When Ducks center Ryan Getzlaf invited his teammates, the club's owners and top executives to his home for a barbecue during training camp, they probably expected burgers and corn on the cob. What they got was insight into Getzlaf's keen desire to rebound after stumbling through a season so awful that those around him feared he was hiding an injury or a loved one's illness.
Passionate without raising his voice, Getzlaf said he brought everyone together after the lockout to emphasize the importance of working as a team, according to someone who attended. Be ready and mean business, he said.
He spoke for only a few minutes, but his words still resound.
With a 16-3-3 record and 35 points, the Ducks rank No. 2 in the NHL and have equaled their franchise-best point total through 22 games, the 15-2-5 start that launched them to the Stanley Cup in 2007. Their depth is better and their defense beefier than last season, when they missed the playoffs, but Getzlaf's revival has been a vital catalyst.
"He seems to be so strong and hungry with every puck, every loose puck, every battle. It's almost like there's a mission in his eyes," Teemu Selanne said. "One day when he really wants to be great, he can, because he has all the tools."
Where Getzlaf was sloppy defensively last season, he's diligent and has earned his plus-10 defensive rating. Where he was emotionally detached — except when he took bad penalties — he's fiery but controlled. Where he couldn't buy a goal, he's producing. He has six goals and 18 points in his last 11 games and stands among the NHL leaders with nine goals and a team-high 27 points. He had 11 goals and 57 points in 82 games last season and was minus-11.
"The only thing that I need on the bench is a beer and hot dog to watch," Selanne said.
What's behind the turnaround?
Selanne recently hinted that it's because Getzlaf is in the final year of his contract. But Corey Perry, Getzlaf's longtime right wing and friend, said there's more to it.
"When you're playing a game you love and that you've grown up playing, your compete level is high. You know what you did the year before, and if you didn't have a great year you want to prove the critics wrong and show everybody you can be that top player," said Perry, who's also eligible for free agency this summer.
"I think he's trying to prove he can be that top player everybody knows."
Getzlaf, who has a Cup title and a 2010 Olympic gold medal with Team Canada on his resume at age 27, agreed he's different as a player and person.
"I feel like I got back to myself and the things I like doing. I feel like things are back to normal, so to speak," he said. "Last year was one of those years that is tough to explain. There were a lot of different things going on. But it feels good to be back."
He wouldn't specify what had troubled him but said it wasn't an injury or illness.
"Without getting into it too much, when you have kids it's different. Things change," said Getzlaf, father to sons Ryder, 2, and Gavin, 2 months, with wife Paige. "There was a lot I had to learn about keeping things at home and getting my rest when I'm at home, and me and my wife had to figure out how to be parents. At the same time, we were going through a struggling season."
Being the captain of an underachieving team also weighed on him. He got the honor before the 2010-11 season when he and the Ducks were prospering. He hadn't dealt with much adversity before and he didn't know how to respond.
In addition, in late November 2011 the Ducks fired Randy Carlyle — the only NHL coach Getzlaf had played for — and hired Bruce Boudreau. Carlyle had made Getzlaf his go-between to take the team's temperature. Boudreau, more hands-on, talks to everyone. Getzlaf said the change has been good and the team has responded well, but it was another turbulent moment for him in a season full of them.
"When you go through a losing season there are more things you have to deal with. Media, management, everybody turns to you and I don't always have the answers, much like everybody," Getzlaf said.
This season, he said, his wife has helped him balance being a dad and an athlete. A baby sitter helps ensure Getzlaf gets his afternoon nap and can prepare for games, and he has learned to leave wins and losses at the rink.
Although his resurgence confirms his value to the Ducks, it also increases his potential payday as he nears the end of his five-year, $26.625-million contract. He'd be in demand as a free agent alone or packaged with Perry, as Zach Parise and Ryan Suter were last summer. Getzlaf said remaining here is his first choice, preferably alongside Perry.
"I do want to stay and I always have. I've always said that. That's always been my first priority when I came into the league. I wanted to play in the same place if I could," Getzlaf said. "I've been happy here. It's just a matter of getting that deal done."
It might not be that simple. But turning his career around this season wasn't simple, either.