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Lighting The Lamp: The Blue Jackets' Fight For Respect

You might recognize the "Lighting the Lamp" feature from the Game Time paper. Rick Ackerman has been nice enough to send over his column for the website. "Lighting the Lamp" will be featured weekly every Thursday afternoon, as well as every home game day.

Signed John Davidson photo, signed puck, signed 1974 rookie hockey card,  Bobblehead when announcer in New York
Signed John Davidson photo, signed puck, signed 1974 rookie hockey card, Bobblehead when announcer in New York
Rick Ackerman

The bruised, battered, bedraggled Blues finally return home after an arduous road trip that saw them win three in a row, lose one in regulation and lose another in overtime on a fluky goal. One might think the regulation loss to San Jose was a home game, yet due to major travel difficulties in Vancouver Monday, it might as well have been a road game since the boys didn't get back to St. Louis until around six a.m. on Tuesday, game day. That's the way it is during this shortened season as NHL teams face the prospect of playing four games in seven days and then having almost a week off. After facing the Blue Jackets tonight, the Blues will have five days until they play Chicago Thursday. At least it prepares them for the playoff grind come May. (Yes, the Blues will qualify for the playoffs this year.)

In 1997 the 26-team NHL decided to expand (again) in order to balance out the two divisions in each conference. The Atlantic and Pacific Divisions had seven members; the Northeast and Central only had six. Columbus entered an expansion bid, as did several other cities, including Minneapolis/St. Paul, Atlanta, Nashville, Hamilton (Ontario), Quebec and Seattle. Nashville and Atlanta (Thrashers) started play in 1998 and 1999 respectively since they had suitable arenas. The Minnesota Wild and Columbus franchise would have to wait until 2000 when their buildings (The Xcel Center in St. Paul and Nationwide Arena) would be completed.

Many hockey pundits and self-professed experts were mystified when Columbus was selected for an NHL club and more traditional markets, especially in Canada, were bypassed. That choice was made because of one man, John H. McConnell, an Ohio businessman (Worthington Industries, a steel product manufacturer), who purchased the franchise and used his influence to persuade Nationwide Insurance Co. to buy a 30% interest ($52M) and pay almost $30M over ten years for the naming rights to the new $150M arena. That became necessary when the voters of Columbus rejected a referendum to use public money to finance construction. A history buff, McConnell selected the name "Blue Jackets" in homage to Ohio's rich Civil War heritage. Apparently uniform jackets worn by Union soldiers were made by factories in Columbus.

They fire off a model Civil War cannon after Blue Jacket goals, too. Columbus did not choose any Blues' players in the expansion draft in 2000, although St. Louis signed one of the free-agent players the Jackets claimed from Phoenix, Dallas Drake. Columbus did choose wisely, though, taking goaltender Dwayne Roloson from Buffalo, defenseman Lyle Odelein (Phoenix) and forwards Geoff Sanderson (Buffalo), Bruce Gardiner (Tampa Bay), Kevin Dineen (Ottawa) and Drake. In the amateur draft, the Jackets chose highly regarded defenseman Rostilav Klesla, who would later be traded to Phoenix in 2011.

The Blue Jackets finished fifth and last in the division and missed the playoffs three years in a row, despite the addition of scoring star Rick Nash in the amateur draft of 2002. They did manage to finish ahead of the Blackhawks in 2004 yet still failed to qualify for a shot at Lord Stanley's Cup. Despite the additions of rugged defenseman Adam Foote and superstar center Sergei Federov for the 2005-06 season, Columbus would fail to make the playoffs yet again. The following season Ken Hitchcock was named the new head coach and finished fourth in the division, but out of the playoffs. Under Hitch for an entire season, the team would see improvement, yet by the end of 2007-08, once again the club would have to watch the playoffs on television. Nevertheless, in July Hitchcock was signed to a three year extension as head coach, and eight months later was rewarded with a slot for the Jackets in the 2009 playoffs, the first (and only) time in franchise history. They would be swept by the Red Wings in four games.

Despite many changes, Columbus has not qualified for the playoffs since then, finishing last in the division the last three years in a row. In February, 2010, Coach Hitchcock was relieved of his duties and eventually left the organization to sign with the Blues in November, 2011 (resulting with Hitch winning the Jack Adams Award in June, 2012, as best coach in the league). Rick Nash left in a July, 2012, trade with the Rangers. John Davidson left St. Louis to become the President of Hockey Operations for the Blue Jackets in October, 2012, and replaced long-time (six years) general manager Scott Howson 12 days ago with Jarmo Kekaleinen, who worked with Davidson in St. Louis and had been the general manager of the Jokerit hockey club in the Finnish Elite League.

Davidson has his hands full. Columbus is currently fifth in the Central Division and has the second worst record in the entire NHL. The more things change, the more they stay the same, for the Blue Jackets, at least.