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.
On a recent afternoon at OhioHealth Chiller North, Ben Eaves sat next to Ed Gingher as the founder and president of the Ohio AAA Blue Jackets detailed the history of the program.
From a hopeful idea to promote the growth of elite-level youth hockey in central Ohio to an eight-team operation that has produced five NHL players over the past decade and a half, the AAA Blue Jackets have seen a rapid rise.
And the new head coach of the Under-18 team as well as the new assistant director of the organization was happy to listen to the story of how it all happened.
"It's fun to know the history of something, the emotion and the pride that a lot of people have," Eaves said. "It's not lost when these guys continue to come back and give back and spend time with little kids. It's just very unique, the whole scenario, from start to finish. And I get to be a part of that and try to help push it forward. I'm fortunate."
AAA BLUE JACKETS: Youth program has milestone year | The original: Trent Vogelhuber | Program alums give back
When Gingher decided this past winter to stop coaching the U-18 team and instead lead the U-16 squad, the search was on to bring in someone who could continue leading the oldest age group of junior Jackets.
But the program was looking for more than that. The program has had its fair share of successes -- not just with producing NHL talent, but a bevy of players who have earned college scholarships, as well as those who have gone on to be strong members of the community outside the sport -- but to keep it moving to the next level, the hope was to find someone who could bring some new ideas and a fresh perspective.
The AAA Blue Jackets found that in Eaves, a former college and pro player and coach.
"To bring in a guy like Ben, he makes us better," Gingher said. "For us to continue to get better, we have to continue to challenge ourselves and get ourselves out of our comfort zone. It's going to help all of our coaches and all of our players.
"The impact that it's going to have, it's huge. We got the guy we wanted."
To say Eaves comes from a hockey family is a bit of an understatement. His grandfather, Cecil, was a player and coach who helped start the hockey program at Ohio State. His father, Mike, spent eight seasons in the NHL, led the University of Wisconsin to an NCAA title and was hired this summer to coach the Blue Jackets' top farm team in Cleveland. Uncle Murray Eaves also played in the NHL and is a longtime coach as well.
Eaves' brother Patrick has played 14 NHL seasons, suiting up for Anaheim a year ago, and cousin Tyler - Murray's son - played college hockey at RPI.
As for Ben, his hockey bona fides are strong. He played at the powerhouse prep school Shattuck St. Mary's as well as for U.S. U-18 and U-20 teams. He spent four years at Boston College, two as captain, and had 169 points in 126 games for the Eagles while winning a national championship. Though he never made it to the NHL level for a regular season game, the undersized forward suited up at the AHL and ECHL and for five seasons in Finland's Liiga.
Since hanging up the skates as a player after the 2012-13 season, he's coached at the pro and amateur levels, including the last two as the human performance and wellness coach at Miami University where he worked to improve the RedHawks on and off the ice.
Eaves said he can use his experience at all levels and in all locations to bring a new perspective to the organization.
"I'm still learning," he said. "I can still learn and try to figure out what each age group needs. My time spent in Europe, I don't think that will be lost on me. You can see how the Finns and Swedes and Russians develop their players. You see certain things and go back to old notebooks and think, 'How can we implement that? How can we have a step-by-step progression? What are we teaching, why are we teaching it and what is the focus of teaching it?'
"To me, that's the fascination of going back and the philosophy and the development of, 'What do these kids need now in order to take steps so that at the end of the day, we keep getting better?'"
He's also walking into a bit of a new experience in Columbus, but there's a couple of reasons he took the job. The Eaves family, one of the top names in hockey in both Minnesota and Wisconsin over his dad's career, suddenly has a Buckeye tint to it with Mike running the team up in Cleveland and Ben working in Columbus. It's a return to the roots Cecil established while working at Ohio State back in the 1960s.
While Ohio isn't known as a hockey powerhouse state quite like the Michigans, Minnesotas and Massachusetts of the world, the establishment of the Blue Jackets has helped establish a culture that is growing. Participation at both the adult and youth levels is strong not just in Columbus but cities like Cleveland and Toledo, and the sky could be the limit to what could be accomplished.
So for Eaves, coming to Columbus to work for the AAA Blue Jackets is the best of all worlds, a growing phenomenon where he can make an impact while helping continue to establish a culture that will last for years to come.
"I wanted to go somewhere that had a soul with it, somewhere that it is about the kids and their experience and to love the game and develop it," Eaves said. "It was that, it was being affiliated with the Blue Jackets, it was the city of Columbus. It was an opportunity to learn and grow. All these things add up, and it's something where I said, 'Yeah, it's what I want to do.' It's a unique opportunity."