This past Friday brought us another perfect Columbus afternoon and the opportunity to enjoy “Front Street Friday” with James Wisniewski. Among the Blue Jackets faithful, Wiz has stood as a beacon of what the Blue Jackets can be – both on ice and off, so its no surprise that a hearty turn out showed up to meet and greet with one of the most dedicated and generous Jackets players.
Wiz has always been one of my favorites. Since his arrival on the Columbus scene last July, his energy and passion were easy to connect with; and, Columbus has long been looking for exactly what Wiz had to offer: passion, the desire to connect with the fans, a quarterback for the power play and one hell of a shot.
I was honored to have a few moments to speak with Wiz after the hustle and bustle of the autograph session was complete and I continue to be only more and more impressed with the man. It is one thing to have players use well honed “PR Quotes”, its another to come across as one who says things because he means them. Both in his answers to me, and, as I listened to Wiz take time with everyone who showed up, one thing became clear: Nothing less than winning is acceptable. That message underlies everything Wiz says and does.
Remember back to last summer, when Wiz came out to say he wanted to be in Columbus. That commitment to our city continues today. “Its kind of like an up and coming city,” Wiz shared. There’s just a lot of different parts to (it) and you can enjoy it…and even though it might be considered smaller than the major cities, you can find everything you want inside Columbus.”
James has been working hard in the off-season. We talked about how his work during the summer translates into “phases” of development. Much of the focus to date has been on maintaining “power” and “strength” and now his work is transitioning into “speed” and “quickness”. As Wiz shared, “Now is when the intensity picks up…we’re about two weeks into skating and starting to get your hands back is a little frustrating the first couple of weeks because you expect so much out of yourself…its actually kind of funny…but now we’re starting to amplify and create game-ice situations”.
Personal training is one thing – the real work for the entire team lies ahead. After last season, there are no delusions about the battles we face. Wiz openly acknowledged that “there’s not going to be a lot of credit given to the Blue Jackets especially given how we finished,” but it would seem that a goal and a plan have been crystallized. Columbus may have lost Rick Nash, but we’ve gained young, skilled players with a shared mindset and hunger that are already present. The team is focusing on a style of play that represents hard work and grit to go along with the skill all the men bring to the table. Wiz has talked with new additions Dubinsky, Anisimov, and Foligno and he’s excited for what they will contribute. When I asked about instilling an identity of tenacity with so many new faces joining the organization, Wiz had zero doubts. “The new guys are bringing it themselves…that’s their style, that’s their personality and that’s what they want to bring to this organization. I don’t think we have to show them anything. They are going to show us what they have to offer and its going to be real exciting to see.”
When talk turned to the Wiz’s area of expertise: the defense? Well, you better believe they are coming ready to prove something to the city and the league. I posed my theory that we have one of the top defense corps this coming season and Wiz most certainly agreed. “Jack (Johnson) and I and all the other guys have talked about that. Even though the league/some sites…you see that they might not think so, but if you go 1-7 (on our defense), everybody can hit the puck, everybody can score – (they) have absolute cannons from the point, everybody can skate, we’re big, physical, I don’t know where people get mistaken…tell me what other 1-6 is better than us in the league.”
That style of play arguably transfers to the fans as well. Wiz knows we’re the underdogs, but he believes that the fans can answer the challenge to prove what we’ve got here in Columbus just as the players can. The team is looking to give the fan community something to cheer for and get excited about. “Nobody’s gonna want to come and play in our home building with the support we have; and the community is going to love the style of play we have.”
Speaking of what the fans can bring, Wiz is looking to give back to the fans off ice as well. Fans throughout the NHL have noticed the tremendous presence that “Team Wiz” brings to social media and know that it is a conscious effort on James’ part. “I’m kind of a people person – I enjoy talking to people, I come from a big family -I like to meet the people who come the rink and support us. Anything I can do to reach out to the community – well I try to make spare time in my everyday life (for that).”
I concluded my time with Wiz with a little word association. It encapsulates everything that Wiz is as a player and as a part of this team (his responses are in Bold):
Stanley Cup: Columbus
Blue Jackets: Stanley Cup
Training Camp: Where it all begins
Power Play: #1
Leader: All of Us
Fans: The Best
When we look to players who have joined the team that have continued to build the tenor of a real identity of hard work and desire to win (Jack Johnson, Brandon Dubinsky, Nick Foligno), we would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge that Wiz was the first to set this tone in Columbus. While conversations circulate about who will be the formal leader(s) of our team, look at what Wiz has done for us and you realize he’s an integral part of that discussion – letter on the jersey or not.
I’d like to thank James and the Blue Jackets organization for giving me the opportunity to talk with him. While we wait for the ice to be put in place at Nationwide, and pray for a quick resolution to the CBA, its players like Wiz who remind me why we love this game and this team so very much.