This week’s announcement that original Columbus Blue Jacket (and Cannon Cast guest/fan) Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre would join Fox Sports Ohio as Bill Davidge’s replacement was met with universal acclaim across the fanbase. Grand-Pierre’s a talented analyst who embraced Columbus early and clearly cares about the team and community. He’s also the latest former Blue Jacket to re-join the organization after his playing days, a natural development from a franchise reaching two decades of existence and a feel-good payoff for longtime fans.
Over the summer, I watched a YouTube video from CBJ development camp in July featuring Grand-Pierre, Rick Nash and Jody Shelley. They talk for 20 minutes while watching camp, with broadcasters Grand-Pierre and Shelley lobbing Nash—the new “Special Assistant to the General Manager & Team Ambassador”—questions. It’s a fun, informative, free-wheeling discussion. What struck me, though, wasn’t the quality of the conversation. It was that this video was a sort of benchmark for how much this franchise has grown.
As with any expansion team, there’s very little that’s “homegrown” initially. Everybody—players, management, team media—comes from somewhere else at first. Grand-Pierre was traded from Buffalo and Jody Shelley hung around the AHL (and actually signed with but didn’t play for Calgary) before joining the CBJ shortly before the 2000 season started. Rick Nash, of course, was drafted in 2002 and served as the organization’s only real star for quite awhile.
Columbus didn’t find immediate success (like Vegas) or have the luxury of an already hockey-crazed market (like Minnesota). Long stretches of lean years caused free agents to avoid the Blue Jackets, a problem that still plagues the team. Fans have always appreciated those who chose to stick around live in the area, even if they couldn’t necessarily win on the ice. Finally, though, the club’s fortunes have turned in recent years on that front.
Many of the fanbase’s most hated enemies are players that spurned the Blue Jackets. Jeff Carter and Adam Foote will never be welcome in town again, and even Rick Nash still has a sizable contingent of detractors. Jack Johnson didn’t do himself any favors with his “winning culture” parting shot on his way out, and Sergei Bobrovsky can expect a mixed reaction when he returns to Nationwide. Fans love those who love Columbus. That’s the case in every city, sure, but given the animosity for those who have left a traditionally moribund franchise, guys “who want to be here” get a little extra boost.
Nearly 20 years after the Blue Jackets arrived, we’re beginning to see homegrown heroes front and center in non-playing roles. Grand-Pierre, Nash and Shelley are a few, but take a look at the organization’s staff directory and you’ll see former players like Chris Clark, Jared Boll, Gregory Campbell and Fredrik Modin. They engage with fans and seem invested in the organization’s success beyond the obvious monetary reason. They speak glowingly of the area and have put down roots. It’s taken awhile, but the tree is bearing fruit.
Other markets have their player-turned-broadcaster icons. Think of Pittsburgh’s Bob Errey or Detroit’s Mickey Redmond (and don’t think about their skill, necessarily). Maybe Jody Shelley won’t pan out quite like that, but who knows? Also, imagine when players who grew up here, like Kole Sherwood and Jack Roslovic, hang up their skates. Do they set up shop in their hometown?
Even when things may not go well on the ice, seeing familiar faces in the organization and on the screen for years to come is something special. Parents who watch a broadcast can tell their children, “I remember watching him play when I was your age.” It’s an exciting time to be a Blue Jacket fan for many reasons, and it’s nice to be able to root for guys after their playing days are over.