COLUMBUS - It was like old times, watching Sergei Fedorov scoop up the puck, wheel around behind his own net, and head smoothly up the ice with it, weaving effortlessly among defenders and closing in on the Colorado Avalanche goaltender at the other end of the rink.
But the six-time All-Star center was no longer wearing the jersey with the familiar winged wheel of the Detroit Red Wings on the front. Instead, his sweater was emblazoned with the stylized, star-studded logo of the Columbus Blue Jackets, one of the newest teams to join the National Hockey League.
The speedy Russian, who left the Red Wings a couple of years ago after 13 seasons to play for a team in California, returned to the Midwest in November as one of the high-priced veterans that Blue Jackets management is counting on to guide the team to the NHL's upper echelons - and to help fill the seats in the franchise's impressive, $150 million home, Nationwide Arena, which is the centerpiece of the city's Arena District, a tourist attraction in its own right.
When you mention Columbus and sports in the same sentence, hockey admittedly isn't the first thing that comes to mind. But since the Blue Jackets - Ohio's only NHL team - took to the ice in 2000, the team has become a popular attraction. The Blue Jackets' arena is the only building in the National Hockey League that also includes the team's practice facility, called the Ice Haus. And when it's not being used by the Blue Jackets, the Ice Haus is open to the public.
Nationwide Arena, which has been ranked in an ESPN poll as one of the most fan-friendly venues in all of professional sports, features terrazzo floors, brick pillars with marble detailing, and open lobbies and concourses that provide fans a great view of the ice as soon as they walk through the door. In one corner is a 135-foot light tower, while two other 80-foot towers house a number of party suites.
The facility is part of a lively five-acre entertainment district at the northern edge of downtown Columbus. The Arena District includes more than a dozen restaurants and nightclubs, as well as a theater complex with eight movie screens, stadium seating, luxurious red leather seats, and even a concierge.
The arena itself, in addition to serving as the home of the Blue Jackets and the Arena Football League's Columbus Destroyers, is a major entertainment venue, hosting everything from Barney Live! to Cirque du Soleil to concerts featuring the likes of Tim McGraw and Faith Hill.
A block away from the arena is the Lifestyle Communities Pavilion (formerly the PromoWest Pavilion), an indoor-outdoor concert venue with a retractable stage that hosts concerts by acts such as Rob Zombie, Chris Cagle, Sigur Ros, and Jefferson Starship.
A trio of hotels, all within walking distance of Nationwide Arena, offer hockey packages and special rates for those in town for a Blue Jackets game. At the Crowne Plaza Hotel, packages that include a room, game tickets, free parking, and breakfast start at $275. The same package is available starting at $285 at The Lofts, a funky boutique hotel housed in a converted warehouse next door to the Crowne Plaza. Across the street at the Hyatt Regency, rooms are available for $109.
After the Blue Jackets game, we wanted to stop someplace for a drink before walking back to our hotel. The nearest place was the Frog Bear & Wild Boar, a nightclub right next to the arena, but it was packed - even the large patio in front was full of people, despite it being a chilly night. We continued around the corner and came upon O'Shaughnessy's Public House, an Irish pub, but I was outvoted and we ended up a little farther down the street at Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant, a chain operation that brews a nice assortment of German-style beers.
The next morning before leaving for home, we stopped at North Market, an indoor public market at the edge of the Arena District that's been a Columbus landmark for more than a century. On Saturday mornings, the place is bustling as locals and visitors wend their way up and down aisles lined by dozens of merchants selling everything from gourmet meats, cheeses, and coffee to jewelry, gifts, fresh produce and flowers, baked goods, and ice cream. It's a handy place for lunch, too, with ready-made Italian, Indian, Vietnamese, and Mediterranean dishes available.
There are tables where you can sit and eat on the market's open second-floor, accompanied by live entertainment on Saturdays.
If you're a baseball fan, or just a fan of lively conversation, be sure to stop at the Joy of Soy booth, where proprietor Gail Burkholder will be happy to sell you some of her exotic lotions or candles. She'll also be happy to tell you why the New York Yankees are the greatest team in baseball, despite what followers of the Indians, Tigers, or any other franchise might think.
A word of warning for market visitors: be sure to have your parking ticket validated by one of the merchants, or you'll end up getting nicked as much as $10 to park in the market's lot. With validation, it's less than a buck.
Plans are on the drawing board for additional attractions in the Arena District in coming years, with the latest announcement involving a new stadium for the city's AAA minor-league baseball team, the Columbus Clippers, the top farm club for the New York Yankees. The new, 10,000-seat Huntington Park is to be built not far from Nationwide Arena, replacing the Clippers' current home, the aging Cooper Stadium, located on the city's southwest side. Huntington National Bank is paying $12 million over 23 years for naming rights to the park, which may be open as soon as 2008.
Until then, though, there's already plenty to lure visitors to the Arena District, whether they're hockey fans or not.
Mike Kelly is a retired Blade travel writer.