When John H. McConnell brought the Blue Jackets to Columbus, he didn't just want to bring a professional sports team to the area, he wanted to bring the sport of hockey to the people of Central Ohio. One sign of that dream being realized comes this year as 16 alumni from the AAA Blue Jackets program head to Division I schools to play hockey.
"The birth years of these players (headed to D1 schools) encompasses kids born from 1995 to 1998," says AAA Blue Jackets president and head coach, Ed Gingher. "When you look at the Jackets coming in in 2000, this is the result of that influence."
When Gingher first started the AAA program, he saw families representing fan bases from around the NHL. Now, kids are picking jersey numbers that match that of their favorite Blue Jacket, and the hometown team is the team to root for.
Even better, the Jackets being in young children's backyards didn't just expose them to the sport and the team, it has accelerated their development.
"It's amazing what kids can learn by watching even at a young age," Ginger said. "They see plays and then they try stuff on the ice.
"They're going to be watching (Artemi) Panarin this year. They're going to be trying that shootout move he had the other night (versus Nashville) because guys see that. They're exposed to it."
With the talent growing at an accelerated rate, now the players are getting the attention they deserve and recruiting activity is growing rapidly.
"It's exciting and almost overwhelming," Gingher said. "The recruiting process is contagious. So if one school hears three schools are in on one of our kids, they get interested. It comes in waves. And they're still kids, so it's like Christmas. This is what they've worked for, this is what the parents hoped for."
For his part, Gingher always counsels his players to be sure to pick the school that they would go to regardless of if they were playing hockey. He wants his kids to remember to enjoy their years in college and not forget that their primary job is to be a student-athlete.
"From a coach's standpoint, Division I hockey is a more developmental driven path because there's more practices versus games," Gingher said. "You're playing every Friday and Saturday night, and skating every day."
The Division I schedule is usually about 40 games, followed by a league playoff. Teams that qualify are then invited to the NCAA tournament that follows a "Sweet 16" format.
As more and more AAA Jackets alumni hit the Division I, and are proud to represent the program from which they came, the growth and opportunity only continues for the players that come after.
The AAA Jackets try to arrange games for their current players at universities around the area, and program alumni are always behind the bench. Other alumni make appearances when they are home from school on break.
"The exposure to the program, it's opening more doors for more players," Gingher said. "That's what you hope happens. It gains steam and hopefully we can keep moving."
We'll be following the AAA Blue Jackets playing in Division I this season, including the following players:
Kiefer Sherwood - 1995 - Miami University
Carson Meyer - 1997 - Miami University (pictured above)
Grant Valentine - 1997 - Miami University
Austin Pooley - 1996 - The Ohio State University
Eric Dop - 1998 - Bowling Green
Connor McDonald - 1995 - Bowling Green
Jason Tackett - 1995 - Ferris State
Jerad Rosburg - 1996 - Michigan State
Justin Richards - 1998 - Minnesota Duluth
Charlie Gerard - 1995 - Minn State - Mankato
Walker Sommer - 1996 - Air Force
Ryan Solomon - 1996 - Northeastern - Hockey East
Mitch Perrault - 1996 - Harvard
Brenden Demler - 1997 - Dartmouth
Clay Han - 1995 - Dartmouth
Nick Jenny - 1996 - Robert Morris