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.
As the alums of the Ohio AAA Blue Jackets program left the ice after Sunday's annual alumni game, kids currently in the elite-level youth program lined up outside the rink at OhioHealth Chiller North to greet those that came before them.
Some wanted autographs from the four NHL players on the ice, while others just wanted a chance to say hello to the athletes who helped pave the way and build a successful, nationally competitive youth hockey program in Columbus.
It was a snapshot of the past, present and future of youth hockey in the capital city. And the whole scene showed that as far as things have come, there's a lot more on the table for the program going forward.
"To be one of the first to do it is something special," said Kole Sherwood, who made his NHL debut this past season with Columbus. "I hope we give the younger kids more motivation that this is reality and hopefully their dreams can start to become real.
"It should light a candle in them. It doesn't seem too impossible."
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There have been plenty of firsts for the program over the years, from Trent Vogelhuber (who became the first Columbus-area product drafted in 2007) to Connor Murphy (the first Columbus-developed player to make his NHL debut in 2013) to Kole Sherwood (who became the first Columbus-bred Blue Jacket this February) to Sean Kuraly (the Dublin native who came within a win of bringing the Stanley Cup to the capital city this season).
Those accomplishments span the whole history of the program, with Vogelhuber being on the first Under-18 team put together by Ed Gingher in 2004, Murphy playing through the 2009 season, current NHLers Kiefer Sherwood and Jack Roslovic graduating the program in 2013, and Kole Sherwood playing through 2015.
There's more talent to come, as well, with such names as Alex Barber, Trevor St. John and Eric Dop playing this upcoming season at Bowling Green, CBJ draft pick Carson Meyer and Austin Pooley skating at Ohio State, and Justin Richards starring at Minnesota-Duluth, to name a few.
And in talking to most after the alumni game, which took place Sunday at a Chiller North venue buzzing with friends, family and some notable hockey names, the thing that sets the program apart is the support.
It's not just the list of notable mentors -- which includes such former Blue Jackets as Chris Clark and Andrew Cassels, who are each head coaches in the organization -- or even the support from the CBJ organization. There's a laundry list of those behind the scenes, from parents to friends of the program to the skating and strength coaches, who have made the recent success possible.
"I just think that they show that they care on an individual level," Kiefer Sherwood said. "It's not about just producing the best talent. It's just about making you better as a person and a player. They're going to support your dreams on and off the ice. The way they care about the players is from the top down and really resonates with people."
It has started with Gingher, who helped create the program in 2004 after working as GM of the Dayton Bombers. His stated goal from the start was to create a group where winning at all costs was secondary, with a focus on simply developing players both on and off the ice.
It's the kind of thing that a lot of people say, but the atmosphere of camaraderie around the program is palpable, especially among those who have made it to the highest level.
It's no mistake that all five current NHL players to come through the program were back for the alumni weekend, which also featured a social gathering and a golf tournament, or that they can be found providing encouragement for one another during throughout the year in training and on social media.
"Ed does a ton and is kind of like a father figure to all of us," said Meyer, who is going into his senior season at OSU. "I think every single guy at some point during the season, when they hit a slump, they give Ed a call and he has to talk them off the ledge.
"It's a great group of pros, too, and they all work real hard. Being around them is just good exposure and seeing what I need to do. I compare myself to them out here and think, 'I need to work on this a little more,' and stuff like that. It's great."
There are a few firsts to still be had for the AAA program -- bringing the Stanley Cup to Columbus for a celebration is at the top of the list -- but with so many barriers now broken, it's more about continued success.
Considering the burgeoning hockey culture in Columbus -- there's more than 3,000 youth players and 3,000 adult leaguers in the area, brought on in part by the success of the Blue Jackets -- it's not a matter of if more pros will come from the area but just how many.
"To see it grow and to see all the people that helped us along the way, all character people, I still talk to them to this day," Roslovic said. "It's good to see everyone, and I know there's a city cheering for me."