COLUMBUS - Precisely 50 minutes, 49 seconds into official franchise history, the Columbus Blue Jackets already had hit their low point. And to see the way their heads were hanging, it would have been easy to assume they would never again sink so low.
Petteri Nummelin had just committed an awful turnover that allowed Chicago's Tony Amonte to score. What had been a 3-0 Blue Jackets lead and a frenetic celebration was now a 5-3 edge for the visiting Blackhawks. And the 18,136 who jammed Nationwide Arena on Oct. 7 to watch this inaugural NHL game sat in stony silence.
The final few minutes ticked off ever so slowly, seeming to the Blue Jackets like an eternity. Seeming like an omen of things to come.
And why shouldn't it have been? Aren't expansion teams supposed to lose like this?
“It was just the worst feeling,” center Tyler Wright recalled. “We felt like we let everybody down.”
And then, with about three minutes left in regulation, “We started hearing this noise. Some fans started making some noise,” Wright continued. “So we're on the bench, and we're looking up at the scoreboard because some buildings have videos to get the place to start cheering. But there was nothing up there.”
The sporadic cheers continued to mount.
“It was the most unbelievable thing. These people start giving us this standing ovation, and they keep going right up until the end of the game. I mean, here we are, we just totally blew this game, and they're doing that. It was really neat to see.”
wThe Blue Jackets' employees have dubbed it the Camden Yards of hockey. And for no small reason. The deep-red brick exterior of Nationwide Arena is a carbon copy of Baltimore's revered baseball park, as is the intricate and intimate feel of the interior.
Unlike just about every other new arena in the NHL, Nationwide offers a sense of place, a sense that you might actually know where you are when inside.
There is the steep setting of all the blue seats near the rink, which give the tight feel of old-time hockey venues. There are the striking “Party Towers” in two corners, a set of four luxury boxes stacked on top of each other that are rented on a per-game basis. And, above all, there is the unusual amount of natural light that spills through, at the concourse areas and into the rink area under the arched edges of the roof.
“I've had the good fortune of playing in what I believed to be the best hockey rink in the world,” center Kevyn Adams said, referring to his time as a member of the Maple Leafs at Toronto's opulent Air Canada Centre. “But I'll tell you, I think Nationwide is better.”
The arena was the foundation for Columbus's long-overdue bid to join the major leagues of American cities. With a population of 670,234, it ranks 15th in the United States and, yes, it's bigger than Cleveland or Cincinnati. It also was the only city in the Northeast to crack the top 20 on the U.S. Census Bureau's list of population growth.
Yet the closest Columbus had come to big-time professional sports was the Crew of Major League Soccer. In fact, it was the largest city in the nation without a major league baseball, NFL, NBA or NHL team.
For years, civic and corporate leaders pushed hard for the NHL, confident that the city's young, white-collar makeup was perfectly tailored to hockey's demographics. And in 1997, steel magnate John McConnell got it done by putting down $80 million to convince the league to grant a franchise.
Even now though, team and other local officials aren't close to finished. The $150 million arena was the first piece of an entire district being built around it, including residential units, movie theaters, office building and shops.
Total cost: $500 million.
And here's the good part: With the exception of $33 million in road and sewer work by the city, it came from private money. Columbus's voters emphatically rejected five separate tax proposals, the last in 1997. That prompted Nationwide Insurance, the region's dominant corporation, to come up with nearly all the cash.
“At every turn, Nationwide has not only stepped to the plate, but they've also hit home runs,” said Kyle Katz, owner of the first new restaurant in the arena district. “Just look at the arena itself. They spent an extra $30 million to turn a box into one of the most outstanding examples of arena architecture in the country. It breathes. It invites. It's glass, man.”
wThe Blue Jackets aren't Ohio's first NHL team, but that's only if you bother to count the easily forgotten Cleveland Barons, who limped through the 1976-78 seasons before merging with the Minnesota North Stars. Otherwise, the action has been strictly minor-league.
That makes the mission of Columbus officials a challenging one: They know there are hockey fans who are willing to pay $6 or so for a ticket, but will they pay $60?
So far, the answer appears to be a wishy-washy yes.
The season-ticket base is close to 14,000, but the Blue Jackets have sold out just 11 of their first 25 games at 18,136-seat Nationwide Arena. By contrast, their expansion twin, the Minnesota Wild, has filled the new XCel Energy Center in St. Paul for all of its 26 games.
That underscores the need for the Blue Jackets to draw from well outside Columbus.
“We want to become Ohio's team,” said general manager Doug MacLean. “That's our challenge, to draw from places like Dayton and Cincinnati. It's critical for us. But we think we'll do it. This is a great city with great sports fans.”
Part of MacLean's mission is to lure away hockey fans who have long supported the Pittsburgh Penguins, with Pittsburgh being only a three-hour drive away. The Blue Jackets have marketed themselves in Pennsylvania border towns such as Youngstown and Wheeling, W.Va. And the Penguins are countering. Owner-turned-player Mario Lemieux made a visit to Wheeling this past summer to strengthen the team's ties to its ECHL affiliate there, and he named brother Alain the Nailers' head coach.
It's the kind of stuff which might make for a great rivalry, except that the Blue Jackets and Penguins play in different conferences and meet only twice a year. MacLean calls that “a great disappointment.”
Still, it won't be the Penguins or the nearby Detroit Red Wings that will provide the main competition for the Columbus dollar. That distinction will go, now and for years to come, to Ohio State University. The Buckeyes have had a stranglehold on Franklin County's sporting attention for decades, and that's not likely to wane a bit with the NHL in town.
“We don't look at Ohio State as competition,” MacLean said. “We realize that people come from all over the place to watch the Buckeyes, and we'd just like to get in on some of that.”
The campus has noticed. The upper decks of Nationwide Arena are regularly filled with Ohio State students, easily identified by their scarlet-and-gray garb and their equally colorful taunts.
Blue Jackets officials have, in turn, educated their players about college athletics, even those who hail from overseas and don't have the first clue as to why a Buckeye is good and a Wolverine bad.
Goaltender Ron Tugnutt, for instance, attended Ohio State's annual football loss to bitter rival Michigan in November.
“It was wild,” Tugnutt said. “During the halftime show you've got the Ohio State band and the Michigan band, and they're competing against each other with about 300 people in each band. The fans are going berserk. Nobody leaves their seats because they want to see the bands play. It's a big, big rivalry. And it was a sad day for the Buckeyes.”
Yeah, he'll fit right in.
“It's a great sports town, but it was always Ohio State this and Ohio State that,” Tugnutt said. “Being here for the amount of time I have, I can't believe there hasn't been a pro team here already. Really, the city can hold it.”
wOn the ice the Blue Jackets aren't an ordinary expansion team. Perhaps because of being in a novice big-league market, MacLean isn't inclined to wait long to win. He has built a roster that is unusually old for a first-year club, with an average age of 28.4, seventh-oldest in the NHL.
It has paid off, at least for the short term.
The Blue Jackets are 14-26-4, including a four-game winning streak Nov. 9-16 that was one shy of the league's expansion record.