Pierre-Luc Dubois returns to Columbus for first time since trade to Winnipeg

Bailey Johnson
The Columbus Dispatch
Nov 18, 2021; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Winnipeg Jets forward Pierre-Luc Dubois (80) skates during warmup against the Edmonton Oilers at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Instinct almost took over for Pierre-Luc Dubois as he walked down the hallway at Nationwide Arena for the first time in 10 months.

The former Blue Jacket, now a member of the Winnipeg Jets after being traded in January, nearly took a left turn into the Jackets' locker room when he arrived for the Jets' morning skate, rather than continuing down the hall to the visitors' locker room. 

"It definitely feels weird to be back," Dubois said Wednesday afternoon. "... I haven’t been in this (locker) room since development camp my second year. It’s good to be back."

Dubois sent shockwaves through the organization and the fanbase when he requested a trade at the beginning of last season. He hasn't publicly acknowledged the specific reasons behind that decision, and didn't elaborate much further Wednesday.

"I was ready for a new challenge and new chapter," Dubois said. "A new environment. I know you want a more in-detail answer than that, but it wasn’t toward someone. It wasn’t a decision made because of someone or some things.

"I just felt like it was the right time to move on. I’m happy here in Winnipeg. It’s going well. I’ve learned a lot and I’m gonna keep learning. It was just time for something new."

Two days before being traded to Winnipeg, former Blue Jackets center Pierre-Luc Dubois was benched for all but about four minutes of a loss to Tampa Bay on Jan. 21, 2021.

Though it's been nearly a year since the trade, Dubois is prepared for some fans to have a negative reaction when he steps onto the ice Wednesday evening.

"It’s been almost a year now, but I’m expecting some people still to maybe be unhappy, disappointed," Dubois said. "If they’re happy, that’s great. If they’re not happy, booing me, I’ve heard it before."

After the trade, Dubois' season in Winnipeg was a challenging one, as he had to quarantine for two weeks after the trade and suffered a lower-body injury shortly after joining the Jets' lineup. He finished the season with 20 points in 41 games for Winnipeg, the lowest per-game production of his career.

But this year, Dubois is centering the top line between Kyle Connor and Blake Wheeler and already has 16 points — 10 goals and six assists — in 18 games.

"At the end (in Columbus), it got a little complicated," Dubois said. "It got choppy at the end, but it is what it is and it happened for a reason. I learned a lot from last year, everything that happened, and I think this year it’s helped me come back stronger, mentally and physically."

It's somewhat surreal for Dubois to be back playing against his first NHL team and in an arena that holds so many memories. He made his NHL debut in Nationwide Arena and scored his first goal that same night. He plans to give himself a few moments to take everything in during warmups, but once the game starts, it will be business as usual. 

In his final game as a Blue Jacket, center Pierre-Luc Dubois (18) and Tampa Bay Lightning center Tyler Johnson (9) battle for the puck during the first period in the NHL game at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio on January 21, 2021.

Returning to Columbus also gives Dubois an opportunity to catch up with his former teammates, as well as members of the coaching staff and training staff with whom he had close relationships. 

And the trip down memory lane didn't stop there. Dubois also got his first look at the banner above the ice that honors late goaltender Matiss Kivlenieks, who was a close friend.

"It’s never easy," Dubois said. "Only time can help. But to see that and to see Elvis (Merzlikins) again, it brings back good memories of having him around and playing with him. Seeing his first win, seeing his first game. It brings back good memories."

At the start of this season, Dubois changed his number from No. 13 to No. 80 in honor of Kivlenieks.

"One of the things that was so tragic about it was his career had just started," Dubois said. "The number 80 and his last name won’t be able to keep playing. Obviously, I can’t wear his last name on my jersey. But I thought if I can wear the number 80, have his number out there, his career can, in a way, keep going.

"I’ve been extremely proud to wear his number and I want to keep it for the rest of my career."

bjohnson@dispatch.com

@baileyajohnson_