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The Curtain Rises At Last

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Columbus begins its 15th season on the ice tomorrow night, with unprecedented expectations. The 2015-2016 NHL campaign promises to be an entertaining, nail biting affair. Here's my take on enjoying the show.

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

When you woke up on this date 15 years ago, you likely opened your Columbus Dispatch to see an overhead shot of Robert Kron winning the first face-off in franchise history from Chicago's Alexei Zhamnov.  The Blue Jackets would score the first goal of that contest (courtesy of Bruce Gardiner), and the next, and the next, courtesy of Steve Heinze and David Vyborny.  Then the adrenaline wore off and reality set in.  The Blackhawks would score the next five goals, and skate off with a 5 - 3 victory. No matter.  The NHL had arrived in Columbus, and both the buzz and the anticipation were off the charts.  As we enter the 2015-16 season, that sense of expectation and anticipation has returned . . .  with a vengeance.

While the pessimists in the crowd might argue that expectations are nothing more than premeditated resentments, the on-ramp to this season has a different feel.  Sometimes there is a fine line between hope and expectation, with the latter premised on fact, and the former based upon, well,  hope.  There are plenty of objective facts to support high expectations, and even . . . dare I say it . . .optimism.

Consider what has transpired since the organizational nadir on January 8, 2012, when Scott Arniel was relieved of his head coaching duties.  The club sat at 11-25-5 at that point, with a seemingly rudderless organization and a disgruntled fan base. (Yes, more disgruntled than usual).  Interim head coach Todd Richards navigated the squad to a near-.500 record for the remainder of that season, and then the fun began.

Richards had the interim tag removed in May of that year, and Ryan Murray was drafted he following month w  In July, the Blue Jackets shipped Marc Methot to Ottawa in exchange for some guy named Nick Foligno, while Rick Nash received his requested trade later in the month. With the NHL at a standstill due to the labor strife, the Blue Jackets were anything but idle.  John Davidson came aboard to run hockey operations in October, and Jarmo Kekäläinen assumed the GM duties in February, replacing Scott Howson.  On the ice, the Blue Jackets came within a Kerry Fraser hair of making the playoffs in the abbreviated season, losing on a tiebreaker to the Wild. Yet, the club who had finished dead last in the NHL the year before played at a 94 point pace, and gave glimpses of the possibilities.

In June, the Blue Jackets parlayed some deft dealing (including the Nash trade) to land Alexander Wennberg, Kerby Rychel and Marko Dano in the first round.  To prove that the prior year was not a fluke, Columbus went on to post 93 points in 2013-14, earning a playoff spot, and a memorable series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, which captivated not only the Columbus fan base, but hockey pundits across North America.  After that run ended, Columbus sent R.J. Umberger to Philadelphia for veteran Scott Hartnell.    Of course, last season the Hockey Gods elected to toy with the Blue Jackets, making them suffer through a horrific injury streak for 75% of the season, then rewarding them with a brilliant 15-1-1 streak.  Sure, the playoffs had been history since Christmas, but the way the club played, and the fact that they refused to surrender to reality captured the fan base.  It also provided the kindling for the flames of enthusiasm that we see today.  Throw the Brandon Saad acquisition onto the fire, and its a pretty impressive pyrotechnic display.

John Davidson's "brick by brick" approach has worked.  The Blue Jackets have strung together the best three year sequence in club history (an admittedly low bar), but have done so the right way.  While it's true that the Blue Jackets have never fielded as much talent as they will on the ice tomorrow night at Nationwide, it is also true that the organization has never been deeper.  To think that the club can afford to keep the likes of Kerby Rychel, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Sonny Milano in the AHL speaks volumes of how far this franchise has come, and how far it can go.  Hockey clubs reach that point of "critical mass", that point when the talent level reaches a breadth and depth that becomes self-sustaining.  If you suffer injuries or under-performance at a position, you have plenty of prospects or resources to move to fill the void.  You don't have to sacrifice the future to plug a hole, nor rob the pool of draft picks. This is where the Blue Jackets have arrived.

But make no mistake -- as excited as we all are about the Blue Jackets' prospects, this time of year is bigger than any one team.  It's also about the game itself.  No sport does tradition and ceremony quite as well as hockey, and if you watched the raising of the Stanley Cup banner at the United Center in Chicago last night, you could not help but feel the tradition and wonder what it will be like when that ceremony finally takes place at Nationwide Arena.  It was a metaphorical close to last year, and the opening of a new season with a clean slate.  All 30 teams have Stanley Cup aspirations, and there are 1,230 games to get themselves into position to do just that.  (Well, after last night, 1,226)  Hope springs eternal in every NHL city.

So, as the Blue Jackets get set to face the New York Rangers in just about 34 hours from now, remember that this is a marathon, not a sprint.  There are going to be ups and downs, surprises and disappointments.   Come June, 29 of the 30 teams are going to be disappointed, and that one team that survives will have done so because of skill, perseverance . . . and luck.  Any game involving big men propelling a frozen rubber disc at high speeds on ice is going to involve more than your normal share of bizarre bounces and misfortune.  The club that hoists the Cup is the one that most successfully navigated that minefield of uncertainty.  A hot goaltender in they playoffs can atone for a world of sins in the regular season, so what may seem improbably on paper can become stark reality on the ice.  That's why they play the games.

So, you can't let the fact that the ultimate prize is a 1 in 30 shot dissuade you from enjoying the journey.  Only one thing is certain:  we're all going to see some incredible play by some ridiculously talented athletes over the next 82 games, playing the best sport around.  The Blue Jackets now feature only a handful of players who remember the depths of that day in January 2012, and nobody is looking back.  Everyone's focus is forward, from the front office, the coaching staff, the players and the fans. We've all had that feeling that the off-season has been interminable this season, and that's a good thing.  That feeling equates to passion, and passion is what makes being a fan alternately wonderful and intolerable.

The Blue Jackets have emerged from camp healthier than they have in years, with the ability to roll four offensive lines, possess the puck, and score in bunches.  The guy in net has a Vezina Trophy on his mantle, and one of our 22-year old forwards has two Stanley Cup rings. The defense looks faster and more agile than ever.  We have now transcended hope, and are about to see a hockey at another level.   Be loud, be crazy . . . but be sure to enjoy the ride, because it's going to be a great one.  Stay tuned.