Higher expectations – The Blue Jackets then and now

The lack of an identity for the Blue Jackets came to the forefront in October, 2011. Less than 10 games into the 2011-2012 season, Vinny Prospal (signed as a free agent that summer) “called out” the practice habits of the club, publically. That was the beginning of the end of the “country club” atmosphere within Nationwide Arena.

Assistant coach Dan Hinote was brought into the club in July, 2010. He has seen the change in the team from just existing to having a drive to win. “The biggest difference, to me, is that we have one now,” said Hinote, “as far as identities are concerned. I think back to the days when they made the playoffs (2009), their identity was a good defensive team. But, what I think has changed over the years is that now we’ve established the identity of a hard-working team.”

“There are certain other aspects to the game, that when we say that we’re going to outwork you every night. That includes a strong defense, good puck decisions and a million other things. That, to me, is the biggest difference. We have an identity now. It wasn’t an overnight thing, or a decision that they made or we made. I think that, over time, it was bringing in the right players, the right mindset.”

“The management coming down, sending the message that this is what they expect. If it’s not done properly, you won’t be here and the team won’t go forward. Collectively, everybody figured out that this is how we’re going to have to play to win.”

In the following twelve months, the house that Mr. Mac built was being revamped, with players traded and new faces coming in. Gone were Rick Nash, Jeff Carter, Antoine Vermette and Samuel Pahlsson. In were Jack Johnson, Brandon Dubinsky, and Artem Anisimov. But, the foundation was truly laid when Columbus hired John Davidson to be the new President of Hockey Operations. From almost the first day on the job, he espoused building the franchise up to where it needed to be “brick by brick”.

In the span of the last twelve months, the foundation was set and the expectations are reaching new heights, for both players and fans, alike. The “buzz” that surrounds this club is new and exciting.

An example of this was when General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen made an unannounced stop by the August fan gathering known as “CannonFest”. He was taken aback by the sheer number of fans that were there on a Sunday afternoon, in August.

“It definitely makes our job of coming to the rink more fun,” said RJ Umberger, “when you have that buzz going around town. I think it’s a hand-in-hand situation where we (fans, players) feed off of each other. The better we play, the more they get into it. And, the louder and crazier it is, the more excited we are. It’s a lot of fun to come to the rink knowing that this town is ‘pumped’. It’s going to be a good year.”

Jared Boll, drafted by the Blue Jackets in 2005, echoes Umberger’s thoughts on the excitement surrounding this club at this time. “This is the most excited I’ve heard (from fans) about the team since I’ve been here”, Boll said. “I’m here year-round, so, just to hear how excited everyone was about the way that we finished (last season), and coming into this season the wanting to continue the high hopes that we have.”

The club is drawing in more than the just the hardcore fans. “Casual” fans are taking notice and this is not lost on the players in the room. “It’s bigger than many people expected”, said Boll. “Even when we weren’t playing well and we didn’t have the best record, our fans have always been good. They’ve always kept coming to see us.”

“For us to finally ‘put it together’ towards the last half of last year and to give them something to cheer about is really rewarding to us. They deserve a team that is going to show up and work hard and win games. It’s great to see as a player. It’s great to see how loud and crazy they got (last season).”

Bringing the question of having an identity full circle, Todd Richards explains, “I definitely feel the buzz and excitement. I sensed it all summer. I sensed it as we were finishing last season. You could see it in our last game in this building (last season). To me, we got a sense of what this city and what this arena could be like.”

“I saw what it could be like, out in the city, just bumping into people. People wanted to talk hockey. Where, the previous two years hockey was an afterthought. It was about what’s going on with OSU football, leading up to the fall. This year, I think that we are one of the stories. OSU is always going to be OSU football. We are another story this fall that people want to talk about, want to cover and want to write about. There is a real buzz here.”

Short Shifts

Jack Nicklaus, PGA golf legend, native of Upper Arlington, OH and winner of 18 major championships, will drop the ceremonial first puck for the Blue Jackets home opener versus the Calgary Flames. The timing of this coincides with the 2013 President’s Cup being held at Nicklaus’ Muirfield Village Golf Club, Dublin, OH.