Fun Times At Nationwide

A group us us went to Nationwide Arena to watch the Columbus Blue Jackets take on the Pittsburgh Penguins last night. We had a great time, from the dramatic opening light show pictured above, to the deafening cannon blasts that sounded when the CBJ scored their three goals (one of which, regrettably, was nullified by an offsides penalty), to the point where the cleaning crew politely kicked us out as we lingered after the game. Unfortunately, the Jackets fell to the Pittsburghers, but since the arena included a lot of boisterous Penguin fans, that just made the setting louder.

I don’t know beans about hockey, but Nationwide Arena is a terrific venue and it was fun to be at a live sporting event in a raucous setting. The arena appeared to be full, too—which suggests that my opinion was shared by several thousand others who enjoyed getting out.

The Streak Ends

Last night the Capitals beat the Columbus Blue Jackets, 5-0, in Washington, D.C.  Last year, that sad result wouldn’t have been a surprise — after all, the CBJ lost 40 games last season and finished at the bottom of the NHL’s Metropolitan Division.

jacketsYesterday’s game was different, though, because it brought to an end an amazing 16-game winning streak for the Columbus hockey club.  It was the first time the Blue Jackets had lost a game since before Thanksgiving.  During the streak the CBJ rose from near the bottom of their division to first place — which is another landmark for the franchise.  As of today, the CBJ have 58 points after only 37 games; last year the team had a measly 76 points for the entire 82-game season.

For Columbus generally, and Blue Jackets fans specifically, the 16-game streak, and the undefeated December, was pretty cool.  It is the second longest winning streak in NHL history, falling one game short of the all-time record, and it saw the Blue Jackets win against good teams and bad, win on the road and at home, and even beat a team that was on its own 12-game winning streak.  Sellout crowds started to pack Nationwide Arena, and the people of Columbus started talking about the Blue Jackets around town — a lot.  For a franchise that has consistently known failure and disappointment, and that has never won a playoff series, it was heady times.  And the Columbus community appreciated it, because it allowed people to think about something other than Ohio State football for a while.

So now the streak is over, and it will be up to the Blue Jackets to bounce back, reveal their inner grit and determination, and show that they belong among the best teams in the NHL by playing consistently good hockey for the rest of the season and well into the playoffs.  Their coach, tough-talking John Tortorella, has challenged them to do exactly that in the wake of the loss to Washington.  After all, that’s what good teams do.

The Columbus Blue Jackets — a good team.  Who’da thunk it?  It’s a great thing.

The CBJ Test My Hypothesis

I’ve gotten into an odd new habit this year:  I check the ESPN website the morning after a Columbus Blue Jackets to see how the team fared.  I did it this morning and learned that they won . . . again.

622873784_slideI don’t know beans about hockey.  I also don’t know if, or how, I could watch a CBJ game on TV.  I do know, however, that the team has been winning a lot this season.  As we roll into December, the Blue Jackets are 13-5-4.  In their last 10 games they’re an even more impressive 7-1-2.  You don’t have to know much about hockey to know that a team with that kind of recent record is playing well.  My friends who know hockey say that the team finally has a good offense, an even better defense, and a capable goalie.  (Then they lapse into increasingly enthusiastic and animated hockeybabble about first lines, power plays, power play kills, and other inexplicable topics, and my understanding of what is being discussed falls to zilch and I start wondering what the hell happened on the most recent episode of HBO’s Westworld.)

What’s interesting about all of this to me is what it might mean to Columbus.  Our fair city has two professional sports franchises — the Blue Jackets and the Columbus Crew soccer team.  The Crew has a very devoted following, but even though they’ve been extremely successful they’ve never really captured the city’s imagination.  The Blue Jackets, on the other hand, have never been successful.  Usually they get off to a terrible start and are effectively out of the running a month or two into the season — which isn’t exactly a recipe for developing legions of new hockey fans.  As a result, by December sports fans in Columbus are talking about Ohio State’s upcoming bowl game, the prospects for the basketball Buckeyes, and not much else.

I think there’s plenty of room for more dedicated sports fandom in Columbus, outside of our passion for Ohio State — provided the fans have something to root for.  I’m hoping the Blue Jackets continue to play well so they can test my hypothesis.  This year, I’m detecting a bit of a buzz about the team, even apart from the hockeyheads.  And of course it would be great for the city if the CBJ made a run in the NHL playoffs and brought some excitement, visitors, and hotel and restaurant and bar patrons to the Arena District.

So, let’s go, Jackets!  (Clap . . . clap . . . clapclapclap.)  Who knows?  I might actually go to a game this year and have a pal explain icing to me for the 45th time.

Zambonis On Parade

IMG_0683Last week I went to a Columbus Blue Jackets game.  It’s the first hockey game I’ve been to in a long while.  Surprisingly, the Blue Jackets won — which is pretty shocking, because the CBJ is mired in last place and beat a team that is competing for a playoff spot.

I’m not much of a hockey fan.  Frankly, my favorite part of the game was the Zambonis.   There’s something kind of hypnotic about these bulky, ungainly machines serenely gliding over the ice and leaving it smooth as silk.  For some reason, they reminded me of a visit Russell and I made, years ago, to the huge hippopotamus tank at the San Diego Zoo.  From above, the hippos looked almost graceful as they moved through the water, with only their massive heads visible above the surface, but walk down to see the animals from below and you notice that, under the serene facade, the hippos are swimming at a furious pace.  I’m guessing that, beneath the slow-moving exterior, there’s a lot of activity going on under the Zambonis.

Good Luck, Holly!

Today was the last day at work for one of my colleagues whose desk is right outside the door to my office.  She’s moving on to a new job, one that she hopes will bring her fresh challenges and a chance to continue to grow and develop in her professional career.

I’ll call her Holly Hockey, because she is one of the most rabid hockey fans you can possibly imagine.  When the NHL had one of its recent strikes and time passed without a resolution, she became increasingly agitated at the thought of a winter without hockey, and you could hear her spluttering about how it was high time to settle this thing and drop the damned puck!  Ask her about how she thought the Columbus Blue Jackets were doing, and you’d get a thoughtful and comprehensive analysis of the rising stars, the disappointments, and some likely personnel changes.  But hockey is just one of the things that HH is passionate about:  other key interests included her family, Dropkick Murphys, Irish heritage, avoiding painful sunburns, and a nice glass of Jameson’s to help reflect on a week of work well done.

She is one of those “glue guys” — people who help to make any workplace work just a bit better, by being willing to pitch in and help even when it wasn’t technically her duty to do so, by being a friendly face when you got off the elevator, and by laughing at your lame attempt at humor or sharing her ditty about the perils of drinking tequila (“One tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor.”)  Over the years we got to know each other and could share a chuckle on a tough work day.  She put up with my guff, and I appreciated it.  You don’t quite fully realize the value and impact of such people until they are gone.

We all touch each other in different ways, without really thinking much about it.  HH was one of those people who touched her lucky co-workers in a good way.  We’ll miss her, but we can’t help but wish her the best as she moves on to tackle a new job.

Now if only the Blue Jackets would start hitting and playing some old-fashioned hockey!

Let’s Go, Jackets!

Let me say at the outset that I am not a hockey fan. I don’t put an “eh” at the end of every sentence. I don’t know the difference between the red line and the blue line, and I’m lost when someone starts talking about “putting the puck in the five-hole.”

Nevertheless, over the past few weeks I’ve found myself regularly checking the ESPN website for hockey results, and on Wednesday night I actually listened to a hockey broadcast as I drove home from Cincinnati. The Blue Jackets won that game and clinched a playoff spot for only the second time in franchise history. With two games left in the regular season — included tonight’s matchup against Tampa Bay — the CBJ now are hoping to improve their playoff position and avoid a first-round series against either Boston or Pittsburgh, which are the two powerhouse teams in the Eastern Conference of the NHL.

Why do I care? I have a lot of friends who are Blue Jackets fans and season ticket holders who have suffered through some dismal, disappointing seasons since the team first started playing in 2000. I’m happy for them. I’m happy for Columbus, too. Nationwide Arena, where the CBJ skate, is the cornerstone of the Columbus Arena District. We need the team to be successful and prosperous for that area to continue to be a growing, vibrant destination. Playoff games will bring excitement, visitors, and tax revenues that will help fill city coffers. And if the Blue Jackets could make a playoff run, all of those positive benefits would be compounded.

Of course, the only time the Blue Jackets made the playoffs they were swept and out in three games — but that’s ancient history, right? Let’s go, Jackets!

Blue Jacket Blues

Tonight the National Hockey League playoffs begin!  Throughout the land, the sense of excitement and anticipation is palpable.  But there is no joy in Mudville — er, Columbus — because the Blue Jackets have once again fallen short.  They and their fans are sitting on the sidelines, watching as the ridiculously protracted NHL playoff process gets underway without them.

The Blue Jackets have been in existence for 10 years.  During that time, they made the playoffs once, and were promptly bounced out.  This record of futility is a kind of perverse accomplishment, because in the 30-team NHL 16 teams — that is, more than half — make the playoffs.  To miss the playoffs year after year takes some doing.  I don’t know anything about hockey and don’t follow the sport, so I can’t offer even the kind of banal second-guessing that is the stock in trade of most sports fans.  It just seems like the Blue Jackets are snake bit, and once a team gets that kind of rep it is tough to dispel it.

As a Cleveland sports fan, I’m used to this kind of dismal performance, but I do feel badly for the Blue Jackets and their fans as they sit back, crack open a Molson’s lager, and wait until next year.

Blue Jackets On A Roll

Columbus has two professional sports franchises — the Columbus Crew Major League Soccer team, and the Columbus Blue Jackets, a National Hockey League franchise.  (Some would argue that the real big-league team in town is the Ohio State Buckeyes.)

The Crew won the MLS Cup a few years ago, but the Blue Jackets have been a kind of Sad Sack team.  The made the playoffs one year and quickly were eliminated.  Other than that, their record has been abysmal.  In most years, they have been virtually eliminated from the playoff hunt by the beginning of January, and the hardy souls who buy season tickets are begging their friends to use the ducats thereafter.

This year is different.  The Jackets have a new coach, are playing a new style of hockey, and have started the season 13-6, including a stellar 7-1 record on the road.  The team has a good corps of young players, including star scorer Rick Nash, and two good goalies in Mathieu Garon and Steve Mason.  While the season is still young, there is hope in Columbus that the franchise may have turned the corner.  The question for hockey fans is whether the CBJ could be one of the NHL’s better teams, capable of playing deep into the playoffs — something that would be good for Columbus and great for the franchise.

We may learn the answer soon enough to the question about how good the Blue Jackets really are.  On Friday the perennial NHL power, the Detroit Red Wings, visit Nationwide Arena for a key divisional contest.