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The Columbus Hockey Scene

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Once overshadowed by other sports, hockey has taken root in the capital city in the Heart of it All. The hockey scene will be on full display as the All-Star festivities come to Columbus this week.

One of my favorite speeches ever is the one Jim Valvano gave at the 1993 ESPY Awards.  Of the many famous lines he delivered that night, I thought of this one as I sat down to write this piece - "I always have to think about what’s important in life to me are these three things: Where you started, where you are and where you’re going to be."  Obviously those are great to think about on a personal level, but you can also look at them collectively - for example, the hockey community in Columbus.

Where We Started

Many sports teams have come and gone in Columbus at a variety levels.  Outside of Ohio State, very few have survived.  The Columbus Clippers were founded in 1977 and the Crew were a founding member of the MLS in 1994.  Columbus was home to three different minor-league hockey teams in the 1960's and 1970's, but no team made it beyond three seasons in Ohio's capital city.

The area had many ice rinks and hockey leagues, but much like the minor league teams (the Checkers, Seals, and Owls, by the way, all in the IHL) they had trouble staying in existence.  Rather than adding rinks and leagues in the late 1970's and 1980's, many facilities shut down and the "hockey scene" was struggling.

Then, things began to change.  The Columbus Chill started up as an expansion franchise in the ECHL in 1991.  At that time, only Upper Arlington had a high school team and there were two rinks in the city - Ohio State and the State Fairgrounds Coliseum.  A single youth league had about 150 kids and there were just a handful of adult-teams totaling roughly 160 players.

The Chill were much different than their predecessors.  The players endeared themselves to the fans.  The organization ran wacky promotions and utilized some "viral marketing."  They set a minor-league record with 83 consecutive sellouts and became a national story.  Eventually the team left in 1999 as the writing was on the wall with the Blue Jackets set to join the NHL.

That does not mean their footprint isn't all over Columbus.  In 1993, the team built the first Chiller in Dublin, in part to alleviate ice time at their own rink.  The Chiller at Easton followed in 1997, and soon it began to have a domino effect on the area.

Much like the Chill in the 1990's, the Blue Jackets have had a similar impact on the community.  Columbus was not seen as a natural market for hockey when it was awarded a franchise, but seeing the growth of the game in the city has proved the naysayers wrong.  Kids are able to see the dream in their own city now.

Where We Are Now

Just as a refresher of where Columbus was in the early '90s - A couple rinks, a high school team, a youth league, and a few adult teams.  Well, the Chiller network and other rinks that have popped up now bring the total sheets in the area to 13 in nine rinks with more are planned to be built in the coming years.  Some 5,000 kids in central Ohio now play amateur hockey.  There are now six youth hockey programs and 20 high school programs in the area as well.  That's a staggering amount of growth in the last 25 years.

And it's not just the kids.  Adults are getting in on the fun, too.  Nearly 3,000 adults are registered players in central Ohio and the Chiller Ice Hockey League is the third-largest USA Hockey registered adult league in the country.

Even the Blue Jackets are experiencing an attendance boost after their playoff run last season.  It also helps that the economy is turning around after bottoming out in 2008 and 2009.  Fans have more disposable income to spend on a night at Nationwide Arena.  The Jackets are averaging more than 15,600 in attendance this season.  That is up more than 2,000 per game from the low of four years ago and is already up 1,000 per game from just last season.  Who knows where that number might be had incompetent management not run the franchise into the ground for the first few years of existence.

Hockey programs of all ages are expanding and fighting for ice time.  The fans are enjoying the success of the Blue Jackets.  You are no longer out of place to be playing or cheering on hockey in Columbus.

Where We Want To Be

All of that said, of course the Blue Jackets would love to have 19,000+ in the barn every night.  That is a tough ask with no playoff wins in franchise history until last April.  Frustration began to set in after the first few years came and went with no improvement on the ice.  Sure, it was fun to go to a game with family or friends, but the fans wanted to see some signs of competitiveness and a push towards the playoffs.

The lockout in 2004-2005 soured some people and the city caught on for the first playoff berth a few years later but even that momentum was not sustained.  There certainly is a loyal base of nine to ten thousand fans who show up every night.  It has been filling the other half of the arena that has proven difficult night in and night out.  That is obviously the ultimate goal for the franchise, but it is only going to happen with sustained success on the ice.

As for the increase in sheets of ice, former Jacket Freddy Modin has been quoted as saying, "We could use 10 more sheets of ice in this city."  And he means now.  Trying to get ice time can be pretty intense (just ask some of the readers here).

It would also be nice to see more rinks inside the outerbelt.  Some areas that don't have the facilities for an ice rink are picking up floor hockey as an alternative.  A few suburbs also might be under-served some say - Grove City, Reynoldsburg, and Pickerington.  Some are advocating working with the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department to build a community rink or two, and not another one in the suburbs.

I am not sure if there is any one person dedicated to overseeing the hockey leagues in Columbus or if any of the community leaders would say this publicly, but it is my guess that the goal would be to aspire to pass Cleveland (if Columbus hasn't already) and build a hockey community like Pittsburgh's.  To get to that level, the city would need to add another 20 or 25 sheets of ice.  Is there demand for that many sheets of ice?  Probably not yet - but it can get there with the help of the Blue Jackets building fans of the game.

There's More

You can also see the effects the Chill and Blue Jackets have had on the community by looking at recent draft picks from the area.  I actually went to high school with the first player from Columbus to be drafted in the NHL - Trent Vogelhuber went 211th overall, the very last pick of the draft, in 2007 to the Blue Jackets no less.  Trent went on to play for Miami University and has battled injuries for much of his career.  He is playing in Springfield this year.

The Phoenix Coyotes selected Connor Murphy 20th overall in 2011.  Connor is the son of former Blue Jackets assistant coach Gord Murphy and grew up in the area as his dad was coaching for the CBJ.  He played in 30 NHL games last season and has appeared in 40 this season for the Coyotes.

Murphy's best friend growing up also got drafted in 2011 - Sean Kuraly went in the 5th round to the San Jose Sharks.  Ironically enough, I grew up down the street from Sean meaning I have connections to two of the first three players drafted from Columbus.  Both Kuraly and Murphy were on the 2013 U.S. team that won the IIHF World Junior Championship.  Kuraly is in his junior season at Miami University.

Additionally, Cole Cassels, son of...you guessed it, Andrew Cassels, was drafted by the Vancouver Canucks in the 3rd round of the 2013 NHL Draft.  Cole is playing for the Oshawa Generals this season.

From NHL draft picks, to a passionate NHL fanbase, to growing leagues at all levels, hockey has never been stronger in Columbus.  Unlike the teams of the 1960's and 1970's, the Chill and Blue Jackets have been able to make hockey stick (pun intended) in the community.  That hockey scene will be front and center as the NHL's best visit the city this coming weekend for the All-Star festivities.

*Full disclosure, I did not research all of that information.  For longer reads, click here (NHL.com), here (Dispatch), and here (Dispatch).