It’s not every day kids get an opportunity to showcase their stuff in front of 19,002 cheering fans. Especially, when those kids are 10-years-old.
“If we get 100 people (at a game) it’s incredible,” laughed Dan Morgan, head coach of the Troy Bruins Gold team from the Troy Youth Hockey Association. His team, including his son, Spencer, competed against the Miami Redhawks from the Butler County Youth Hockey Association in the Shootout Showcase at the Columbus Blue Jackets’ season finale versus the Nashville Predators in Nationwide Arena Saturday. The 9 and 10-year-olds took to the NHL ice at the start of the first intermission to wrap up the shootout series and compete for the championship. Miami won in sudden death after six rounds. “In front of 19,000 people I think they were nervous, but yet they realized it’s just for fun. They lost and then in five minutes they’re ok and they’re like, ‘Hey what kind of snack did you get?’”
The shootout showcase rounds are pre-recorded throughout the Blue Jackets season and then shown on the Fox Sports Ohio broadcasts of selected CBJ games. The championship match is then completed live at the end of the season. This year’s competition saw 16 teams representing 11 youth hockey associations from around the state. The final two teams enjoyed the crowd of 19,000 Saturday, including Troy goalie Austin Clark and Troy shooters Cole Miller, Zach Uhlenbrock and Spencer Morgan; as well as Miami goalie Aidan Kraan and Miami shooters Brock Cropper, Jack Tincher and Bobby Pokupec.
But more impressive to the championship youngsters than the crowd, was the brief moment they had to high-five the Blue Jackets as the pros left the locker room to return to the ice for the second period of play, before beating Nashville in a thrilling 3-1 decision.
“The players walked right by them; we were standing there and they were all putting out their hands and (fist bumping them) and they all had those really big smiles,” said Egon Kraan, vice president of the Butler County Youth Hockey Association. His son, Aidan, played goalie for Miami Saturday. “You couldn’t wipe the smiles off their face. It’s something they’re going to remember forever.”
To be on the ice where their hockey heroes play, and to have even those few moments with stars like Jack Johnson and Sergei Bobrovsky, made the moment.
“These are the players they look up to. They really, really admire the NHL players. Realistically speaking, these kids have a very tough chance of getting (to the NHL). Having them get to that point where they can be so close and skate on an NHL ice surface, especially in front of that crowd, is fantastic,” said Kraan. “A lot of the kids have never been to an NHL game but still a lot of them know the names of the players, who’s playing, they’re talking about stats, they get really excited.”
Kraan said his son, whose favorite goalie changes every day, couldn’t stop talking about Bobrovsky after the game Saturday.
“Goalie Bob is by far his favorite goalie. He looks at the plays and the replays…These kids are growing up being fans of the Blue Jackets,” said Kraan. “And that’s a great thing for the sport of hockey in Ohio.”
Kraan said the influence of the Columbus Blue Jackets on youth and adult hockey in Ohio is indisputable. In his youth hockey association, they went from between 50 and 60 kids in 2005 to over 130 kids now. J.D. Kershaw, the vice president of marketing for the Columbus Blue Jackets, said since the inception of the Shootout Showcase three years ago, they’ve also doubled the participation.
“We started towards the end of the 2010-11 season with eight teams of four kids per team—32 kids,” he said, of the program that includes both boys and girls. “In 2011-12, we went to 16 teams, so we doubled it. And it represented 11 youth hockey associations from around the state.”
The shootout showcase is based off a model used by the Boston Bruins, said Kershaw.
“One of the most popular things we do, is the Future Jackets—the little kids that play between periods. So we wanted other kids at a different age group,” said Kershaw. “The Boston Bruins have been doing something similar for years. That’s what it was modeled after.”
Kershaw said the Blue Jackets try to do everything they can to showcase the growth and development of youth and amateur hockey across Ohio. It’s one of the four pillars financially supported by the Blue Jackets Foundation, which gives 25 percent of its annual funds raised back to supporting youth and amateur hockey, said Kershaw, adding that the shootout showcase isn’t one of the programs that receives funding.
“It’s about giving kids from all over the state a chance to be part of something fun; not only do they get to skate on Nationwide ice and be part of a cool event with their peers, but to also see themselves on TV. That’s probably the biggest thing,” said Kershaw. “Through my conversations with parents, they get such a kick out of seeing their kids on TV.”
And while it’s true what Kaan said, that, realistically, many of these kids won’t go on to NHL careers, the dream is that someday, somehow, there will be a kid who goes through the youth programming in Ohio and ends up drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets, said Kershaw.
“That is THE story. That has not happened yet,” said Kershaw. “But I think it’s really important to put the pieces in place to allow that to happen. The pieces are here now. Before, (kids) were leaving to go play elsewhere. Now they’re staying here. We’re producing kids.”
And really, they’re producing more than just players—they’re producing fans. Hard-working, pay for jerseys, and tickets, and merchandise, fans.
“On the business side, it certainly makes sense as well because you want to grow that fan base and grow that base of people who really have an interest in the game and an interest in being a part of it,” said Kershaw. “When I first came, the kids who were in hockey school—they’re now 20. They’re young adults. They’re in the business world. They grew up with it. So they’re more likely to be fans.”
But most of all, whether they realize it or not, the Blue Jackets are growing dreams. And not just about hockey.
“It’s like a dream come true for these boys to be on the ice. They talk about the professionals all the time, they try to emulate their favorite player and their moves; they’re good role models,” said Morgan of how the boys watch the players on and off the ice. “You know, R.J. Umberger going back to Ohio State and finishing his degree—the kids talked about that and how that’s neat.”
Morgan told a story of how Umberger donated a signed hockey stick to a family in his neck of the woods to help them raise money after one of their own was diagnosed with cancer. While Troy is more than an hour from Columbus and the rink where Umberger lights up the fan base on NHL ice, the donation brought him and the team into the hearts and minds of a community struggling to help one of their own, as if they were standing right there.
“(The Showcase and the team) impacts family members too (not just the kids). That family was very appreciative of that,” said Morgan. “Hockey touches a lot of people’s lives. It’s a sport that is there for the community and appreciates the community.”
And when it came to this season, said Morgan, the Blue Jackets taught the community and his kids a very valuable lesson—teamwork.
“What I liked about the Blue Jackets this season was the message, ‘You have to play as team.’ It’s not just one person. It takes the whole team to make it successful,” said Morgan. “When you play as a team you have more success.”
In fact, no one knows that team concept better than the parents in the youth hockey associations, who rely on each other as a team in order to keep their kids in a sport they love. After all, said Morgan, hockey is a sport unlike typical Midwestern sports—you can’t just pick up your skates and go out in the backyard during the summer and start hitting pucks in the net the way you can take a glove and baseball out in the backyard—you need an ice rink.
“Hockey is a very demanding sport,” said Kraan. “Not only is it expensive, but you have to travel really far (for rinks and competition). It takes a lot for the parents. There’s a lot of traveling for the parents. Parents and families have to start depending on each other for support because not every parent is going to take every trip. Your kids are with them, their kids with you. There’s a lot of relationships that are formed. The kids get to become really, really good friends. That’s one of the greatest things about the sport. The camaraderie.”
And the opportunities that are provided when you live in an NHL state.
“Even though we lost (in the Shootout Showcase), it was still fun and a privilege to partake in the event,” said Morgan. “The kids realize that winning isn’t everything; It’s about life and the lessons you learn along the way. And being in the locker rooms and seeing the players—it was a dream come true.”