COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Quite a few of the Columbus Blue Jackets worried about how the fans would react once the NHL lockout was officially over and the team returned to the ice.
A lot of people were angry. Some planned on turning their backs on the sport.
Based on their first practice, the players had nothing to worry about.
A capacity crowd, with fans standing two or three deep around the glass, clapped and cheered as the Blue Jackets held their first full team practice on Sunday at the public facility adjoining their home arena.
Everyone associated with the team was stunned by the reaction. The team handed out free T-shirts to the first 1,000 in attendance, but that didn’t explain the size of the crowd and its exuberance.
“I didn’t expect that. I’m very impressed, very impressed,” new team president John Davidson said. “I didn’t know what was going to happen. There’s a lot of unknown. With the lockout, it wasn’t a good thing for anybody. You wonder about it but there was great enthusiasm. The place was packed. There were a lot of kids having a great time. I loved every second of it.”
Coach Todd Richards, who had his “interim” tag removed in the offseason, had the same thoughts about the fans’ reaction.
“It surprises me because of what we went through, and what you read — some of the anger. When you get into these situations you really don’t know what to expect,” he said. “But it also doesn’t surprise me, having lived in the community and being around here, (because) I know what people are saying to me. I’ve spent enough time in the rinks. I know the people here.”
One of the club’s new players, Brandon Dubinsky, was making his first real public appearance as a Blue Jacket. He was acquired in a trade with the New York Rangers in July, coming over along with two other players and a first-round draft pick in exchange for Columbus’ best player, Rick Nash, another player and a draft pick.
He was almost speechless by the reception.
“It was really awesome. It was really cool,” the right wing said. “In New York we had closed practices. That was pretty special. All the boys were excited about it.”
Defenseman James Wisniewski was the first player on the ice shortly after noon, and he smiled as he tossed sticks over the glass to fans. Richards earlier addressed the crowd, thanking the fans for their patience and acknowledging some “negativity” because of the lockout.
From then on, however, everything was positive and upbeat.
The Blue Jackets will be one of the youngest teams in the NHL this season. There are few household names. After years of having a leaky defense, the club picked up defensemen such as Jack Johnson, Tim Erixon and Adrian Aucoin, and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky within the last year.
Columbus also added left wing Nick Foligno, Dubinsky and center Artem Anisimov to go with proven left wings Vinny Prospal and R.J. Umberger and center Derick Brassard. The 2013 team also could include several promising young players, among them right wing Cam Atkinson, center Ryan Johansen and defensemen John Moore and David Savard.
All of the new faces prompted hope for the fans after a dismal 2011-12 season in which the Blue Jackets had the worst record in the league.
“From Day 1 since I’ve been here the fans have been awesome,” said the longest tenured Columbus player, right wing Jared Boll. “They’ve put up with quite a bit of losing. We’re looking to change the atmosphere here and really turn it around. I can’t thank them enough for showing up like this at the first skate.”
Prospal, the team’s elder statesman at 37, played during the lockout in his native Czech Republic. Even though he enjoyed his time in his homeland, he said it was terrific to be back with the Blue Jackets.
“This the best league in the world. You want to play where the best players play,” he said. “You can’t compare it if you go play somewhere else in the world. Everybody misses that.”
Another Blue Jackets veteran, right wing Derek Dorsett, credited the crowd for making the 90-minute workout go so well.
“It helped us push the pace in practice. It’s great to see that many fans out. We’re going to do everything we can to win here for the fans,” he said. “There’s going to be fans upset with the way things went here last season and the lockout. We have to let our actions speak for themselves — and that means winning hockey games.”