Davidson ready for curveballs as CBJ kicks off
John Davidson never expected his career to land him as a fixer in the NHL.
“No. No. No,” he said, shaking his head before pausing and letting a smile creep across his face.
“It’s been a great game for me,” said Davidson, a former NHL goalie, analyst, broadcaster and, most recently at the St. Louis Blues, the guy who fixes a struggling franchise. That’s what he’s been hired to do with the Columbus Blue Jackets franchise as its president of hockey operations. He was hired last summer.
“I’ve been in it since 1973. It’s never boring, it’s always interesting, you always get curveballs,” Davidson said. “We’re just going to go a step at a time, a brick at a time and get this franchise better.”
That’s a relief for Blue Jackets fans who have watched their club struggle since it opened its doors in 2000, making the playoffs only once in 2008-09, before being swept in four games by the Detroit Red Wings in the first round. Last season saw the team at the bottom of the heap in the standings.
“I know where we were last year in the standings. That’s a fact of life, you can’t deny that,” Davidson said. “I think this team has more to show than what it showed last season. I think they showed some of that stuff towards the end of the season. But we’ve got to get better.
“That doesn’t mean we’re going to win the Cup this year, but we’re going to get better.”
Can they get better without former captain Rick Nash, who asked for a trade late in the season last year and received his wish this past summer, being dealt to the New York Rangers? Absolutely, said Davidson.
“He did a lot of really good things here,” Davidson said. “We wish him the best. But as far I’m concerned, with all due respect to Rick, we’re moving forward.”
For Davidson, that means building a team playing style — no singled out stars here — and a heavy, defensively responsible club.
“I want us to gel as a team as quickly as possible here,” Davidson said. “We’re not going to get outworked, period. We’re going to have lots of energy. We’re going to stick together as a club. We’re going to play a heavy brand of hockey.
“We’re going to be hard to play against.”
It will be difficult with the abbreviated schedule, to be sure. The club will play 48 games in 99 days — a grueling schedule that will bring injuries and fatigue.
“Going coast to coast, you’re going to need both goaltenders to play well, and a team that has some depth,” said Davidson, adding he expects both goalies to play well and all four lines to score. “But we want this; we’ve been waiting for months to have the puck drop, hear the skates, see bodies banging and guys with lots of energy — It’s all good.”
Blue Jackets defenseman James Wisniewski couldn’t agree more.
“With a shortened season, we can’t take nights off,” Wisniewski said. “You get in those little slumps, they’re going to kill you. — They'll knock you right out of the playoffs. You don’t have enough games to recover.
“You have to go in with the mindset of winning every game. Getting tired, having a tough schedule, that’s not acceptable. And that comes from within the locker room, within the leadership group, knowing that if we don’t have our legs we have to play tight defensively. We can’t give up easy goals. We just have to be able to grind it out and win those.”
Wisniewski said the club’s decision to hire the veteran eyes and ears of Davidson — who the defenseman described as a “big man,”— excites the players.
“It’s good to see we’re taking it seriously,” Wisniewski said of the hire. “We’re putting the past behind us and we’re looking to the future and it’s going to be a bright one.”
Head coach Todd Richards said Davidson’s proven career and his turn-around of the St. Louis Blues brings credibility and depth to the organization.
“He’s somebody that’s had success at everything he’s done,” Richards said. “There’s credibility with that. It challenges you as a coach. Bringing J.D. in, his ideas and how he sees the game is going to challenge me as a coach and make me better. Hopefully I can pass that on to our players.”
Richards said Davidson’s experience in the league is going to help him become a better decision-maker.
“As a coach, what you need to do is gather as much information as you can before you make decisions,” Richards said. “I have to make a lot of decisions — drills, who’s on the ice, whatever it is. If I can gather up more information from people I respect, and their knowledge of the game, I can make a better decision.”
Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson said Davidson’s hire fortifies the front office and brings legitimacy to the organization in the eyes of the fans and the league. Howson said it will take time to establish what everyone’s role will be and how it may change, including his.
“Initially it’s going to stay the same and then, as John gets more familiar with what everybody’s doing and he sees how I work and I see how he works, we’ll figure out what the best thing is for the Blue Jackets,” Howson said. “If that’s me doing different things than that’s what we’ll be doing. It’s too early to do that. Right now we just need to get the season under way.”
That can’t come soon enough for Jackets season-ticket holder Ken Falk, who participated in the town hall meetings — to introduce Davidson to the fan base — over the last couple months.
“I thought the town hall meetings were great in terms of introducing him and putting him in front of season-ticket holders,” Falk said. “I think what was very refreshing was his answers were very candid. He answered from the gut. That was appreciated by everyone in attendance.”
Falk said he likes Davidson’s approach to slowly rebuilding the franchise as opposed to rushing in with a quick fix.
“If that means developing younger players longer, I’m fine with that,” Falk said. “In the last offseason there were some ambitious moves that ultimately didn’t pan out. Those all seemed moves of desperation. They didn’t seem like a long-term solution.”
Blues fan Justin Jacobsmeyer said that’s exactly how Davidson approached St. Louis — and was beloved by its fan base for doing it that way.
“He took a team that was, I would say, at rock bottom and kind of alienated their fan base and restored their credibility and respectability not just in the league, but in the marketplace,” Jacobsmeyer said. “He didn’t make excuses. He would go on the radio stations and he was honest with the fans. He laid out a common sense vision for the team.
“I think one thing people are going to realize is that John Davidson didn’t build stuff for the present. He built a future. ... Columbus is lucky as hell to get someone like him.”
Davidson thinks he’s the lucky one, landing in Ohio's most-populated city.
“I love it,” Davidson said. “Really nice people, easy to get around, great restaurants. ... Hey, I’ve really enjoyed myself.”
Good thing, because, according to Davidson, it’s going to take time and patience to rebuild the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“When you build a franchise, you do it one brick at a time,” Davidson said. “You have to do it where the foundation is firm and solid and you get bigger and better and move forward.”
Kinda like that ‘stache he’s rocked for, “I don’t even know,” how long, laughed Davidson. “All I know is, it’s getting lighter.”
The Blue Jackets open their season Saturday at 8 p.m. ET in Nashville, Tenn. It will be broadcast on Fox Sports Ohio starting at 7:30 p.m. The home opener against the Detroit Red Wings is Monday at 7:30 p.m. ET in Nationwide Arena.
Doors open at 5:30pm.