After playing the best hockey in franchise history down the stretch, the Columbus Blue Jackets have enjoyed an upsurge at the box office in recent weeks.
The team says it has seen a 13-percent improvement in season-ticket renewals from one year ago, when the Blue Jackets were coming off perhaps their worst season in the NHL and sold around 7,000 season tickets. The team has sold almost 1,000 new season-ticket plans including fans who upgraded to larger packages.
It’s a major difference from when the club was a doormat — especially for those charged with talking to the fan base and selling them tickets.
“There’s no question a lot of the conversations are more pleasant than they were perhaps last year,” Blue Jackets senior vice president and chief marketing officer John Browne said with a laugh. “People are very emotional about it, very passionate about it. They want their opinion to be heard. There’s no question over the last few months as the team continued to play really well, those less-than-friendly conversations are far fewer than they were.”
It’s been a remarkable turnaround. Those visiting the team’s website at www.bluejackets.com are now greeted by a picture of fans smiling while a scrum of players celebrate a goal. Emblazoned over the scene are the words, “The Best Is Yet To Come.”
After having far and away the worst record in the league during the 2011-12 season, the Blue Jackets came out of the owners’ lockout and were dead last in the league (5-12-2) again in late February.
But then, spurred on by new acquisitions, wily veterans and up-and-coming players, they went on a 19-5-5 tear that tied them with Minnesota for eighth place in the Western Conference. They missed out on the playoffs in a tiebreaker.
They drew a capacity crowd of 19,002 to their season finale at Nationwide Arena, welcomed more than 17,000 in each of the two home games before that, and finished the year averaging 14,562 in attendance.
“The crowd was electric,” center Brandon Dubinsky said after the final game, a come-from-behind 3-1 win over Nashville.
Dubinsky previously played for the New York Rangers and came over in the ballyhooed deal that shipped Rick Nash — Columbus’ captain and the franchise record holder in almost every offensive category — to the Big Apple last summer.
The fans were caught up in the sudden reversal of fortune by the team.
“They really appreciated the hard work that was put in and us proving everyone wrong. All the so-called experts picked us to finish dead last,” defenseman Jack Johnson said after the season. “It’s kind of the old, when someone says you can’t do it you’re determined to prove them wrong. Everyone around the city really appreciated it.”
Now the team’s website also carries the prompt, “Next season starts today. Get the best seats now.”
Most of the team is expected back next season, including old hands R.J. Umberger and Fedor Tyutin, rising young stars Cam Atkinson and Matt Calvert and relatively recent acquisitions Marian Gaborik and Nick Foligno. The club also has three first-round picks in the June 30 amateur draft.
Adding to the excitement is that the Blue Jackets (along with longtime nemesis Detroit) move to the Eastern Conference next season. That means less travel, easier access to broadcast road games for fans who have to work the next day and renewed interest in potential rivals.
“We know from research that the NHL has done, in addition to Columbus Blue Jackets fans, eight of the top 10 teams that they identify with as other teams they follow are Eastern Conference teams,” Browne said.
So the first step was earning some respect by winning games. Now general manager Jarmo Kekalainen and director of hockey operations John Davidson must keep the fans engaged with a team that continues to be competitive.
“I haven’t heard the building that loud,” said forward Jared Boll, the Blue Jackets’ longest-tenured player, the next day after the season ended. “It just shows you these fans are really here to stay and they want a winning team.”