In Praise Of The Villains

A regular piece of advice for writers is to remember that each character is the hero of his own story. That's especially true when you start talking about the bad guys.

A truly compelling villain isn't some moustache twirling Snidely Whiplash. It's the guy who you can look at, consider his motivation, and even if you don't like him, you say "OK, I get where he's coming from."

We like to cast "good guys" and "bad guys" in real life just as much as fiction, and sports is no different - particularly here in Columbus, where we've had more than a few...unique...characters come through in the franchise's history.

But perhaps we aren't giving these guys a fair shake.

The most obvious example is ex-general manager Doug MacLean, of whom much ink has been spilled both digitally and physically over his tenure and in the fallout of his career, but there are reasons to respect the man. Of course, MacLean drafted Rick Nash (as he'll be happy to tell you), but MacLean was also a big reason the fledgling NHL club took root in Columbus thanks to his constant efforts at promoting the club, marketing the NHL, and taking to the airwaves to grab the public's attention. He also heavily encouraged the development of more youth hockey and adult leagues, helping to seed the game in a town where OSU football has long been king.

Whatever else you think of the man (and I'm not going to be praising a lot of his decisions any time soon), the fact that there is still an NHL team in Columbus 10 years later - and that the team's season ticket base is actually growing despite the struggles of the last few years - is in no small part to his efforts.

Then there's ex-Captain Adam Foote. I freely admit that like many fans, I was hurt by his behavior on the way out of Columbus. Like many others, I gave a hearty cry of "And ADAM FOOTE STILL SUCKS" after Greg Murray announced that there's one minute left in the period at each game.

On the other hand....consider things in his skates.

As a free agent, Foote was likely pitched a team that seemed ready to break out. Lead by a pair of talented forwards in Nikolai Zherdev and Rick Nash, a top pick goaltender in Pascal LeClaire, and promising young talent in the pipeline. With Foote providing veteran leadership and shutting down opponents on the blue line, it sounded on paper like a perfect spot for the UFA to come in and make a big impact.

The dump truck of money didn't hurt either.

Unfortunately, we all know how that eventually played out, but even during some of the worst times, Foote gave much of his free time to working with the Blue Jackets foundation and volunteering at Children's Hospital. When push finally came to shove, consider that Foote's demands to be traded to Colorado eventually netted Columbus an additional first round draft pick...that GM Scott Howson would flip to the Flyers for R.J. Umberger.

Umberger's impact on the franchise simply cannot be undervalued, both in his role in the team's sole playoff appearance to date and his leadership on and off ice. As much as fans were willing to boo Foote off the ice when he appeared with the Avalanche following the trade, it's worth offering a respectful "thank you" these days.

Steve Mason is another player who fans look forward to delivering a swift kick in the backside should he be traded or waived this offseason, but despite his repeated meltdowns, Mason was a big reason for the team's 2009 playoff appearance, and his Calder Trophy season was an incredibly exciting time to be a Jackets' fan rooting for the rookie goalie. Glories faded, but there's still a fair bit of warmth in that nostalgia.

Then there's the player who became the most recent object of Blue Jackets' fan scorn - Jeff Carter.

A symbol of hope and excitement when the offseason began, Carter's descent into goathood started from the moment he shunned contact with the press and team following his trade to Columbus, and even repeated displays of scoring prowess and talented offense wasn't enough when concerns about his attitude and lack of enthusiasm eventually turned into demands to be traded.

All things considered, Carter's issues dramatically hampered his trade value, and the fact that Scott Howson got both Jack Johnson and a first round pick would have been impressive even before JMFJ became an incredibly enthusiastic leader and impactful player on the ice. It still stung a bit to see Carter's behavior finally rewarded with a Stanley Cup, but the fact remains that Columbus got a lot out of the deal.

Of course, there's also something to be said for the man who orchestrated that trade.

More than a few fans see Scott Howson as an ineffective GM, at best, and a man of dangerous inaction at worst. He made moves that lead to the team's first playoff appearance, but his attempts to recapture that magic has lead to moves that backfired again and again.

But for each questionable deal (Dick Tarnstrom, anyone?), there are the moves that have panned out into solid players - particularly on the blue line. Fedor Tyutin, Nikita Nikitin, James Wisniewski, Jack Johnson, even the development of players like Marc Methot and John Moore have been forces for the positive. His drafting of Nikita Filatov failed, but the player was the consensus best forward available at the time, and quite a few professional scouts were just as surprised by the young Russian's collapse as Columbus fans.

This summer might be Howson's make or break as an NHL general manager. Despite doing some impressive work to "clean up" the mess he inherited, he MUST find success at the draft and July 1st, or he'll likely find himself out of a job as the franchise attempts yet another rebuild - one that might just take place on their best possible foundation thanks to his efforts.

Then, finally, there is the man who could become the next target of fan ire.

Rick Nash has been a key player since he was drafted in 2002, and stuck with the club through good, bad, and indifferent times. For many fans around Columbus, particularly the casual observers, Rick Nash IS the Blue Jackets, and the idea of going forward without him is a strange and confusing one.

Many fans were upset at the prospect of a trade, and that discomfort turned to anger when Scott Howson revealed that Nash had requested the club explore moving him. Even the post-trade deadline press conference Nash held to discuss the matter didn't entirely quell feelings of betrayal and frustration.

Regardless of what happens, Nash will remain a major figure in Columbus' history, one who helped to carve out legitimacy for Columbus as a free agent destination, and who blossomed as a player, a leader, and a man while fans had the opportunity to watch him grow.

Dan already made an excellent point about why it's time to let go gracefully, but it's also worth considering the likely return if and when Nash should be dealt out of town. With the reported asking price including an immediate return of roster players and solid investments in the future with major prospects, there's a good chance that Nash's last final act for the city will be to provide major pieces needed to help make the club more competitive.

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