Lighting the Lamp With Rick Ackerman
Pity the poor Columbus Blue Jackets. Since the inception of the franchise in 1997, the team has been a model of mediocrity. In 15 seasons of play, the Blue Jackets have only qualified for the playoffs two times. In 2009, the Red Wings swept them in four games of the first round and in 2014 the Penguins took them out in the first round in six games. The club from central Ohio has not qualified for the playoffs since, finishing 11th in the Eastern Conference in 2015 and 15th in 2016.
The Blue Jackets floundered from the very beginning. In November 1996, five investors, including civic leader John H. McConnell, formed a partnership and submitted an application to the NHL for an expansion franchise. Hockey had been somewhat popular in the Columbus metropolitan area as evidenced by the 83-game sellout streak (a minor league record at the time) of the Columbus Chill, an ECHL team from 1991 to 1999. Of course, the Chill played in the cozy 5,003-seat Ohio Expo Center Coliseum, now the Taft Coliseum.
A 5,000-seat venue would certainly not work for the NHL, so a referendum was placed before Columbus voters in early 1997 to publicly finance a new arena. It failed by a wide margin. However, the Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company, prodded by McConnell, announced it would finance a new $150-million, 18,500-seat arena complex, and on June 25, 1997, the NHL granted Columbus an expansion franchise.
Wendy’s hamburger chain sponsored a name-the-team contest and over 14,000 entries were submitted. After the NHL and new owner McConnell narrowed it down to two choices, Blue Jackets (referencing Ohio’s contributions to the Civil War) and Justice, a
formal announcement was made that Justice was (thankfully) rejected. In retrospect, they should have named the team the Columbus Cannons.
An expansion draft was held on June 23, 2000, for the Blue Jackets and the other expansion franchise, the Minnesota Wild. Three of the players selected by Columbus signed with other teams, including Dallas Drake, who signed with the Blues. In the Entry Draft, the Jackets’ first-round choice was defenseman Rostislav Klesla, taken fourth overall. Klesla played a total of 515 games over nine seasons in Columbus, scoring 41 goals and 92 points and was eventually traded to the Phoenix Coyotes in 2011 for current Blues winger Scottie Upshall.
The Jackets fared poorly their first two seasons, winning only 50 of 164 games, finishing last in the Central Division and outscored by a total of 134 goals. And then tragedy struck in March 2002, when a 13-year old girl, Brittanie Cecil, was hit in the head by a puck that had been deflected into the stands. As a result of her death, large nylon nets were stretched behind the goals in all NHL venues to prevent further misfortunes. The team also wore small red hearts with Brittanie’s initials on their helmets for the rest of the season.
Columbus did some maneuvering at the 2002 Entry Draft and acquired the first overall pick, choosing the franchise’s only true super-star, winger Rick Nash of the London Knights. Nash would play nine seasons in Ohio, setting team records for games played (674), goals (289), assists (258), power play goals (83) and shorthanded goals (14). However, when the Jackets got off to a horrendous 2-12-1 start to the 2011-12 season, it was apparent Nash would have to be traded. No deal materialized during the season, but
by the end of July, 2012, Columbus found a trading partner and Nash was sent to the New York Rangers for Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, defenseman Tim Erixon and a 2013 first round draft choice (Kerby Rychel). Of the four, only Dubinsky (one assist in eight games so far this season and minus-8) remains as a Blue Jacket. Nash would go on to score 110 goals for the Rangers in 259 games over five seasons, including six goals in 11 games this current season.
Surprisingly, the Blues and Jackets have only made four trades over 16 years, almost all of them minor in nature. In 2009, the Blues acquired winger Pascal Pelletier (who?) for prospects Tomas Kana and Brendan Bell. Two years later defenseman Kris Russell went to the Blues for Nikita Nikitin; both eventually ended up in Edmonton, although Nikitin signed with Omsk Avangard of the KHL this year. In 2014 the Blues sent defenseman Jordan Leopold to Columbus for a 2016 fifth-round draft choice (center Nolan Stevens, Northeastern Huskies). And finally, the Blues sent popular winger Adam Cracknell to Ohio in 2015 for future considerations.
According to hockey-reference.com, the Blues have won 47 of 79 games (.633 winning percentage) with the Blue Jackets, with three ties and three overtime/shootout losses. In those games, St. Louis has outscored Columbus 244 to 205. On home ice, the Blues have won 29 of 40 games (one tie), outscoring the Jackets 142 to 95. What Blues fans remember most vividly, however, are two thunderous hits T.J. Oshie put on Rick Nash in separate games in 2009 and 2010, one in Columbus and one in St. Louis. In both cases, the diminutive former Blue knocked the taller, heavier Nash to the ice with hard, heavy body checks.
So, yes, have some pity for the long-suffering Blue Jackets and wish them some success (not enough so that they win tonight, though) as they continue to struggle. Of course, reserve some of those wishes for the Blues to score some goals tonight. In their last five games, they have only scored five goals (while giving up 17, including one in a shootout), winning only one game in that span.