The Ohio AAA Blue Jackets program brought high-level youth hockey to central Ohio 15 years ago. Coming off a season which saw numerous on-ice milestones for alums, BlueJackets.com is taking a look at the success of the program this week with a series of stories about where the program has been and where it's going.
Each time the Stanley Cup Final this past season moved from city to city between St. Louis and Boston, the starters for the two teams were introduced on the ice before the next game.
Three times, then, that meant the hockey world was watching as Bruins forward Sean Kuraly was introduced as hailing from Dublin, Ohio.
And each time, that meant the phone of Ed Gingher started buzzing off the hook.
"You wouldn't believe the amount of text messages I got," said Gingher, the president of the Ohio AAA Blue Jackets youth program that produced Kuraly and four other players who earned NHL minutes this past season.
"(My son) Ryan had probably six or eight buddies over (for Game 1) and they were all from Dublin and they all play in the program, and they were going crazy. I get goosebumps thinking about it. For a kid in Columbus to hear that now, it's real."
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Kuraly and the Bruins fell one win short of winning the Cup, meaning sport's greatest trophy didn't get the chance to head to central Ohio for a celebration. But Kuraly's standout postseason was the cherry on top of what certainly will be a memorable season for the program that has developed into a professional pipeline.
Kuraly was joined in the NHL this past season by Winnipeg forward Jack Roslovic, Chicago defenseman Connor Murphy and brothers Kole and Kiefer Sherwood, New Albany natives who made their NHL debuts with the Blue Jackets and Anaheim, respectively, this past season.
The debut of Kole Sherwood with Columbus might have been the most special, though, for the program just because of the local tie. It brought the rise of the AAA program full circle, as it showed a kid from Columbus can go from growing up rooting for the Blue Jackets to playing for the team.
For Gingher, what started as a humble one-team effort to bring elite youth hockey to central Ohio has turned, through a labor of love, into a hockey development program that can compete with the best in the country and send players to the top level.
It's quite an accomplishment, one that Gingher admits he should spend more time looking back and appreciating.
"I don't take that time enough, and I think the older I'm getting, the more I'm realizing you need to take those moments and have some of that reflective time," he said. "A guy like Kuraly being in the Stanley Cup Final, that's huge. Yeah, it wasn't the Blue Jackets playing, but we had one of our own playing for the most prized trophy. If he had won that, yes, it was coming here, and the city and the youth hockey community would have embraced it.
"When Kole played for the Jackets, the other guys have been awesome, but that one was really cool just given his path. He wasn't drafted, signed off our U-18 team, and then he keeps chugging along and gets his opportunity. There are some pretty cool moments that we've been able to be a part of."
It's been a 15-year process for Gingher, who left his job as the general manager of the ECHL's Dayton Bombers to start the program in 2004. The team was the Double-A affiliate of the Blue Jackets at the time, and some people approached Gingher about the potential to bring elite-level youth hockey to the Gem City.
Gingher, however, had another idea.
"My wheels started spinning immediately," he said. "I called (then-CBJ general manager) Doug MacLean and said, 'Hey, here's what I'm thinking about, do you guy have any interest?' He said, 'Be in my office tomorrow morning.' And really, the rest is history."
The AAA program started with just an Under-18 team, a squad that featured such names as MacLean's son, Clark, and a Dublin native named Trent Vogelhuber who would go on to become a seventh-round pick of the Blue Jackets in 2007, becoming the first central Ohio native to hear his name called in the NHL Draft.
As hockey interest grew in the area in large part because of the existence of the Blue Jackets, the program mirrored it as well. From just one team at the start, the program now offers teams at eight age levels. There are more than 30 coaches in the program, including such notable names as former Blue Jackets Chris Clark and Andrew Cassels, former Ohio State coach John Markell, and the newly hired Ben Eaves, the son of Cleveland Monsters head coached Mike Eaves who was added earlier this year to serve as assistant program director and to coach the U-18 squad.
Players from the program dot junior and college rosters across the country, with more than 30 -- including both Sherwood brothers, Roslovic and Murphy -- returning this past weekend for an alumni weekend that included a game played Sunday in front of a packed house at OhioHealth Chiller North, a golf tournament and plenty of time for old friends to get together.
If there's a secret sauce to the program, it's that pride and community nature. Not many AAA programs across the country would be able to entice so many alums to return for a game on a hot summer's day, nor would they be able to fill a rink with supporters who made the whole event seem like a family reunion.
"The one think that I think unequivocally when people ask us how we did it, we had the right people from the start," Gingher said. "Good hockey people, good business people, and it was never about their kid. It was always about everybody's kid and the long-term vision. Even through some of the first couple of years when we got our butt kicked, our vision never changed. It never wavered, and I think that's been a big part of why we've had success."
Two few decades ago, if a kid in the Columbus area wanted to try to make it in hockey, that meant constant travel to a city like Cleveland to join a team. Now, kids in the area have the infrastructure and support to make it to the highest level through the AAA team, including access to skating and strength coaches like Lee Harris and Donskov Hockey Development.
Playing in such prestigious events as the Quebec International Pee-Wee tournament to the upper-level teams battling other top AAA teams in the Tier 1 Elite Hockey League, the youngsters also sharpen their skills against the best young talent nationally and internationally.
And with the success of the Blue Jackets, including three straight playoff appearances and last year's first-round sweep of Tampa Bay, the culture is such that more and more young athletes in Columbus are going the hockey route.
"You're starting to see athletes pick hockey where when we first got here, athletes were picking football, athletes were picking baseball, basketball," Gingher said. "Some of those kids are still playing those sports, but more athletes are picking hockey. You could say the same thing about lacrosse. Those two sports in the city of Columbus, you're starting to capture the best athletes, and if you're getting the best athletes, the players will follow with that."
In other words, moments like this past hockey season, where the success of the program takes center stage, should become more and more the norm.
But that's not the only impact of the program. Gingher speaks just as highly of the kids who went on to become success stories off the ice as those who lace up the skates at the NHL level.
From a simple idea 15 years ago, a special family has developed, one that shows no sign of slowing down any time soon.
"You shake your head, and in my opinion, it all happened in a blink of an eye," Gingher said. "It's happened a lot quicker than I ever imagined it. A lot of the right things happened quickly, and these kids have taken advantage of every opportunity that has been there for them. And they get it. Their pride for the program is pretty big. That's unique."