Coach John Tortorella is the newest face of change for the Columbus Blue Jackets, a team on the verge of escaping its turbulent past and delivering the bright future perpetually promised to fans.
The backdrop behind John Tortorella is patterned with silhouettes of the Stanley Cup, less-than-subtle reminders of the current stakes. The head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets stands at the podium in a postgame press conference following a victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 4 of the first round of the NHL playoffs. He sounds more relieved than happy. He says repeatedly that he's glad his guys got to enjoy a playoff win because some never have before. There's a hint of acquiescence to it, like the team is suddenly being graded on an easier curve. Things haven't gone as they'd hoped.
The Jackets found themselves without a win after the first three games of the series. They often looked equal to Pittsburgh, even better at times. But the Penguins seemed content to play patiently and wait for their opponent to make a mistake, and too often the Jackets obliged. Columbus didn't score enough, and superhuman goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky seemed uncharacteristically mortal. To make matters worse, budding star Zach Werenski and team captain Nick Foligno were both injured during Game 3.
Tonight offers relief—a win, finally—and more than 19,000 fans bore witness to the wild 5-4 victory. Nationwide Arena was thunderous by the time the puck dropped, and entire sections of the crowd never sat. After the game, people spill out into the pleasant April evening, filling the bars and patios, drinking and laughing. Some lie on their backs in the grassy plaza, basking in the moment. A man pretending to be an airplane—his arms spread wide—swerves back and forth down the sidewalk with a smile plastered on his face. This is springtime in the National Hockey League. This is how winning feels.
The Jackets were supposed to be here last year, too, but like so many seasons before in the franchise's woeful 17-year history, they never came close to meeting those expectations. They lost their first seven games of 2015 before head coach Todd Richards was fired, and in came Tortorella. Management later traded center Ryan Johansen, whom many considered a star in the making, to the Nashville Predators for a promising young defenseman, Seth Jones. The Jackets finished 27th of 30, with a record of 34-40-8.
Their fortunes turned for the better this season. They were perfect in December en route to a 16-game winning streak—the second longest in NHL history—which became the centerpiece of the franchise's most promising season ever. “It takes a little bit of time to change a standard and an identity, but you can see it starting here,” says TV broadcaster and former Jackets player Jody Shelley. “Winning's not a part-time thing. I think they realized that during that streak, and they also realized how good they can be.”
TV analyst Bill Davidge, intially hired in 1999 to scout talent for the first roster, has endured the hard years, which is to say just about all of them except this one. He's a believer in the new regime. He likes that there are no superstars, no relying on Johansen. He likes Tortorella's mantra: Safe is death. He likes the new mental toughness, and most of all, the success. “What we're doing right now is we're getting respect in the National Hockey League,” Davidge says. “For somebody that's been here from day one, boy we've earned it.”
“There's been a change of culture,” he continues. “There's a sense of wanting to win, expecting to win and winning—you know, that's what we're all about now. And let's just hope it continues.”
Hope—the franchise has been built and sold on the promise of the future, year after year. Winning, however, has proven elusive. Since the inaugural season in 2000, the Jackets have just three winning seasons and three playoff victories. Still, they've cultivated a sizable fan base, a restless but devoted following—no small feat in a place with scant hockey history.
The city's landscape once was barren and unfrozen. “Oh my goodness gracious, there was literally no hockey scene to speak of,” says Paul Donskov, who moved to Columbus from Ontario, Canada, in 1990 with his wife Debbie and his three sons—Misha, Anthony and Matthew. Ohio State's rink was the only ice in town. Other than the Buckeyes, the Capital Amateur Hockey Association was the sole local organization for the sport. Donskov, who served as CAHA's vice president, and former president Jim Christensen say the association had only 90 youth hockey players across all ages.
In 1991, a Chicago businessman named Horn Chen founded the Columbus Chill and named David Paitson the president and general manager of the minor league franchise. The team struck a deal to play at the Ohio Expo Center Coliseum, which had previously served as the home for three failed minor league hockey teams—the Checkers, the Golden Seals and the Owls. Other than the Clippers, Columbus had been a graveyard for the minor leagues, Paitson says.
But the Chill succeeded where others had failed. As described in the book “Chill Factor,” co-written by Paitson and former Dispatch sports reporter Craig Merz, the tiny front office employed an ambitious marketing strategy that packaged hockey games as cheap entertainment, full of beer, outlandish in-game promotions and violence. (Sample tagline: “Assault someone, you get five years. In hockey, five minutes. Is this a great game or what?”) During the home opener, the team invited 20 fans to the ice to hurl frozen chickens at a goal using giant slingshots, with the winner pocketing $5,000. Opening night was a smash—600 fans beyond seating capacity—and the Chill eventually accumulated 83 consecutive sellouts, a minor league hockey record at the time, according to “Chill Factor.”
The organization began opening Chiller ice rinks in 1993 because the team needed space for practices. But Paitson believed the rinks would complement the franchise's growth by offering open skating and youth hockey programming. “The whole idea was to weave the game into the fabric of the community, and that's best started in building fans at a younger age,” Paitson says. CAHA worked simultaneously to grow its ranks, reaching 600 players by the time Christensen and Donskov left in 1996.
The hockey scene progressed enough by 1997 that Columbus earned an NHL expansion franchise—helped along, Paitson says, by an Ohio State Fairgrounds scheduling mistake that threatened a quarter of the Chill's home schedule in 1993. Mayor Greg Lashutka stepped in to help resolve it, and later appointed a citizen's commission to study building an arena, which proved crucial to winning the bid. Nationwide Realty Investors eventually financed the arena's construction, and five civic investors, led by John H. McConnell of Worthington Industries, founded a partnership called Columbus Hockey Limited, which successfully petitioned the NHL to award an expansion franchise to Columbus. The Blue Jackets were born. Chen was given a small ownership stake, and as part of the deal, the Chill was moved to Pennsylvania. It was a coup—Columbus boasted a shiny new NHL team less than a decade after owning almost no hockey infrastructure whatsoever.
The Jackets organization—including the Columbus Blue Jackets Foundation, which devotes 20 percent of its annual fundraising to developing youth and amateur hockey—has picked up where the Chill left off.
There are now 12 sheets of ice (eight at five Chiller locations), six youth hockey organizations, 20 high school programs, 2,300 youth players and 3,000 adult players registered with USA Hockey, up from little more than 350 in 1999, according to franchise records. In 2004, the team started the Ohio AAA Blue Jackets, an elite youth program trained by Donskov Strength and Conditioning, which is run by middle brother Anthony. In 2016, the family's eldest son Misha was named the director of hockey operations for the NHL's newest expansion franchise, the Vegas Golden Knights.
The AAA club has fueled an initial wave of homegrown talent. Connor Murphy, who moved to Columbus in the fourth grade when his father was hired as an assistant coach by the Jackets, played for the AAA team before he was selected 20th in the NHL draft by the Arizona Coyotes. Other program alums include Jack Roslovic of the Winnipeg Jets (the 25th pick in 2015), Sean Kuraly of the Boston Bruins and current minor league players Cole Cassels, Trent Vogelhuber and Kole Sherwood, who plays for the Cleveland Monsters, the Jackets' top minor league affiliate.
Meanwhile, the first generation of young fans raised in the new era of Columbus pro hockey has started hitting adulthood. They join a following that has grown in tandem with the hockey scene as a whole. The Jacket Backers, the oldest booster club in town, currently has 631 paying members, down from a high of 758 the last time the Jackets went to the playoffs in 2014, but way up from 2010.
President David Baker has been a fan since the team was founded. Foligno is his favorite player—Baker grew up in Buffalo, and one of his mother's favorite Sabres was Foligno's father Mike. Michelle Harklau is the Backers' communications and social media chair, and her favorite player is Matt Calvert. She's been a fan of his since he scored a hat trick early in his rookie season. She remembers his face appearing on the massive scoreboard hanging over center ice, his smile a dozen feet wide.
Nationwide Arena is strangely quiet at the outset of a pivotal game against the Minnesota Wild on March 2. Fans continue piling in throughout the first period and attendance is later announced as 15,987, respectable but hardly impressive for a game against the team with the best record in the Western Conference with just over a month before the playoffs begin.
Fans get into the action intermittently, but there are hushed stretches when the players can be heard from press row, six levels up. The biggest cheer through two periods goes to Sergei Bobrovsky—Bob, to his fans—when he makes a heart-stopping save on a breakaway with the game still scoreless. The second loudest comes a moment later when a fan wins a gift card playing Plinko during a break. It harkens back to when Columbus hockey was more spectacle than sport. The marketing staff has to keep the arena filled—18,500 seats, 41 games a year—and that sometimes requires flinging empty pizza boxes into the crowd, holding tricycle races during intermission and a giant green bug named Stinger firing T-shirts at fans with a Gatling gun. Plinko might have been the best thing going some seasons.
This, however, is not one of those seasons. In the past, the Jackets often struggled to score or even move the puck. No longer. They go from defending to threatening almost instantly, propelled by a precise passing attack that starts with the defensemen deep in their own zone. The puck ricocheting from stick to stick sounds like rifle fire, repetitive and sharp. For most of the game they overwhelm the Wild with their athleticism. The Jackets win 1-0 on a third-period goal from Brandon Saad, a young left winger who has already won two Stanley Cups in Chicago. Bob is the hero, as usual, posting another shutout in the team's 40th victory of the season, three short of the franchise record with 20 games still to play.
It's a staggering change from a year ago, when the team never fully recovered from the initial 0-8 swoon. The organization was blindsided—the Jackets were predicted to rebound from a disappointing 2014–15 season—and the pain cut deep and wide. It was awful, says John Davidson, president of hockey operations. Foligno says it was hell, especially in his first year as captain. Many are still mystified by exactly what went wrong. Hard to explain, Davidson says. General manager Jarmo Kekäläinen says you could try 100 times and not lose eight games in a row with that roster. They were told they were a great team before the season started, Foligno says, but the floor fell out from under them when adversity hit.
“I thought, in the time I was here last year, we were a boring team and we lost,” Tortorella says bluntly.
The reasons for the turnaround aren't so hazy. Everyone has been motivated, Davidson says, by “a richness of embarrassment.” Bob, who suffered through injuries last year, returned to world-class form. In June 2016, the Cleveland Monsters won the American Hockey League championship, the Calder Cup, and that team sent four talented young players up to the Jackets: Josh Anderson, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Lukas Sedlak and Zach Werenski, who likely will become the next fan favorite after a record-breaking rookie year and a near-mythic Game 3 against Pittsburgh, when he played with a broken face. And then there's Tortorella. He brought accountability into the locker room.
“You have to have a culture of accountability, which … is probably the biggest thing we lacked,” says John P. McConnell, the majority owner and son of the late founder. The quest to overhaul the team's culture began in 2012 when McConnell and Blue Jackets president Mike Priest hired Davidson, who in turn hired Kekäläinen as GM less than four months later. When Davidson came on board he told McConnell: If there's one thing I'm going to do here, it's change the culture. I'll do it if it kills me.
“And it almost killed me,” Davidson says with a deep laugh. It's hard work, he continues, because it takes time and there are no shortcuts. He says it like the thought alone exhausts him.
Cam Atkinson and Matt Calvert, the longest-tenured Jackets, both use an identical expression to describe the cultural change: “night and day.” This team is tight-knit on and off the ice, players say, more than in years past. Camp was notoriously grueling, bringing them together before the season even started. Practices are mandatory and intense. Each player earns his ice time daily. It's about accountability. Players were fed up before, Foligno says. Tortorella gave them a game plan. He also has cachet with the young team—he's been to the mountaintop, taking the Tampa Bay Lightning to its first Stanley Cup championship in 2004.
In the postgame press conference after the win over the Wild, Tortorella praises the front office for the trade deadline moves the day before, which aquired veteran defensemen Kyle Quincey and Lauri Korpikoski. They added experience and depth without doing anything drastic. For three days before the deadline, Davidson, Kekäläinen and assistant GM Bill Zito holed up in Kekäläinen's office for 14-hour sessions of analyzing the possibilities. Their maxim: We don't need to change everything up. It's really good already. It was a vote of confidence in the current team.
One week later, the Jackets' marketing department hung a five-story sign on the building at the corner of Third and Long streets. No message, just a picture of the Stanley Cup. It was a bold move; the team had yet to earn a playoff spot. But when vice president of marketing J.D. Kershaw told Davidson of the sign, he didn't have any hesitations. “Eye of the tiger,” Davidson says. “Stare it down.”
The sign was a chance to capitalize on the Jackets' newfound momentum and to show a little swagger. It was an opportunity they've never had. The previous two trips to the playoffs were last-second, do-or-die affairs. This season, the Jackets were all but assured a trip to the playoffs by the end of February. Kershaw says the league office was calling by mid-March to ask what they planned to do if they won the President's Trophy, awarded annually to the team with the NHL's best record.
For most of Kershaw's career with the team, the marketing and sales departments have just been trying to keep seats filled. The novelty of a new team sold the fans initially. The Jackets were in the top half of the league in average attendance for the first four seasons, peaking at No. 8 with 18,136 people per game in the second year, according to ESPN.com. The numbers began to decline as the team continued to struggle and the sheen of newness dissipated. Attendance sagged to the bottom third for a decade, often mired at 27th or worse. It was up 8 percent this season, to 15,857 per game, good for 23rd. Season ticket holders, every franchise's lifeblood, have followed a similar pattern, going from around 13,000 in the early years to less than 10,000, Kershaw says, though sales are on the upswing now.
Several bad seasons in a row erode the fan base, especially for a young franchise like Columbus. For years, Davidge made calls at the end of the season, apologizing to fans for another lackluster result. “We wanted to sell hope,” he says, “but we wanted to sell more than that.”
“We just haven't been good enough. That's the bottom line,” Kershaw says. “We just need to be better, and we need to be better consistently.”
The 2016–17 season provides a glimpse of what could be for the organization and success-starved Columbus fans. The crowds generally grow larger, louder and more engaged throughout March and April. The Jackets clinch a playoff spot on March 19, the apex of the season. A victory over the New Jersey Devils on the road gives them 47 wins, four more than their previous best in 2014, with 11 games still to go. They have 100 points, tying them with the Washington Capitals for the best record in the NHL.
It will get no better than that, though. By the time the Capitals come to Columbus on April 2, the Jackets are four points behind and need a victory to keep pace. The fans show their support in force—a near-capacity turnout of 18,247. Giant “ooooohhhhs” and “aaaahhhhhhs” rise and crash like ocean tides. They even boo the Jackets when the team dawdles on a second-period power play while down 3-0. It's a good sign; frustration and anger are as much a part of fandom as joy. Anything is better than apathy.
The Jackets rally in the third, with goals from Quincey and defenseman Jack Johnson pulling the team to within one. The arena is deafening, the kind of noise that drowns thought. But the Jackets fall short despite the furious comeback attempt. The team goes 3-6-2 down the final stretch.
At a Grandview Theater party hosted by the Jacket Backers, fans watch the dying gasps of the best season in franchise history. As the final minutes of Game 5 tick down, the Jackets trail 5-2. They shoot endlessly at Penguins goaltender Marc-André Fleury, but the pucks never find the net. With 30 seconds to go, in a darkened theater that's still mostly full, fans begin to chant “Let's go Jackets” and then they applaud their team. It was a good run.
The evils of good—that's the theme of Tortorella's exit interview two days later. In what feels like a preview of mantras
to come, the coach repeats it multiple times: “Good is the enemy of great.” He's proud of his team, but any warming glow from the spectacular season or the lone playoff victory is gone. He doesn't want
to hear excuses—yes, they're young; yes, they lack playoff experience; yes, they likely will be better next year. But so will plenty of other teams, he says. If you're happy to have a great regular season and just make it to the playoffs, then that's as far as you'll ever get.
Davidson and Kekäläinen are more upbeat. They're not happy with the early exit, and the path forward won't get easier, but both men believe this team is fundamentally better than the one that lost to Pittsburgh three years ago in the first round. Kekäläinen, ever the analyst, says the Jackets beat the Penguins in key statistical categories. It didn't show on the scoreboard in five games, but it bodes well in the long haul. Davidson says the development process in Cleveland and throughout the franchise's minor league system is better than it's ever been; there's a good foundation in place.
When Dave Baker of the Jacket Backers talks to other season ticket holders, he gets the sense they're fatigued by the foundational talk—the brick-by-brick metaphor that the front office has leaned on the last five seasons. They've heard the same story for the previous 17 years. Even Baker has grown tired of the sloganeering. But he's watched hockey longer than he cares to admit, and he's seen this team's talent on display. He's a bit of a stats geek, too, and he's kept track of what's going on in Cleveland, and what the players in Columbus are doing. He saw how Bob played this year, and especially how the defense played. And they're young, with more reinforcements coming. Everything's projecting upward.
Within weeks of the Jackets' early exit, the NHL announced the annual awards finalists, highlighting the team's remarkable season. Four Jackets were named as finalists for five awards, more than any other team. Bob was nominated for the Hart and Vezina trophies (MVP and best goaltender); Werenski for the Calder Trophy (best rookie); Foligno for the Mark Messier NHL Leadership Award (best captain); and Tortorella for the Jack Adams Award (coach of the year). There are reasons to be optimistic.
For Jacket Backer Michelle Harklau, this season often seemed surreal. The 16-game winning streak was amazing. The team is gaining recognition, she says, and people who never went to games before are coming to experience the hype for themselves. It seems like the front office has the team pointed in the right direction. She has faith in them. She believes the Blue Jackets will keep getting better. She hopes.