In late October 2012, John Davidson arrived to Columbus to take on the role of President of Hockey Operations for the Blue Jackets. In the span of ten short months, he has changed the culture of not only the organization, but also a fervent fan base. Davidson has also assembled a brain trust in Columbus that many clubs would like to have. This group includes General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen, Assistant GM Chris MacFarland, Assistant GM Bill Zito and Senior Advisor (Hockey Operations) Craig Patrick.
He is credited with the culture change surrounding the Blue Jackets, but to what does he attribute the exciting 19-5-5 run that the club went on to close out the lockout-shortened 2012-2013 season?
“I think we, as a team, played to our strengths,” Davidson said. “And, that was keeping the puck out of the net as a team. That meant goaltending. That meant the penalty kill. That meant, as a team, to be committed on the defensive side of the puck and not cheat. It also meant thinking offense before it was time to go offensively.”
“And, with that in mind, everybody committed to it. There was no selfishness to it at all, as a team. I think we were well prepared by the coaching staff. It’s the stuff you need to be a committed group, to find a way to know what your weaknesses are and to play to your strengths. And, we did that. With that being said, the character showed. They played pretty hard.”
The “brick by brick” culture shift that Davidson has ushered in seems to be happening at an accelerated pace. “I think that were some unknowns,” he said. “With (Sergei) Bobrovsky, in particular, that was a little bit of an unknown. And, he passed the test rather well, that’s obvious. The coaching staff, as a group, were new and they passed the test. They didn’t let anybody off the hook, especially after the first half of the season, when weren’t finding ways to win games.”
“The evolution of a lot of the younger players, what was happening, that was good. With some players leaving and new players coming in, it will stimulate an organization, in some ways. And, that was good for us. It’s ongoing, but it’s a good start. We feel good that it’s in the right direction.”
With the way the club finished last season, having a strong Entry Draft in June and the signing of Nathan Horton as a free agent in July, how do the Blue Jackets meet or exceed the raised expectations?
“People have to have this understanding,” he said, “and, I’m talking about our group, the team and the coaches. We played better, but we didn’t make the playoffs. That certainly should be something to hang a carrot in front of your nose. I think the team went from a team that had very little belief in itself, to a team that does believe in itself. They know that they can play with anybody in the league.”
“They know they have a team that can get into the playoffs, and who knows what happens when you get into those playoffs? And, I think it’s real. I don’t think it’s mindless, idle discussion like yeah, yeah, we’re a team that’s going to try and make the playoffs; we should be a playoff team. I think that we are a playoff team. The guys believe that. That’s given them the opportunity to really dig into the summer and train properly.”
“I think there’s some young talent,” he said, “that are coming into the organization, as we march along, that are going to push the veteran players. And, that’s a good thing. Competition is always good. I see a lot of positive things (within the club). Looking at our team, we have to improve in certain areas, especially the power play. But, that’s up to us and the coaching staff to find a way to get it done. There’s always room from improvement.”
With the Blue Jackets making the move to the Eastern Conference, and taking into account how much time he has spent as a player and broadcaster in the East, what does he think of them playing in the Metropolitan Division?
“Competition makes you better,” said Davidson. “I remember being out West as a broadcaster years and years ago, when Edmonton (Oilers) were winning Stanley Cups with (Wayne) Gretzky and (Mark) Messier. Cliff Fletcher and Bob Johnson built a team in Calgary that won the Cup themselves. It’s all part of the business. The better your competition is, the better you have to be to beat them.”
“I think that we’ll have a better opportunity to have more time to pay attention to detail. That means fewer hours travelling and more hours of sleeping time. That means more time for proper rest which leads to more time for proper practicing and preparation. That’s what I’m looking forward to.”
“I think on behalf of the fans,” he said, “they now have an opportunity to watch games at a decent hour and not have to stay up until one o’clock in the morning with the team out West as much as they had been. We get to get home, leaving from the city to our city, in the same time zone quite often now. That makes a huge difference instead of losing one hour, or more, most of the time. I think it’s a win-win, I really do. We’ll get to see a number of the Original Six teams come in more often. I think that everybody seems to be looking forward to it.”
Having instituted this “brick by brick” philosophy, what does he see as the next step in this process? “I think the next step for us is to continue playing the way that we finished playing (last season). Expectations can create a lot of different things. One thing that I know it’s going to create is that the opposition is going to have to understand that we’re a good hockey club. That means that we’re not going to be able to sneak up on anybody.”
“We have to be able to deal with expectations,” he said. “I hope that it’s going to something that’s fun to watch. And then, we’ll analyze. We’ll analyze when we start in Traverse City (Prospect Tournament). We’ve got some really young people that we’ll analyze in (training) camp and see which players are close to making this team. We’ll work on getting (Nathan) Horton healthy. Nothing is ever perfect, by any means.”
“We’re going to have to watch and do the proper stick handling as we march along to make sure that we are competitive and be as good as we can be. We really feel good about our group going into the season, knowing that we have a club that’s going to compete and has the potential to win. Now, we have to go out and execute.”
For being with the club for less than a year, he shows a passion and respect for the Blue Jackets and the city of Columbus. But, does he think that the city and team are garnering respect around the league? “I think so,” Davidson said. “A lot of it revolves around winning. We have to win to get that aspect of it. I think the people that make their way to Columbus, especially in the world of hockey, realize that it’s a real good city. It’s a good sport city and we have a great facility (Nationwide Arena). It’s all positive.”
“The one’s that seem to take the potshots or have a lack of understanding generally are the people that don’t know Columbus. They don’t come to Columbus and see the city. They just haven’t done their homework. The people that take potshots because they don’t understand what the city is about, a sports city or the culture and the quality of life, those are the ones that bug me. There’s just no reason for it other than just ignorance. They just don’t know.”
“If you’re going to start taking potshots at certain cities, do your homework. There are a lot of good things about cities, and this is a terrific one right here.”