A Very Popular Guy
When John H. McConnell, majority owner of the host Columbus Blue Jackets, addressed the crowd remotely via the big screen in Nationwide Arena, the crowd responded in an unusual manner for Draft-goers: they gave McConnell a prolonged standing ovation.
McConnell, a native of West Virginia who built his fortune in the steel business with Worthington Industries in Columbus, is the savior whose vision brought the city an NHL franchise in 2000. After residents voted against public funding of a proposed arena to house a new NHL team in 1997, McConnell announced that he would bring the NHL to Columbus anyway when money from private investors — including Nationwide Insurance — was secured to build what is now Nationwide Arena, home to both the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Columbus Destroyers of the Arena Football League.
In appreciation of that effort, Blue Jackets fans have remained loyal through five seasons of play, during which Columbus has compiled a franchise record of 161-219-24-16. In Columbus’ first season, the team sold out 26 times, ending the season with a 15-game sellout streak.
In 2004, Nationwide Arena was named the “Ultimate Arena” and the No. 1 “Stadium Experience” by ESPN the Magazine, which judged fan experiences in the 121 major-league sports venues of MLB and the NBA, NFL and NHL.
“We say ‘thank you’ to our fans,” said McConnell. “We appreciate it. Columbus, Ohio, is the greatest place … to have a sports franchise. It’s a safe place, it’s a clean place, it’s a friendly place, so I hope you all enjoy your stay in Columbus. Thank you very much.”
The “friendly” fans did, however, engage in a long-standing NHL tradition. They loudly booed commissioner Gary Bettman, and sent loud jeers to all their Central Division, Western Conference rivals, especially the team that picked first overall, the Chicago Blackhawks.
Even late into the first round, when division foe Detroit picked No. 27 overall, the remaining Blue Jackets faithful managed a very loud, spirited, “Red Wings suck!” chant.
They Do a Little Turn on the Catwalk
The local crowd also erupted when Blue Jackets Dan Fritsche and Jody Shelley walked onto the stage to model the NHL’s new “Edge” Nike jerseys. Fritsche is the older brother of Ohio State senior Tom.
Signs of the Times
Ian Cole’s No. 18 pick by St. Louis marks the first time in Notre Dame hockey history that an incoming Notre Dame player — or any Irish player, for that matter — can be called a first-round draft pick.
Prior to Cole, Notre Dame’s highest-ever pick was Rob Globke, who went in the second round, No. 40 overall, in 2002 to the Florida Panthers.
In all, the Irish expect to see seven current or future players signed in the 2007 Entry Draft, including last year’s freshmen phenoms Kevin Deeth and Ryan Thang. Seven draftees would tie a team record that dates back to the 1975 draft.
The Irish took the regular-season CCHA title for 2006-07, and earned their first-ever NCAA tournament bid. They lost to eventual NCAA champion Michigan State in the Midwest Regional. Head coach Jeff Jackson earned this year’s Spencer Penrose award.
In 2005-06, the Fighting Irish finished tied for eighth in the CCHA. The year before, Notre Dame was dead last, with just five overall wins.
Ohio State … Hockey?
Toward the end of the first round, a small band of clearly local fans managed to rouse parts of the arena to engage in the traditional Ohio State chant that begins with “O-H!” and ends with the response of “I-O!”
A casual observer might conclude that these Blue Jackets faithful are Buckeye faithful as well — and they are, but that loyalty doesn’t necessarily translate into love for the OSU men’s ice hockey team.
Blue Jackets fan Joe Fetzer said that he’s been attending CBJ games “for a couple of years. I was a Chill fan when I moved to Columbus about 12 years ago, but before that I was a Rangers fan.
“I’ve been to a couple of Ohio State games. Follow it? No, I don’t. It’s a football town first, and a hockey town second.”
It’s the refrain that haunts OSU hockey. Columbus is enthralled with the football Buckeyes, in love with Blue Jackets hockey, and occasionally remembers that Ohio State has ice hockey, both men’s and women’s.
Contrary to popular belief, however, the city of Columbus does have a long relationship with hockey as an organized sport. Three International Hockey League teams played in Columbus, beginning with the Columbus Checkers (1966-70), followed by the Columbus Seals (1971-73) and the Columbus Owls (1973-77). Immediately before the Blue Jackets came to town, Columbus was home to the Columbus Chill of the East Coast Hockey League (1991-98).
Another CBJ fan who gave his first name only, Scott, who said he’s been a Blue Jackets fan “since day one,” traced his hockey loyalty back to the Chill and the Owls.
But has he ever been to an OSU hockey game?
“Never,” said Scott. “I’ve always wanted to, but I just haven’t gone.” He’s been to OSU football games, he said, but, “College hockey is a little bit different than professional hockey.” The comment wasn’t meant kindly.
Another Jackets fan named Joe had even more revealing observations about the status of Buckeye hockey in Columbus. “I know some people who get some free tickets, so I go then. You also have Buck-a-Brat night, and stuff like that.
“And, yeah, I am a fan of Buckeye football.”
And Joe was no hockey virgin when the Blue Jackets arrived. “I followed minor league hockey here for over 20 years before the Blue Jackets came here — Chill, the Owls, the Columbus Seals, and the old Columbus Checkers.”
Still, there are some CBJ fans who know that there’s Division I college hockey being played just a few miles up the road.
“Being an Ohio State Buckeye hockey fan, I see all these draft picks going to the NHL,” said Chuck, who described himself as a long-time hockey fan who’s been to many OSU and pro games in Columbus. “Even Ryan Kessler out there. I saw him as a freshman, and three years later he’s in the NHL.”
And to Drive the Point Home …
When Max Pacioretty was selected by Montreal No. 22 overall, the fans applauded politely … until the overhead big screen featured a shot of “a family friend” wearing a blue Michigan hockey jersey.
Pacioretty will attend the University of Michigan, a school that’s said to be a prime rival of Ohio State. For football, of course.
The Last Laugh
Columbus fans (read, “Buckeye fans”) will be delighted to see the disrespect shown to the home of those Wolverines. In the notes distributed by the NHL, the city was called “Ann Arbour.”