Talent on ice, effort off it help franchise grow hockey in Columbus
A superbly talented 21-year-old center. A well-respected management team. The willingness and desire to grow hockey at the grassroots level.
Familiar ideas, no?
The Penguins followed that formula to construct one of the NHL's most successful franchises.
It also happens to be the same blueprint the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Penguins' opponent in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, have used.
An expansion team in 2000, Columbus is in the playoffs for the second time, and the Blue Jackets are looking to cash in on a young, talented team and an aggressive approach to marketing themselves to the community.
“I'm in education, and I know any time someone does something good, we steal their idea,” said Paul Roman, 52, a middle school teacher at Phoenix High School and the hockey coach at Worthington Kilbourne, a high school in suburban Columbus. “I'm sure our guys are watching the Blackhawks, the Penguins and the Sharks, figuring out what they're doing, and feeling the need to copy it.”
Though the Penguins sought advice from Columbus when starting their Pittsburgh Penguins Elite travel team, the Blue Jackets are mimicking many other things the Penguins have done.
They recently started Student Rush, the longtime Penguins promotion with tickets for college students as low as $15.
The Blue Jackets hold Learn-to-Skate events, furnish local schools and less-fortunate kids with hockey equipment, and use their coaches to counsel local high school and club programs.
On the ice, the Blue Jackets are the NHL's youngest team with an average age of 26.1 years.
Their roster is highlighted by 33-goal scorer Ryan Johansen and 2013 Vezina Trophy (best goaltender) winner Sergei Bobrovsky.
This winter, they had a franchise-best record of 43-32-7 and finished as the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference.
“It's always great when a franchise that has been struggling or rebuilding on the ice begins to show its fans the hope that the future will bring,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. “That's what sports is all about. It's always about hope and expectations and fantasizing how good it would be to win it all.”
Such fantasies have created a major bump in numbers.
In 1991, Columbus had one youth hockey association with 200 kids. Now, there's three with about 2,000 kids playing, according to the Blue Jackets.
Adult hockey participation has soared from 12 teams in 1994 to 175 now. High school hockey has gone from one varsity team in 1991 to 13.
The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League has 60 varsity high school programs.
“It's getting a lot more robust,” Penguins CEO/president David Morehouse said of Columbus' hockey landscape. “It's similar to what we're trying to do here.”
Tim Pennington, 53, will never forget his first game at Thomas Worthington High School: It was 1976, the game was stopped for excessive fighting and Pennington and his teammates wore football jerseys — not hockey sweaters — over their pads.
Pennington, like many Columbus natives, grew up as a fan of another team. He roots for the New York Rangers, though many in the city pull for the Detroit Red Wings or the Penguins.
“We're aspiring to be Pittsburgh in many ways, including our NHL team,” said Pennington, who has been the coach at Olentangy High School in Lewis Center, Ohio, for the past six years. “You look at the Penguins and think, ‘How does anybody ever beat them?' We know we have a ways to go.”
Columbus was home to such minor league hockey teams as the Checkers, the Owls, the Golden Seals and the Chill.
The Blue Jackets came into existence in 2000, more than 20 years after the Cleveland Barons left the NHL.
A big boost for the Blue Jackets has been John Davidson's taking over as president of hockey operations. Davidson played in the NHL, was a broadcaster and earned respect around the league for his work in the same capacity with the St. Louis Blues.
He not only has found young talent but also brought in stable veterans, such as James Wisniewski, Brandon Dubinsky and Jack Johnson.
Columbus will have a chance to showcase its organization when it hosts the 2015 All-Star Game.
Another key factor was this season's move out of the Western Conference and into the Eastern Conference with the Penguins.
“We were asking to be moved to the Eastern Conference for years,” said Blue Jackets senior vice president/general counsel Greg Kirstein, a 1972 Bethel Park graduate. “It's a lot easier when you're trying to sell hockey to new families to mention Pittsburgh, Boston, Detroit and Philadelphia than it is Phoenix, Anaheim and San Jose.”
Hockey town once more
The Blue Jackets have the Columbus hockey market on ice — literally.
They own and operate nine rinks, including the team's practice facility, the OhioHealth Ice Haus, which is adjacent to Nationwide Arena.
Through the Blue Jackets Foundation, the team contributes more than $200,000 per year to local youth organizations for equipment and coaching instruction, Kirstein said.
The Blue Jackets have spent more than $25 million on rinks and $1 million on youth hockey initiatives, Kirstein said.
Coach Todd Richards, who preceded Dan Bylsma in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, has built relationships in the community by connecting with coaches such as Roman and Pennington.
He and his assistants attend local youth and high school games. They appear at coach and league meetings throughout the area and offer their services, any time of day or night.
“There's a great dedication in both organizations working with youth hockey and different charities,” Richards said. “Players do it. Coaches do it. Management does it. It's an organizational effort.”
The Blue Jackets rank 27th out of the 30-team NHL in attendance, according to ESPN.com, drawing 14,698 fans per game.
But fans arrived up at 5 a.m. the day seats went on sale to purchase playoff tickets for Games 3 and 4 of the Penguins series Monday and Wednesday.
The team has enjoyed more than a 20 percent bump in season ticket sales over the past year, giving the organization hope that a playoff series against one of the NHL's heavyweights, not to mention a neighborhood rival, could further the development of hockey in Columbus.
“Columbus doesn't get the recognition of being a great hockey town, but it is,” said Ed Gingher, the director of the Ohio AAA Blue Jackets. “There are very passionate sports fans here that want to see the team do well. I think once they start doing well and proving that they can do it consistently, it will take off. It will probably mirror more of what Pittsburgh has right now.”
Jason Mackey is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @Mackey_Trib.
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