John Davidson held his first town hall with Blue Jackets season ticket holders as the club's President of Hockey Operations. With head coach Todd Richards at his side, they talked to the fans about identity, the future, and what to look for as soon as NHL hockey returns to Columbus.
Perhaps it's appropriate that John Davidson's first major event with season ticket holders happened on a rainy, miserable night. With the arena district looking eerily empty at a time when it should have been bursting with activity, the new boss had his work cut out for him.
I went to the event as a STH, not as a reporter, and had my "fan" hat on. Remembering what the last event like this had been like, I was genuinely curious about what the fan reaction would be to JD and TR, and how they would handle the crowd. But the more people asked me if I was going to write about the event, the more it was clear I'd need to look at this through both mental lenses.
First off, and a concerning sign, was the attendance. Where the event in 2010 filled up a decent sized block of the lower bowl (113, 114, and 115), this event struggled to fill up 109 and 110. Even taking weather into account, the fact that they planned for two smaller sections based on the RSVPs says a fair amount.
Another change from the previous event was who took seats on the podium. While team President Mike Priest was in attendance, this time he was seated at the back, not lined up in front to face the firing line, though JD did call attention to him on a couple of occasions in response to questions that were more in his line. Also of note, GM Scott Howson was not, as far as I could tell, in attendance.
The night started with Jeff Rimmer introducing some of the team's sales reps, and noting that over 90% of the guests in the room had either kept their money with the team or already renewed. (Plus a not so subtle implication that people could, perhaps, choose to renew after tonight if they wished, but I don't blame him for trying.)
After that, it was time for Derek Dawley to take the stage and show off some of the new bells and whistles of the fully operational
Death Star Dispatch Media Center, including a beautiful demonstration of replay action on the main scoreboard and the monitors above the party towers, including the interesting implication that, should we be replaying a contested call, the different video displays could be used to show different angles to the crowd. (Oh, and it should be mentioned that Derek promised "A LOT more replays.")
The Time on Ice tracking display above the cannon was also demonstrated, and it was announced that the new audio system has been brought on line. Even better, the new sound design means that every section of the arena will get consistent audio - no more cases of one section struggling to hear while another one gets blasted.
The fan reaction to this was generally positive, but a bit tepid - after all, it's hard to get too excited when we don't know when we'll get to see actual game action on them.
Once the demonstration was complete, it was time for JD to make his way to the stage. Unsurprisingly, he spent some time talking about getting started - looking for a home here in Columbus, how he and his wife appreciated the warm welcome from the community, and trying to make the best use of his time while they wait for the lockout to end.
Traveling the US and Canada as he scouts talent, checks in on prospects, and prepares for what he called a "crucial" draft, Davidson also was prompted to talk a bit about the team in Springfield, and made a point that many of the players who might have wanted to be in Columbus were where they needed to be, giving them a chance to learn and mature without the pressure of playing at the NHL level.
Davidson seems quite pleased with the strength of the Falcons on the blue line and in net, but gave solid feedback for players like Cam Atkinson and Jonathan Audy-Marchessant, too.
The injury to 2012 #2 overall pick Ryan Murray was also brought up, and the fact that he would miss the rest of the season. JD was unfazed, saying that this was a "curveball", but one that he was confident the young defenseman could overcome and bounce back from with good rehab, though he regretted that Murray would miss the WJC or to try to win a championship in the WHL had he been traded to a top contender.
Before Todd Richards was brought out, the final solo question for JD was about the future of the team, and his message was honest: The team has to build themselves up, and it will be a process that he cannot place on a timetable. The club must build its' assets up, both to make itself stronger and potentially make deals, and they must not allow themselves to ever be outworked, right down to offseason workouts, and the expectations that will be set to prevent prospects and players from wasting their summers and costing themselves valuable opportunities to improve.
Make no mistake - JD sees a long road ahead, but he doesn't want to just see a team who makes the playoffs once or twice and then falls flat. He intends to create a team that will win and keep winning, with the goal of challenging for a championship every season. There is a strong foundation here thanks to players like Jack Johnson, James Wisniewski, Brandon Dubinsky, and Sergei Bobrovsky.
At this point, Todd Richards joined the discussion, and he was interestingly blunt about how frustrated he is with the current state of affairs. He wants to be coaching, and right now he's generally quite adrift. He appreciates the chance to spend more time with his family, but there are limits. Meanwhile, he and his staff are trying to keep themselves prepared for the day that the club can begin working with their players again.
Interestingly, JD took a moment to talk about the club's goaltending, and he sees a lot of himself in Steve Mason. He recalled needing to mature when he began in the NHL, and feels that Mason could be ready to make a big impact. On the other hand, he also brought up Bob's "remarkable" performance in the KHL this season, and sees him as a hard worker who will have an impact on the entire organization. You can almost imagine the two being set up in a healthy competition for playing time, with Curtis McElhinney at the perimeter to keep them honest.
The final "official" question from Bill Davidge went to Richards, who asked what we can expect from the team now that he's taken the "interim" tag off of his title.
Richards spent some time talking about surrounding himself with more talent by bringing Keith Acton and Craig Hartsburg on board, but more importantly set an expectation for the team as a whole, reaffirming that he doesn't want this club to ever be outworked.
"We started last year with a lot of hoping to win, and instead we need to expect to win whenever we come to the rink...and when we leave the rink, win or lose, you need to be proud of the way we played in front of the fans."
JD also chimed in saying that this club could be a real "Heavy" club, and capable of playing extremely hard, and that lead to a brief discussion of Hitch-isms and the potential rivalry between Columbus and St. Louis thanks to the recent history between the two clubs. The short version? "I'm here, he's there, and we're gonna kick their butts!"
From there, the floor was opened to questions from fans, and to my surprise, the Q&A went for the better part of an hour before they finally wound down.
The questions (with a few notable exceptions) broke down into a few basic categories.
- "How are you going to get the fans back in?" A: We need to play hard, win, and show a good example on and off ice for the community.
- "What's different now compared to the Doug MacLean years, or Hitch, or Scott Arniel...?" JD refused to be responsible for the past. "I cannot change what has happened before I got here. All I can do is work as hard as I can to do the right things in the right ways now that I am here."
- "What will the attitude of the club be like?" A: You will work, and work hard. This club is in the business of winning, and if you're not on board for that, you will be sent elsewhere.
- "How will we attract free agents?" A: This is a world class facility, an amazing city, and a great community. The better the team plays, the better the room is, everything is already here to make it attractive, because we are just as good as the other 29 teams in the NHL.
- "When will the All Star Game come back?" A: It's up to the NHL, but JD and the Blue Jackets as a whole are working to get it back as soon as possible.
- "Who will fill the void left by Rick Nash?" A: In terms of scoring, both JD and TR expect it to be a committee solution, but guys like Cam Atkinson and Ryan Johansen might be able to step up to help fill the void, while Richards expects to see a lot of scoring come in from the blue line. In terms of leadership, they see a number of strong voices in the room who will begin speaking up more in the absence of the former captain. (Reading between the lines, Jack Johnson is going to be a big piece of this, but so are James Wisniewski, Derek Dorsett, and Brandon Dubinsky.)
On some more unique topics, one fan asked if there was any chance, particularly if the regular season is canceled, if we can get the Falcons to play some games in Columbus. JD said that Mike Priest is working to try to arrange something, and that the Springfield ownership is very open to the idea, but the major sticking point is finding another AHL club that will be willing to travel to Columbus, and the logistical challenges involved. That said, the organization is trying to make it happen, and it's a very real possibility for the future.
Another fan asked, if we can't get the Falcons, can we get the World Juniors here in Columbus? JD thought it was a pretty fun idea, and might just work, but it would be something the organization would need to discuss with the city and other recent hosts to see what would be needed to make it a success.
The subject of leadership was frequently brought up, and the vacant captaincy. JD had some good anecdotes to tell about finding not only the right player to lead the club, but making sure the player is ready for the responsibility. With mentions of Olympic and World Championship experience coming up to help mold David Backes into the "right" player to take over the room in St. Louis, well, it's hard not to think that JMFJ might be the kind of guy that the club has in mind, but both the President and the Coach agreed that they need to see who steps up over the next season, and it shouldn't necessarily be the best player on the ice - it needs to be the one who can help to bring the best effort out in everyone.
The two men also shared some amusing anecdotes about guys in the room who they like to have (or hate to play against), particularly when Richards was coaching the WBS Baby Penguins and had to deal with some jerk named Derek Dorsett, and how JD attempted to get Jared Boll tossed out of the Traverse City tournament for the way he went after some of St. Louis' prospects.
All in all, fans and front office alike are frustrated by the lockout, but it felt like Davidson and Richards worked hard to set expectations and show that the club has a strong future in front of it. JD may not want to put a timeline on building this team, but they have clearly started the work.
The work off ice can only go so far, however. For fans to continue to believe in this club, and to truly get behind Davidson and the front office, we need to see what happens when the players actually step onto the ice.