With the way this offseason has played out so far, the Columbus Blue Jackets may have accomplished what seemed like a dream just a few years ago.
The Blue Jackets may have ended the stigma that Ohio is an undesirable hockey market, or at least dampened those thoughts from national outlets.
Well, that may seem like a bit of an exaggeration, so I’ll make it even better for you. We may be in the early stages of some sort of “Renaissance” for sports in Ohio.
That’s probably a bit dramatic. That being said, let’s have some fun.
Columbus’ signing of star left winger Johnny Gaudreau on day one of the NHL free agency period is huge. It may not seem like much now, but this is just one of the few signs that Ohio is a burgeoning hockey market.
Last season, star blueliner Zach Werenski committed to staying in the state for six years. Just hours before I wrote this, Finnish winger Patrik Laine signed with the Blue Jackets for four seasons.
After years of failing to attract and retain high-profile talent, the Blue Jackets are locking down their top guys.
For years, the narrative surrounding Gaudreau was that he was destined to play in Philadelphia. He grew up a Flyers fan and hails from a New Jersey town 45 minutes from Philadelphia. That being said, he interviewed the Flyers. He also interviewed New Jersey and the New York Islanders.
He chose Columbus.
“I wanted to come here. This was always a place circled on my list.” said Gaudreau during his introductory press conference. “I’m not sure about other players. We don’t talk about why people don’t want to (go to) Columbus. It’s not an issue in the dressing room. For me, I’ve just heard so many great things from former players and I felt very comfortable with my decision to come here.”
Jack Roslovic and Sean Kuraly are both from the Columbus area. Cole Sillinger was born Canadian in Columbus while his father was playing for the Blue Jackets. The dividends of starting an ice hockey team in a “non-traditional market” begin to pay off.
The emergence of local talent is arguably the biggest sign that Columbus is on the wane “City with a Hockey Team” and rather a “Hockey Town”.
Honestly, this might be the best time to be an Ohio hockey fan, minus maybe the ’60s when the Cleveland Barons played in the American Hockey League.
The Blue Jackets are color stars. Their farm team, the Cleveland Monsters, are a few years away from a Calder Cup championship. And that team’s coach, Jared Bednar, just won the Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche.
The Ohio State women’s hockey team just won a national title. The men’s program has been consistently ranked lately.
East Palestine-born Vancouver Canucks JT Miller has continued to take steps to build his game. Last season was by far his best. He led the team in 82 games with 99 points (32 goals, 67 assists) and wore an “A” on his chest as the reserve captain.
Lest we forget the hometown of Youngstown Phantoms, ushering in a new era. Several players already selected for the NHL draft are expected to step onto the ice for the team this season, and several future picks will also play.
There’s a lot to be excited about if you’re a hockey fan. I know we’re technically closer to Pittsburgh and all, but western Pennsylvania has already gone through that transformation.
After the teams of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr in the ’90s and Sidney Crosby’s teams from the mid-2000s to the present day, the sport has had a firm grip on the area. It’s too early to tell if Gaudreau will have the same effect on Columbus and Ohio as a whole, but this could be the first domino to fall.
Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen seems to think the same.
“I think we can finally get rid of the (catchphrase) that this is kind of a bad destination, bad city, whatever.” Kekalainen told The Athletic. “Because it was never true. We got a bad rap because a few people were deciding all the time that they wouldn’t stay here long term for various reasons, but it was never about the city or the organization.
“We just had to shut up and deal with it, but every time I see a comment like this I get a rash.”