For me, sports fandom is a matter of civic pride. I was born and raised in Columbus, therefore any athlete representing Columbus, Ohio, or the US (on the international level) is someone I can root for. Even if the athlete is from somewhere else, there is a connection there. As long as they wear the name of MY home on their uniform, they represent ME.
As a kid, I was thrilled when Columbus was awarded an NHL franchise. I knew this would be huge for the city’s reputation and name recognition. Granted, this was slow in arriving. While in college I attended the first game after the 2005 lockout, when the Jackets visited the Capitals (sidenote: this game featured the NHL debut of Alexander Ovechkin, who scored two goals to beat the Jackets). As I walked from the Metro to the arena, I heard a couple Washington fans talking:
“Who are we playing?”
“The...uh…[glances at ticket] Columbus...Blue Jackets.”
“Columbus? Like, Ohio? They have a team?”
I must confess that my Jackets fandom was slow to develop. All I knew about hockey I learned from The Mighty Ducks and EA’s NHL games for the Sega Genesis. I owned clothing with the ribbon logo a couple years before the team ever took the ice, but I only saw a handful of games in those early seasons. It wasn’t until a few years after moving back to Columbus after college that I started following the team more closely. In 2010, an ad caught my eye and I bought my first partial season ticket package. I’ve attended 6-10 games a year ever since, and I hope to continue renewing my tickets each year.
I started commenting on The Cannon (over 4000 times! I need to get a life) starting with the 2013 lockout season. It seems fitting, as that was clearly the start of a new era of Jackets hockey. I have learned a lot about the game thanks to the expertise of the writers and commenters. It felt good to find a community of people who were similarly enthusiastic about hockey in general and the Blue Jackets in particular.
On this and other sports forums, I have taken a perverse pride in being a Cleveland sports fan. My parents have Cleveland roots as did many friends I grew up with. When I moved from Ohio to DC for college, following those teams was a way to stay connected with those friends and family back home. I also found that it helped me stick out in a community where the majority seemed to be Yankees or Red Sox fans. I was bitter that success came so easily to those teams and their fans, yet I took pride in the fact that there was nothing easy about being a Cleveland fan. I highly recommend watching the ESPN 30 for 30 film Believeland, which I think accurately captures the history and the zeitgeist of the Cleveland fan.
Fast forward to this year’s NBA playoffs. I do not follow the NBA very closely, but I have always wanted the Cavs to do well. I was happy that they drafted LeBron, enthralled when he beat Detroit in 2007, and heartbroken in 2010 when he left...and because of HOW he left. I could not forgive him completely when he returned, but I was glad that the Cavs were contenders again and I was happy for what LeBron’s return meant to Northeast Ohio. If I could go away for four years and come back, why couldn’t he?
Still, as they marched to the Finals I couldn’t help but wish that it was the Indians or Browns in their place. I had invested so much more in those teams, so I thought this win would feel less fulfilling. I was wrong. When the final seconds ticked off in Game 7, my eyes watered and a lump formed in my throat. I did not feel happiness initially. Instead I felt a stunned disbelief. As LeBron started sobbing, and shouted “Cleveland! This is for you!”, I cried too. It was a win not just for the Cavaliers, but for all of Cleveland and Northeast Ohio. I could feel the weight of 52 years of pressure lifted. All of the losing made the victory so much sweeter.
(Do I give the Lake Erie Monsters credit for winning the Calder Cup first, thus bringing Championship mojo to Quicken Loans Arena? Of course I do.)
Did I believe that I would see the drought end? Part of me knew that it would at some point, but I could never believe it in the moment. Too many times Cleveland got close and had it ripped away. I was conditioned to believe it could all go wrong. I counted them out after Game 4. When LeBron fell to the ground with an apparent wrist injury in the final minute of Game 7, I feared for the worst. Sure, they had a 3 point lead, but losing the star player could open the door for a miraculous Golden State comeback. That was the existing narrative, but then LeBron got up, made one of his foul shots, and clinched the game. The Bad Thing didn’t happen, for the first time in my life as a Cleveland fan.
A coworker of mine is from Akron, and he is still over the moon from the championship. Everyday, he walks by my desk and says “we’re champions!” or “How’s it going today, Champion?” I laugh, but I do feel like my mindset has changed. The impossible now seems possible. The Indians ripped off a 14 game win streak, with 11 of those wins coming after the Cavs championship. Monsters, Cavs, Indians: the winning is contagious. If the Cavs could win, why not the Indians? Why not the Browns? (Ok, not the Browns.)
Why not the Blue Jackets?
The beauty of sports is watching a game and seeing something you’ve never seen before. This includes teams winning that by all rights should not. Look at Leicester City winning the Premier League title at 5000-1 odds. Look at Iceland reaching the Euro 2016 quarterfinals, and Wales the semifinals.
Will the Blue Jackets reach the Stanley Cup Finals in 2016-17? No, probably not. But anything is possible. At the very least, the young core of this team can grow together and learn how to win together. Combined with healthy goaltending, that could put this team in the playoffs. Once a team is in the NHL playoffs, anything can happen.
I believe that the Jackets are a team that will improve from this point going forward. I hope that in my lifetime I see them win the Stanley Cup. I would not expect 1.3 million fans to celebrate like we saw in Cleveland, but I think this city will rally around the team in a big way. Can you picture the parade going from Nationwide Arena, down Nationwide to High, and then to the Statehouse lawn, or Columbus Commons? Can you picture the crowd that would show up? Can you picture Nick Foligno or Boone Jenner hoisting the Cup to rapturous cheers?
I can, because I’m a fan. I believe, and I hope.
How about all of you? Please share your stories in the comments about how each of you became Blue Jackets fans.