident in it – whether it was a place in the lineup, playing time when he was in the lineup, and earlier in his career he landed a job in the league. So, yes, the number 500 is a nice rounded number.
“It’s something we should be proud of,” said a Thunder Bay, Ontario native. “This whole thing started as getting a chance to play one game in the NHL. I kind of used that to make a career here that we can be proud of.
“At the end of the day, it’s just a number. I love playing games, I still love playing the game, and I am fortunate to have an organization and teammates who have set me up for success to have some continuity.”
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In the third-round pick in Pittsburgh in 2007, Borozzo spent parts of four seasons with the Penguins before being traded to the Blues on March 2, 2015, for Ian Cole. In two of those seasons, he spent time with the AHL subsidiary of Penguins – Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
So he can connect with some of the current blues that are on the edge of the list.
Will I be the team? Should I get a place or stay at the hotel? Should I bring the wife/girlfriend to town or should I wait?
It’s something Conor McDavids in the hockey world never had to concern themselves with.
“Yeah, I experienced it early in my career,” said Bortozo. “If you ask anyone they will remember your first housing letter. But then again, you didn’t have that approach to comfort. In terms of getting a place, you’ve always wanted to feel safe. Contractually, you can kind of get an idea of where you are, that kind of Rest gives you a little bit of relief.”
The lodging letter is one of the catchiest NHL customs, in which the team tells the player that he’s going to be around for at least a while – he can get out of the hotel.
“It’s a great time, getting your first housing letter and getting this vote of confidence from the organization,” said Bortozo. “There were many cases early in my career where I felt like if I had two bad matches I might have been sent off or things would go wrong.
“And you end up playing, or you get a chance to play a little bit more. Someone gets hurt. It’s definitely not a linear career where things were easy early on but it’s good to create some stability here in St. Louis. And I am very grateful for that.”
With that in mind, 500 games and what is now 13 NHL seasons weren’t in Bortuzzo’s vision. He couldn’t bear to look that far.
“I think it was always taking things day in and day out,” said Bortozo. “I’ve always had the approach – and to this day – of wanting to stay in this league, always having to compete to be part of a team, to be a guy who can contribute at night.
“So maybe that’s part of the reason why I’ve had the opportunity to have some continuity, just having that attitude of not taking anything for granted, having so much enthusiasm that comes to the rink every day and appreciating how fortunate we are to do that as a Career path career path.
He’s kind of always been in the sixth and seventh defense role. Which means that sometimes there are stretches when you’re a healthy scratcher. This, combined with the accidental injury, means that in some years Portozo has not been a full-time day player.
So he always had to stay ready. Until last season, Bortuzzo played more than 59 games just once – when he played 72 games during the 2017-2018 season. Last season, he reached 73 appearances, which he is also very proud of.
Bortuzzo didn’t expect to be traded and knew very little about St. Louis since nine seasons. But now retired blues defender Barrett Jackman served as an unofficial mentor as Portozzo began a new chapter of his career at Gateway City.
“He didn’t have to do that,” said Bortozo. “He didn’t have to take me under his wing or see me the ropes. I was the kind of guy who played a similar role to him, but I’m thankful he was able to do that.”
Veterans Alexander Steen, Kevin Schattenkirk and Paul Stastney, whom Bortozo referred to as “a group of good mortals,” brought him in too and made him feel part of a group.
“When you play a team sport, that’s all you want, is just to feel like you’re a part of something,” said Bortozo. “That’s fortunately what we’ve had here for a long time.”
Time is running. Players and coaches come and go. It was a Stanley Cup race four seasons ago. Suddenly Borozzo is approaching 34 and is second in the team in seniority behind Vladimir Tarasenko.
Yet universal respect came from colleagues past and present.
“The truth is he’s the sixth and seventh man,” said Brayden Sheen. “When you’re in a situation like this, you fight for playtime and you fight for opportunity. At the same time, he’s been here for nine years now.
Obviously they love him. We love him in our locker room. The coaches love him. Apparently the Army (General Manager Doug Armstrong) does that, too.
“This is the guy who had to do the dirty work early on to prove yourself. That’s fighting the big boys back in the AHL, blocking shots, playing hard, and physical minutes that some players probably don’t want to do.”
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