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Bill Davidge enters retirement as Mr. Blue Jacket

Scout, broadcaster, teacher helped build the game in central Ohio

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

They lined up like wedding guests waiting to shake the hand of the father of the bride. 

Fathers and sons, husbands and wives, friends Bill Davidge has had for 40 years and others who know him only through their televisions sets or radio dials.  

When the doors to Nationwide Arena opened just before 6 p.m. last Thursday before a key game vs. Montreal, the line formed quickly and didn't abate for the next half hour. Finally, usher Jim Ketchel told fans Davidge had to go, that he had a TV show to film, and Davidge slipped behind the desk above Section 110 to prepare for "Blue Jackets Live" at 6:30. 

Yet still they flocked toward the desk, just wanting a handshake or a quick word. Bill Davidge has that effect on people. 

Video: Congratulations on a great career Bill!

After being involved in the Blue Jackets organization since day one -- he's been a scout and a team ambassador, but most famously a radio and television broadcaster since the first season of hockey -- Davidge is set to retire at the conclusion of the season

He'll still work the remaining games Fox Sports Ohio will broadcast, including the last two regular-season road games plus whatever games the network shows during the first round of the playoffs. If the Blue Jackets send him out with a fitting tribute and advance past the first round, FSO will do pregame and postgame shows for each contest as well. 

But Thursday was the last regular season game in his post, and the fans he's connected with for the past two decades wanted to say hi -- or goodbye.  

But it was no sad occasion for Davidge, who made up his mind that this would be his last season in December. He's had time to make peace with his decision, and let's be honest -- Thursday night wasn't all that different from the hundreds of games over the years when Davidge held court with the fans before the broadcast went on the air from the concourse. 

Tweet from @FOXSportsOH: Cam, The Captain and Torts all wish a very fond farewell to Mr. Blue Jacket, Bill Davidge. #CBJ pic.twitter.com/QQjGGgEmm3

"This is every game for him," Ketchel said.  

"There's always somebody that wants to ask a question or say hello," Davidge said. "We did that years ago when we were in radio. We've always made sure the fans come first." 

For nearly 20 years, Davidge has been the most consistent forward face of the Blue Jackets organization. Players, coaches and management come and go, but Davidge has been around since the beginning and was always there, always approachable, whether it was on a broadcast, at a promotion or at a community event. 

"To me, he's the picture-perfect Mr. Blue Jacket in the state of Ohio," said George Matthews, his former radio partner. "When you see Bill Davidge, you think, 'That's the Blue Jackets.'  

"He was in the perfect job for what Bill Davidge is all about." 

 

Billy The Teacher 

There are plenty of ways to measure Davidge's impact on hockey not just in central Ohio but throughout the state. 

Being heard as one of the team broadcasters since the 2000-01 season has been his most high-profile role, but Davidge has never shied away from hockey talk in whatever form necessary to help build the gospel of Blue Jackets hockey.  

From the early days of the franchise, Davidge understood how important it was to grow the game by any means possible. 

"I can remember going up and down the highway in Ohio with Bill in the Blue Jackets van with Stinger on the side, and people yelling at us as we went driving around from one affiliate to the other, 'What's the Blue Jackets?'" Matthews said. 

"That was in the first couple of years, but early on, that's where we were. A number of people didn't know anything about the Blue Jackets and didn't know anything about the NHL. He loved the idea of growing the NHL and growing the Jackets brand throughout the state." 

And that came naturally to Davidge because of his roots. Growing up a hockey player in Dunnville, Ontario, his college choice came down to playing at the University of Pennsylvania or Ohio State. He chose the latter, and the fleet-footed center finished his career with 45 goals, 56 assists and 141 penalty minutes in 114 games while serving as team captain as a senior. 

Looking back, it's clear pretty much all of the pieces of his life came together at Ohio State. As a hockey player, he was building up the credibility and connections to spend a life in the game. He earned his degree in education in 1977, and after spending his college years in Ohio, he never left.  

All three of those factors led to Davidge becoming a crucial part of the hockey community across the state. After graduating from OSU, he went to Miami University in Oxford to earn his master's while teaching physical education. There, he and Steve Cady helped convince the school to take its hockey program to the Division I level in 1978-79, and the two also created the Miami Hockey School on the way to becoming two of the most prominent instructors in the state. 

"He's one of the best teachers that I've ever seen," Cady said in 2014. "He was able to break a skill down, explain the skill. He was a very, very talented athlete at Ohio State, and a lot of guys that are real talented from a skills standpoint struggle to teach it because it just comes natural to them. 

"Bill was not that way at all. He knew how to break the components of the skill down and then articulate that to whatever age that he was working with in a way that made it easy for the folks to comprehend and learn." 

Davidge continued to teach part-time at Miami even after becoming the varsity head coach in 1985-86, shortly after his first wife Leann died in a car accident. After four seasons at the helm, Davidge settled into a new role -- scout, teacher, and, for the first time, broadcaster with the Cincinnati Cyclones of the IHL.  

Then along came the Blue Jackets, and if there was anything akin to a match made in heaven, that was it. Davidge had a previous relationship with Doug MacLean, the first president/general manager of the team, and was brought in as a scout first with some broadcasting opportunities on the side. 

Once he spent some time in the booth with Matthews, though, it was clear where his primary duties would lie. Davidge and Matthews were a popular pair in the booth, largely because of their entertaining and personable style, their lack of pretense on the air, and the way they broke down the game for listeners eager to join the fun. 

"We broadcast like we didn't know if anybody was listening or not," Matthews said. "We were just talking among ourselves about the game we loved to talk about. We were talking the game as we would as two guys on barstools at a bar, and come on in and join the conversation by tuning into the broadcast. 

"It wasn't fabricated. We both wanted to grow the game, we both love the game, we loved talking about the game, and it was just like the listeners were part of the kitchen party." 

From there, Davidge eventually transitioned to television in 2009, where he spent a few seasons working as the color man alongside Jeff Rimer. For the past five seasons, he's been the analyst for the pregame and postgame shows on Fox Sports Ohio. 

Along the way, he's also worked as a team ambassador. If someone was needed for an event -- especially if it was a golf outing -- Davidge was there, always spreading the gospel. 

"There are maybe people that love both hockey and the Blue Jackets at the same level (as him), but nobody loves either of them more than Billy does, and that always seemed to be the foundation for everything that he did," said Todd Sharrock, Blue Jackets vice president of communications and team services.  

"He always brought so much enthusiasm and excitement and passion to everything he did, whether he was representing the team in a charity golf outing or he was speaking to a rotary in Lancaster. He always was the same guy every day." 

"It's hard to put into words," Blue Jackets director of broadcasting Russ Mollohan said. "From day one, Billy was absolutely bought in and understood with his background how important it was to build the game here in Columbus. We all owe him a huge debt of gratitude for maintaining that through his tenure here." 

Billy The Man 

The willingness to be a public face of the franchise is one thing, but the other thing that has made Davidge special is his ability to make connections.  

The first thing that stands out about Davidge is how approachable he is, and it doesn't matter who it is making the ask. 

"Billy has a way of making complete strangers feel like friends, and not everybody has that," Sharrock said. "Billy just has this natural, folksy charm about himself. He always treats everybody the same, no matter who they are." 

As a result, it feels like everyone in Columbus has a Billy Davidge story -- and yes, it almost feels like you have to call him Billy -- from those who have known him for decades to those who met him through their television screens.  

For those who have worked with him, that's perhaps the most impressive part of his personality. 

"He's almost so pure and so well-intended and so kind and so down to earth that you're suspicious of it," said Aaron Portzline, who has covered the team since its inception for The Dispatch and The Athletic. "But it is absolutely genuine, and he treats everybody like that. He carries himself with no airs whatsoever for a guy that has accomplished as much as he has." 

Davidge's positive nature has only strengthened since he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2014, and he's battled the cancer with his trademark vigor since. Along the way, he's become a public face in the fight against cancer in the Columbus community and a visible fundraiser for research, hosting first a golf tournament and more recently a dinner to raise money for research to cure the disease.

If there's a hidden blessing to his fight, it's that it has allowed his force of personality and inspirational attitude to find a wider audience in the community.

"He goes back to the James (Cancer Center at Ohio State) and talks to cancer patients and encourages them as they're going through the same fight he's going through," said Dave Maetzold, a longtime Columbus sports media personality who now works with Davidge at Fox Sports Ohio. "He tells me stories about people who are just sitting in their room taking their medicine waiting to die. He says, 'No, no, you get out and you walk that hallway. It's a nice day outside. Get outside and live your life.'

"Who does that? He does. And he's genuine about it. He's one of a kind."

The line of fans who waited to greet Davidge after the announcement last week was preceded by a slew of online tributes to Davidge. Almost everyone who has worked with him over the years, whether in hockey or in Columbus, felt compelled to post a message about what Davidge has meant to them. Many were posted on social media or sent to Davidge via text message, filling his inbox. 

"The outpouring of support, I bet you it's over 1,000 people that have contacted me," Davidge said. "I had a scan yesterday that took three hours -- went in at 8, come out at 11. They announced (my retirement) at 10, and I had 140 text messages. And I tried to answer every one of them." 

An Earned Retirement 

Davidge can remember back the four-plus decades and see what the Columbus hockey scene was like at the time he arrived from Dunnville.  

"Let me go back as a freshman at Ohio State," he said. "(There was) one rink, 150 kids in youth hockey, one high school team. And now look at where we are." 

Columbus is now in the business of producing NHL-level talent, including Kole Sherwood, who earlier this year became the first Columbus-area native to suit up for the Blue Jackets.  

The AAA Blue Jackets program, coached by a number of players who starred with either the Blue Jackets or Ohio State before settling in the area, is competitive internationally and has watched multiple alums reach the NHL level.  

More than a dozen high schools in central Ohio sponsor varsity hockey teams, and Dublin Jerome became the first to reach the state tournament final earlier this year. 

There are tangible signs of growth all over the place, and Davidge has his hand in all of it. It's been a job well done, and Davidge has earned his chance to ride off into the sunset. 

There's also the matter of his health. Considering the diagnosis came more than five years ago, Davidge is in a good place, but there's also the reality he wants to enjoy the upcoming years while he has the chance. 

"I'm good," he said. "The scan (last week) was positive -- no tumors. I'm fine, and we're still hoping for a cure." 

He's also told the Blue Jackets that if he's needed, he'll be available at a moment's notice, but much of his life now will be dedicated to family and golf.  

"I'm gonna work on the short game," Davidge said with a laugh, but being able to spend time with his wife, Jayna, and his three kids will be the focus. 

"Right now, I'm healthy, and I want to be able to jump into retirement and have that aspect of it and not have to look over my shoulder," he said. "We do have a condo in Florida, so we're going to spend some time there. We have six kids between Jay and I, we have a couple of grandkids.  

"I just turned 65, so it's good. It's really good." 

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