The hockey season was suspended only yesterday, but it feels like so long already. Like the rest of the community, I was disappointed that the decision had to be made but mindful of the emergency that prompted the call. But maybe unlike the rest of the community, I was surprised by how disappointed I was that I couldn't listen to a Blue Jackets game last night. After all, this is a league I've only paid attention to for the last two years. How did I get to this point so quickly? The following is the story of how I came to be a fan of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
My friends have known me as "the football guy," even though I've never played a down in my life. At one point not too long ago, I could talk about almost everything there is to know about the state of college football. My expertise was not limited to the school I attended or to my hometown team. Instead, I knew enough to talk intelligently about any team with any fan anywhere in the country. Imagine their surprise when, two springs ago, I turn the conversation topic away from the college football offseason and instead towards the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Hockey was a new sport for me. It still is. I had never given it a thought beyond "it's the Canadian thing" while growing up in the greater Seattle metro area. I never had reason to. Between the Seahawks and Mariners, the Washington Huskies and BYU Cougars, teenage life, High School, college prep, and religious responsibilities, my plate was full. So, how did hockey come to capture and maintain my attention for the better part of the last two-and-a-half years?
Like most good stories, it starts with a girl.
We met on an autumn afternoon in line outside of LaVell Edwards Stadium in lovely Provo, Utah. I was beginning my sophomore year at BYU and was excited to meet up with my friends for the evening's football game. They had convinced a sassy and beautiful Freshman from British Columbia to come out to her very first football game. Although our team lost a heartbreaker, I felt like the winner of the night as I was able to teach her a game I loved and get to know a wonderful young woman in the process. We started dating not too long afterward. I learned that she was a fan of hockey and I started looking for opportunities to share this interest with her. We discovered that BYU has a hockey club in the American Collegiate Hockey Association and made plans to attend a game. I even won her a ticket the day before after netting two pucks into a little net on the school campus! She was suitably impressed. BYU Hockey games quickly became one of our favorite dates. I'm now convinced that hockey is the greatest sport there is. No other athletic contest I know of is as fast as racing, as physical as football, as tactical as soccer, and as technical as gymnastics. In time, that relationship came to an end. But my fascination with hockey lived on.
Over the remainder of my time at BYU, I attended as many hockey games as I could and managed to convince a good chunk of my apartment complex to come out as well. My final semester was punctuated with a Beginner Hockey student activities class at the Peaks Ice Arena, where the greatest players in the world had competed in the 2002 Winter Olympics. I realized very quickly that I was very, very talented at falling and landing on the exact same spot on the exact same hip over and over and over. I would limp the half-mile-and-a-bit home, leaning heavily on my stick, before coming back and trying again the next week with the same results. Then I tried my hand at net-minding. That was even harder. The weight and heat of the pads were entirely unfamiliar and my legs were not accustomed to squatting with those pads while balancing on steel blades for twenty minutes at a time. Then consider the struggle of getting back to my feet after a flailing kick save. In the end, I did successfully save 6 of 7 shots before dressing down to be a skater again. Suddenly, I was falling much less often (for which my hip was extremely grateful) and maneuvering much more comfortably on the ice. Under the mentorship of "Coach" Jake (a defenseman on the BYU hockey team) and "Coach" Jackie, I grew to love this amazing and demanding sport. I finally decided that I was ready to buy some merchandise that would brand me as a hockey fan. I already had a team in mind: the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Blue Jackets
As a Pacific Northwesterner, I had exactly and only two "connections" to the city of Columbus. The first connection is a fabulous three-day blitz through southern and central Ohio with my Dad that took us through Columbus. The second connection is a rejected graduate school application to The Ohio State University (The seems to matter). What reason would I have to care about a small-market team on virtually the other side of the country, as far as I was concerned? We'll rewind a year.
I was burned out from studying for finals in my Junior year and was channel-surfing, looking for a distraction. Football was over, the NFL draft had passed weeks ago, and March Madness had come to an end. The Stanley Cup Playoffs flashed across the screen -- and stayed. The Vegas Golden Knights, in their inaugural season, were locked up with the LA Kings in the third period. I felt the excitement build as the clock ran down, then run all the way through an overtime period, then start into a second. I couldn't believe how lucky I was to see my first NHL game ever go so long, nor how solid Marc-Andre Fleury was between the posts. I tried my luck again the next day and was intrigued by the match-up between the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Washington Capitals. I had seen reference to the Blue Jackets while researching The Ohio State University and I had heard of the Capitals' superstar Alexander Ovechkin. I figured that this game would be just as entertaining as the next. The Blue Jackets led the series over the Capitals with two overtime wins and, as the third period expired, I was convinced they would have a third. Two overtime periods later, they did not. Washington went on to beat Vegas and win the Cup. But all was well. Artemi Panarin's insane dangle had already made me a lifelong fan of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
So, why am I still a fan of the Columbus Blue Jackets?
Game in and game out, the team exhibits qualities that I either aspire to or am proud to have: hard-working, tenacity, persistence, selflessness, endurance, and loyalty. The Blue Jackets play together, they are a team that plays for the man next to them. The Blue Jackets seem to be perennial underdogs that keep rising to the occasion. Columbus consistently competes with its peers in the toughest division in all of Hockey despite not enjoying the same "star power" as other teams in the league. And yet, there are stars on the team that I admire, like Seth Jones, Cam Atkinson, and Pierre-Luc Dubois. There are exciting up-and-comers like Elvis Merzlikins, Alexandre Texier, and Vladislav Gavrikov. There are players like Nick Foligno, David Savard, and the Wolverine Nathan Gerbe (come on, he's a scrappy little Canadian that takes no nonsense from anyone!) that seem to embody exactly what the Blue Jacket mentality is on and off the ice. These players and qualities make Columbus such a joy to watch on the ice or listen to on the radio. I could not have grown as a fan this far away from a hockey market without Bob McElligott's infectious enthusiasm on the airwaves. And finally, it's the Fifth Line community that I've found both here on The Cannon and Twitter. All of you are some of the greatest fans I've ever had the pleasure of interacting with. Thank you for helping me find my way in my hockey infancy.
Now, I'm a hockey fan, but I'm also a graduate student in the Midwest with a few dreams. Professionally, my dream is to be a professor at a major university. Economically, my dream is to be able to stay out of debt and live a little more comfortably. Personally, my dream is to meet my new "savings goal" and get myself out to Nationwide Arena to finally watch the Columbus Blue Jackets play live. I'm working as fast as I can to make this happen. Until then, I'll be cheering from afar as a long-distance member of the Fifth Line.