Like any group of kids, the 14 youngsters who formed a high-five line from the Blue Jackets locker room to the bench ahead of Friday night's game were wide-eyed and excited.
One young girl made a heart shape with her fingers each time a photo was taken. All were full of energy and smiles as they waited for the Blue Jackets to arrive. And as the players and coaches marched from the room to the bench, taking the ice as the cannon in Nationwide Arena boomed, the youngsters were in awe as the Blue Jackets walked by, high-fiving each person they passed.
But these are no normal kids. They were in Nationwide Arena thanks to their affiliation with Ethiopian Tewahedo Social Services (ETSS), a central Ohio organization that helps new Americans establish roots and gain self-sufficiency in the Columbus community.
Video: CBJ and ETSS teamed up to grow the game of hockey.
In February, the Blue Jackets and the NHL celebrate Hockey Is For Everyone, and the team's partnership with ETSS is a prime example of that. Through a number of programs with ETSS, the Blue Jackets not only introduce the sport of hockey to kids who are new to the community, they help introduce the kids to the culture of their new country.
"This is a great experience," said Amanuel Murdassa, director of youth programs for ETSS and himself originally a native of Ethiopia, who has lived in Columbus for the past two decades. "This is a lifetime experience for our kids, who don't have this kind of opportunity maybe if it's not for the Blue Jackets providing these opportunities for the kids to come and see what is going on around Columbus.
"These kinds of opportunities are new to them and new to their families. They're new to the country. This is a first generation who is integrating into American culture, so it's a very good experience for them."
For many of the kids who are affiliated with ETSS, it's an uncertain time. Their families have come to the United States for a variety of reasons, but they're all facing a new future in a new country. Hailing from such locales as Somalia, Nepal, Burma and Ethiopia, the children face challenges from learning a new language to fitting into a new and oftentimes overwhelming culture.
That's why the trip to Nationwide Arena was far from the only interaction between the kids, who are generally aged from kindergarted through eighth grade, and the Blue Jackets organization. The Blue Jackets regularly stage Street Jackets hockey clinics with kids from ETSS, allowing them to play the sport that is represented by the top professional team in the area.
Murdassa said kids from the program were counting down the days until the visit to the game, which was the team's annual Hockey Is For Everyone celebration presented by Vorys. Murdassa's son, 13-year-old Elnatan, was one of those who had a smile on his face as he gave high-fives and fist bumps to players as they stepped onto the ice before heading into the seating bowl to watch the game.
"It was nice to get the opportunity to see them," the younger Murdassa said. "It was cool. I play hockey games and I see it now as a fun sport. Coming here and getting to see the players, it shows me that there's more to the game."
Elnatan was able to take pictures and video of the players as they were taking the ice, and there's no doubt what his favorite part of the trip to Nationwide Arena was.
"Being downstairs was the best part," he said with a smile.
Judging by those smiles on the faces of everyone at Nationwide Arena, the chance to take in a sporting event with a team like the Blue Jackets helps those affiliate with ETSS when it comes to setting down roots in a new community.
"I'm glad for the connection and the families that now know the Blue Jackets are here and they are part of the community," Amanuel said. "It takes everybody to contribute to this town. Columbus is a welcoming city, and the Columbus Blue Jackets are a part of that."