Being a Columbus Blue Jackets fan isn’t glamorous. If you have friends who aren’t into hockey (God bless them), be prepared for the questions. Yes, there is professional hockey in Ohio. Yes, they were the last NHL team to make their first Stanley Cup playoff appearance. Yes, a Blue Jacket is kind of a dumb mascot.
On the face, Columbus looks like a middle-of-the-road, mid-market team with two superstars and a fat coach. And while that not may be wholly inaccurate, the Jackets did book their first trip to the playoffs last year, are playing in front of passionate, growing fan base that’s re-building support for one of the youngest teams in the NHL—and currently sit in second place in the toughest division in hockey.
Columbus offers the full-range of experiences for a hockey fan, with a young, talented club forging its own traditions by creating an atmosphere of winning with some of the best young players in the game.
It wasn’t a fun road to get to the mild success the Jackets currently enjoy. CBJ fans spent much of the past nine years watching the hometown boys compile a 206-294-33-16 record before Ken Hitchcock finally led the team to postseason play in his second year behind the bench. Fans saw enough lost leads and lost players that many simply lost interest. Changes in management, however, have pulled the team into a team that has a chance to win every game, which, really, what more would you want as a fan?
CBJ history breaks into two periods, identifiable by the reigning GM: Doug MacLean and Scott Howson. MacLean took over operations in 1998 and ran the team—always as general manager and president, sometimes as head coach—until 2006-2007. MacLean used splashy free agent signings like Sergei Federov and Adam Foote as a way keep fans watching and hopefully squeeze a few wins out of a roster full of lower-tier talent. The fan appeal angle worked somewhat, but the winning never came, at least not while MacLean held the reins.
In recent (yeah, yeah, they’re not that old) Jackets history, three dates stand out as the turning point in the club’s fortunes. On November 26, 2006, Ken Hitchcock arrived as head coach. On April 18, 2007, MacLean got the axe. On June 15, 2007, Scott Howson took over general manager duties.
It’s been only two years.
Since then, Columbus has made the playoffs, set records in points and developed a tight-knit team where veteran leadership carries the load and looks out for its young stars. Jerry Seinfeld likened rooting for a sports team to rooting for laundry, and that’s true. But when you support a team, the players are what matters and Columbus has 26 hard-nosed sons of bitches that make you want them to win.
Captain Rick Nash. One of the game’s indisputable superstars. He won’t blind you with flash, but his speed and toughness around the net means you’ll be seeing him with his arms up in celebration more often than not. He’s 25, just signed an extension that will keep him in blue and white for almost the next decade and will serve on Canada’s top line this February in the Olympics.
Goalie Steve Mason. The reigning Calder Trophy winner, the babyfaced Mason took the league by storm last year and has started to get back on track after some shaky outings this season. As a fan, identifying and carping about players’ weaknesses can be as much fun as rejoicing in successes. For me: Mason’s a headcase. But he’s /our/ headcase. And he’s very good. And 21 years old.
Jared Boll. My personal favorite Jacket. He rarely scores, but his willingness to throw down in fisticuffs and deliver big hits despite his smaller size and skill means he’ll have a spot on Ken Hitchcock’s defense-first, play-hard team.
The kids. Along with Mason, the Jackets boast: the 22-year-old Derick Brassard (could’ve won the Calder if he didn’t miss most of last season with an injury), the 20-year-old Jakub Voracek (the dressing room cut-up with a haircut more suited for 1987), the 23-year-old Boll, the 22-year old Derek Dorsett (a smaller, perhaps a ::ahem:: more skilled Boll) and the 22-year-old Mike Blunden (solid fourth-liner). That’s not counting the 19-year-old wunderkind Nikita Filatov, who just went back to Russia for a year, and a host of other prospects in the minors and college ranks.
Why would you choose to follow the Jackets? They don’t have the huge, passionate fanbase of teams like Vancouver or the tradition and history of teams like Toronto (or hell, Carolina, for that matter). They don’t get media coverage unless Rick Nash scores a beauty or someone gets suspended—normally not a Jacket, either (see: Dorsett, Derek last week against Dallas). The NHL won’t put Jackets merchandise or advertising over the Penguins or the Caps. So why?
It’s pretty simple: the Jackets are /fun/. Watch a game. Their style might not be sexy, but they’re learning how to win and stand up for each other. Fans show up for home games. Locking up Nash and Brassard to extensions has shown free agents that Columbus is building towards the future.
And we haven’t even touched on how much fun you can have hating CBJ enemies (Detroit, Calgary, Nashville, Dallas) or others (FSOhio play-by-play man Jeff Rimer, who will inspire fits of rage of you listen to him long enough). Plus, the warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you meet fellow Jackets fans stays with you for awhile.
The bandwagon might fill up in the next few years, so grab a spot now. Being a Columbus Blue Jackets fan isn’t glamorous. But it’s getting there.
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