When you think about it, hockey really is a funny game. In what other sport (other than boxing and MMA), is fighting a largely accepted element — penalized, but done so with a wink and a nod? It is a sport where failing to tie down your sweater is penalized more harshly than pummeling your opponent and where elementary safeguards, such as helmets, goalie masks and visors have inched their way into the game over the grudging “Hrrumphs” of grizzled veterans. Where else do players and coaches talk about playing the game “the right way”? For that matter, in what other sporting endeavor do the participants wear “sweaters”?
No, hockey is steeped in tradition, and surrenders to progress with great reluctance. It’s players are — for the most part — polite, soft-spoken and subservient to The Game. In many ways, hockey is more akin to golf than any of the teams sports, with the ceremony attendant to winning The Cup not far removed from hoisting The Claret Jug at St. Andrews. Of the team sports, baseball comes closest to that sense of tradition, but still falls somewhat short.
Tradition is a great thing, but sometimes it crosses the line into bias. A large segment of the hockey population relies on tradition to cast aspersions on those “pretenders” who would dare to join the fraternity of hockey cities. After all, hockey is the birthright of Canada and The Original Six, and the rest are largely pretenders. Sure, Minnesota and Buffalo are readily accepted, as they are almost in Canada anyway. The Flyers get admitted to “the club” by virtue of sheer nastiness — or “Old Time Hockey” — as the Hansen Brothers would call it. The Blues get a pass as well, due to the illustrious names passing through that franchise since 1967. New Jersey and the Islanders are accepted, both because they fall in the geographical “sweet spot” of the NHL, and their ability to hoist The Cup. Other than that, however, there is a significant segment of the hockey community that views hockey in “non-traditional” markets as a fool’s errand, and would much rather see a 16 team NHL than cater to the likes of Phoenix, Dallas, Tampa Bay, Carolina, Nashville, Florida . . . and Columbus. Peruse the message boards, listen to talks shows from Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver and you will here how these cities do not “deserve” franchises. Even cities with demonstrated success — such as Anaheim and Los Angeles — receive only modest recognition. This segment points to revenue numbers, attendance figures and the twice-failed experiment in Atlanta as evidence that expansion outside The North is futile. The lack of a “Hockey Tradition” is deemed fatal in these cities.
As with any biased view, there are kernels of truth around which the larger misconceptions are formed, which provide superficial credence to the “popular view.” Hockey is a weather related sport, and if ice skating and hockey are not readily available recreational pursuits, it is difficult to generate the level of interest necessary to advance the game. Sure, a huge urban area like Los Angeles can overcome that shortcoming through sheer numbers, but even there, the Anaheim Ducks do not sell out with the regularity that their performance would justify. Growing up in the San Francisco area, I recall only a single ice rink within reasonable driving distance of my house, and the Oakland/California Seals were a noble, but failed experiment. When the Sharks came to town, they were truly an awful hockey club. Persistence, financial backing and success on the ice turned it around, and HP Pavilion provided the necessary facility –both in quality and location — to enable the franchise to turn the corner. Still, it is undeniable that the Sun Belt cities have a more difficult time growing the game, simply because it is not part of the collective experience in those climates.
Columbus, however, gets unfairly lumped into the Southern Expansion cities when talk turns to “Hockey Markets”. Certainly, part of the criticism derives simply from the relative lack of success on the ice and the financial ills resulting from the combination of a bad arena deal, a lack of wins, two lockouts in the club’s first 11 years of existence, and a massive economic slump that sucked the discretionary cash from many households. The other part of the disdain comes largely from factors that are a) irrelevant and b) born of lack of knowledge, rather than assessment of facts. First, the Blue Jackets were part of the final spurt of expansion, which brought the NHL to it’s current complement of 30 teams, and included both Atlanta and Nashville. Atlanta, of course, failed, and Nashville, despite some on the ice success, has had more than its share of financial difficulties. So, there is a “guilt by association” element to the critiques, simply due to the fact that Columbus is an expansion franchise, and entered with some of the Sun Belt clubs.
Secondly, Columbus as a city was a relative unknown. It had no major league baseball, football or basketball teams, nor did it have any tradition of such clubs. It was relying on hockey to support a new arena, and a fledgling MLS team to extend the sports spotlight beyond the confines of The Horseshoe. Traditionalists scoffed at the concept, and many continue to view Columbus as a mere curiosity, biding time until it is relocated to Quebec City. The traditionalists are wrong.
To be sure, Columbus is a challenging sports market – and one that defies description beyond the Outer Belt. Moving from the Bay Area, I was mystified (and still am) by the overwhelming, 24/7/365 obsession with college football. Devoting that measure of emotion, money and time to the caprices of a group of 18-22 year olds — most of whom will never see a professional field — seemed absurd, as did the apparent attitude that a National Championship was expected, a Rose Bowl win tolerated, and anything else summarily rejected. That’s a debate for a different day, but underlying that was something that pundits missed . . . passion. The fan bases of all successful sports towns have that element — a core group of fans with a searing hot passion for the game and the team that becomes infections and pervasive at the peaks of victory, and sustains the community through the inevitable valleys of losses. That passion has always been here — it just needed to be channeled to hockey.
Look around Central Ohio, and you will see ice rinks and youth hockey programs everywhere. High school teams are the rule, not the exception, and adult leagues last far into the night at the Chiller and Nationwide. Those institutions existed only in moderation before the Blue Jackets, and carnival-barker Doug MacLean arrived on the scene. However, unlike the Sun Belt clubs, the passion for hockey was not something that needed to be created, it only needed to be revived. You see, Columbus has always been a hockey town — you just couldn’t hear it over the din of college football. There were the Owls and the Chill for those industrious enough to sift through the fights to find some nuggets of hockey, but otherwise the community simply lacked the outlet for that passion. The hockey passion was instead directed outward — to Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago, Buffalo and St. Louis. Surveying the crowds at early Blue Jackets games, the sweaters of these other clubs were more prevalent than the home team. Even today, Detroit, Chicago and Pittsburgh present challenges to the home squads. However, for the most part, that passion has slowly but surely been transformed to the home team, as youngsters without the childhood ties to another franchise embrace the team and the game.
For those willing to do the research and observe, the signs have been here for a long time. The sold out arena for the 2007 draft . . . Games 3 and 4 of the 2009 playoffs . . . the final game of last season. Each of these exhibited a degree of passion that few can equal. In this year’s previews, the SirusXM NHL Radio commentators noted the Columbus atmosphere, and with the move to the Eastern Conference, Columbus now gets the visibility it has largely lacked. With the likes of Davidson, Zito, Kekalainen, Horton, Wisniewski, Johnson and Comeau all signing on in Columbus, the word is out. Sure, the locals demand wins, but that core of hockey fervor gets the fact that it is a process, and that the organization now has the right people and the right process to find success. The transition from “fans of wins” to “fans of the game” is an accelerating process.
Lest there be any doubt that Columbus has the passion to meet and exceed the expectations of even the most skeptical of critics, I offer Cannonfest IV as dispositive evidence on the point. When it started four years ago, the event was a successful, but relatively modest gathering that occupied part of one room at Greg May’s Buffalo Wild Wings outlet in Grandview. The next year, it occupied pretty much all of that one room, with some spill-over into the main restaurant. Last year, it dominated the venue, and this year it utterly consumed Greg’s larger establishment on Bethel Road. Between 250 and 300 fans showed up, many sweltering in hockey sweaters, despite the relatively modest August temperatures. There was a live podcast, a seemingly endless stream of top-quality custom videos — some from the club, but most from fans, including the unparalleled talents of Tom Larrow, with the poignant “A Tribute to George Matthews”, and a punchy piece simply entitled “Who”. Dancing Kevin was in the house, and got to watch a video tribute to his dancing exploits. The Jacket Backers had their usual assemblage of autographed swag for raffle, and the Arch City Army was out in force, with a hockey video game tournament. At least two of the local networks covered the event, and the film made it to the broadcast.
Of course, the crowning moment of the event was the arrival of Blue Jackets’ GM Jarmo Kekäläinen, who was obviously and openly impressed by the turnout and the passion displayed by the crowd. He not only made the obligatory remarks to the crowd, but remained for an hour, posing for photographs, talking hockey, signing autographs and the like. For all of the details on Cannonfest IV, I recommend our own Alison Lukan’s piece over at Fox Sports Ohio, as well as the pictures from the event, from the incomparable @DerDrache.
While the specifics of Cannonfest IV are impressive, it is what the event and its support by the franchise represent that are far more significant for purposes of this piece. Collectively, individual fans have devoted literally thousands of hours to creating videos, writing blogs, organizing Cannonfest and all sorts of similar activities. The organization itself has bought in and supported the online community and the fan base at large. The thought of an NHL General Manager addressing a packed restaurant, in August, in Columbus, is likely a revelation to those skeptics who believe that hockey is for the chosen few.
Without the diffusing effect of a Western Conference affiliation, the Blue Jackets — and their fans — will be in the clear line of sight to those traditionalists in the living rooms of Toronto, Montreal, New York and Boston. Camp opens September 11, and the first public sessions will be standing room only. That’s passion, and passion is what makes a hockey town, Virginia. Deal with it.