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High School Night shines light on growth of Columbus hockey

Grant money from McConnell Education Foundation helps programs develop

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

When it comes to the impact the Blue Jackets organization has had on the central Ohio area, perhaps no picture tells it better than one that took place before Monday's game vs. Washington. 

Ahead of the national anthem, a player representing each of central Ohio's high school hockey programs skated to the red line at center ice, as each was on hand to celebrate High School Hockey Night with the Blue Jackets. 

It's all part of the ongoing relationship between the Blue Jackets and the creation of a hockey-mad culture in central Ohio that goes all the way from the NHL level to the grassroots, where high school hockey in Columbus has never been stronger. 

Tweet from @BlueJacketsNHL: Last night, the McConnell Education Foundation awarded grants to 34 Central Ohio high school hockey teams for the 22nd consecutive year! pic.twitter.com/61zzFvjQcS

"Just to see the growth of hockey from the first day I was here to see where it is now is unbelievable," former Blue Jackets forward Jared Boll, now an assistant development coach with the franchise, told players, coaches and parents at a reception before the game. "It's just grown so much since I got here. It's really cool to see and be a part of and be part of the growth. To see hockey take off in Columbus is awesome." 

As part of that reception before the game, the McConnell Education Foundation awarded grants for the 22nd consecutive year to what is now 34 Columbus-area high school hockey programs. Those grants are now in excess of $1.4 million since they started, and it's money and support that helps coaches and programs be the best they can be. 

"(The Blue Jackets) support high school hockey in so many different ways," said Tim Pennington, head coach at Olentangy Berlin. "I talk to coaches from across the United States -- we stay in touch with high school coaches from other areas -- and I don't think anybody has what we have here in Columbus. I think the support from the Blue Jackets is unlike any other out there. We're very fortunate to have that as coaches here in Columbus." 

Pennington would certainly know. The former coach at Olentangy Orange has now started the program at Berlin, a school that opened in the fall of 2018. Now in its second season, Berlin is off to a 6-3-0 start this year including 2-3-0 in the Capital Hockey Conference, but getting a program off the ground is no easy task. 

The good news is school spirit and interest in the sport has led players of all levels of experience to come out, including members of the school's golf team. The grant money from the McConnell Education Foundation also plays a big part. 

"You need everything from uniforms to puck bags to pucks," Pennington said. "Everything is starting from scratch, and hockey is a very expensive sport at times, so we really appreciate the support from the McConnell Foundation to help get us started because otherwise, it's tough." 

Dan Neverov, a junior at Berlin, was selected by the coaching staff to represent the Bears at center ice in part because of his selflessness. He's a defenseman normally but with the program still building, he's also serving as the backup goalie whenever needed, and Neverov said he's excited to be at the start of creating something big. 

"That's really cool. I think about that a lot," he said of being among the first players to wear a Berlin sweater. "I started at Olentangy but going to a new school, I didn't really know how what would happen. After going, everything has been great. Playing with the team, since we're so young, we're really learning how to play with each other." 

In all, nearly 800 players, coaches and families were in attendance Monday night. Grant support went to the varsity and JV programs that are part of the Capital Hockey Conference, which is central Ohio's top high school league, as well as the Ohio Scholastic Hockey League. 

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