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Blue Jackets' investment in youth hockey development paying dividends

by Rob Mixer / Columbus Blue Jackets

When late Blue Jackets founder John H. McConnell purchased the expansion franchise, one of the most critical items on his agenda was to make sure that the city had a youth hockey infrastructure – a strong system that could help the game continue to grow for generations.

Minor league hockey made several stops in Columbus in the decades that predated the Blue Jackets’ founding in 1997 and their inaugural season in 2000-01, most notable the wildly successful Columbus Chill franchise of the ECHL.

Hockey was on the upswing, and when the Blue Jackets arrived, it began to boom. Mr. McConnell’s goal was to make sure it not only arrived, but thrived.

The first of the Chiller Ice Rinks was built in Dublin before the birth of the Blue Jackets, but Mr. McConnell saw it as a long-term investment, not just for the current generation but future generations of hockey players growing up in central Ohio. Mr. McConnell bought the Dublin Chiller in the late 1990s before the Blue Jackets officially began play, and that led to more sheets of ice going in around the city.

In 1991, the city of Columbus featured two ice sheets. Twenty years later, that number continues to grow; after taking control of the Dublin facility, Chiller Ice Rinks built new rinks at Easton, in Lewis Center (Chiller North) and bought the IceWorks facility in Worthington. The NTRPD Chiller in nearby Springfield opened in 2013.

The infrastructure is a big part of hockey’s growth in central Ohio, but the Blue Jackets Foundation has also played a key role; following in the McConnell family’s belief of giving back and making a positive contribution to the community, the foundation earmarks 25 percent of all funds raised each year for youth and amateur hockey.

“Mr. Mac really believed in the power of the system,” said J.D. Kershaw, Blue Jackets vice president of marketing and one of the organization’s first boots-on-the-ground marketers in 2000. “The money raised by the foundation goes to things like scholarships, equipment drives, building playground facilities and making improvements to existing ice rinks in Columbus.

“Every year, that money is used to donate hundreds of sets of hockey equipment to kids in our Junior Jackets program who want to play hockey but couldn't otherwise afford it.”

Hockey is not without its barriers of entry, and two of the most prominent are ice time availability and the cost to play. Beginning with Mr. McConnell’s plan for infrastructure, the Blue Jackets’ efforts in youth and amateur hockey development have been geared toward breaking down those barriers. In the early days of the franchise, the marketing team did hundreds of events at recreation centers and schools, getting hockey sticks in kids’ hands and introducing them to the game.

The Blue Jackets also formed a partnership with the Columbus Ice Hockey Club (CIHC) to work with inner city kids who want to start playing hockey - and thanks to money both raised and donated, the program is still growing and teaching kids both hockey skills and life skills, with the goal of making them better players and citizens.

“Having the network of Chiller Ice Rinks is huge for the process here,” Kershaw said. “We’re able to provide access to ice time, coaches, youth programs and things that not every team can offer kids in their community. It’s helped us support several local youth hockey organizations like CAHA, CCYHA, EYHA and NIHA to name a few; we try to help out whenever possible and make ourselves available to not just players, but parents and coaches as well.”

Relationships forged with the Chillers and youth hockey associations eventually led to the formation of the Ohio AAA Blue Jackets program. What Kershaw and several members of the central Ohio hockey community were noticing was that, at a certain age, the elite players in the area were leaving Columbus to play at a higher level - and it wasn’t necessarily by choice.

There were no AAA or “elite” level programs in Columbus until the AAA Blue Jackets were born. Current head coach and program director Ed Gingher, whose family connected with the Blue Jackets through the ECHL’s Dayton Bombers (Gingher’s family owned the team), coached former Blue Jackets GM Doug MacLean’s son Clark in his Dayton youth program and things took off from there.

Before long, Gingher was running the newly-formed AAA program which has since developed into a top-notch resource for local players looking to spring board their careers into junior hockey (USHL or Canadian major junior) or NCAA hockey.

And as Kershaw frequently reminded Gingher when the program started: with a higher profile program comes a higher level of accountability, and it would be expected of everyone associated with the AAA Blue Jackets program because, after all, hockey was almost secondary on the mission statement.

The players also have access to great coaching, including three former NHL players – including former Blue Jackets center Andrew Cassels, who now makes his home in Columbus and whose son, Cole, is a draft pick of the Vancouver Canucks. Together, they form a strong foundation for the players who come through the program and Kershaw said it’s one of the top reasons for the program’s continued success.

“Having a person of Eddie’s caliber around our kids has been tremendous,” Kershaw said. “He’s in it for the right reasons, and we could tell right away that he would be great for the program. We’ve always stressed: ‘remember what this is all about.’ It’s about developing young kids in central Ohio and turning them into quality young people both on and off the ice, and our goal has not changed in that regard. We want kids to be ready for the next step, and that doesn’t just include hockey.”

One of the important steps was the development and growth of high school hockey in Ohio, and in particular, the Columbus area. Several local schools had hockey programs but they did not have varsity status, which is something both Kershaw and Blue Jackets senior vice president/general counsel Greg Kirstein sought to change. In the early 2000s, they worked with the Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA) to make Nationwide Arena the official home of the state hockey championship, and the “final four” weekend is now a late-winter staple every year.

Columbus’ hockey growth isn’t limited to kids, either; the Chiller Adult Hockey League (CAHL), which is run by former NHLer Martin Spanhel, annually boasts one the highest participant rates in the United States, and part of that can be attributed to parents getting the hockey bug along with their children.

“It all comes back to breaking down those barriers,” Kershaw said. “If you can find a way to provide both ice time and opportunity, you’re well on your way. With good people leading your kids, that’s a big piece of the puzzle too. We committed to this investment from Day 1 and it was non-negotiable for Mr. Mac, and we’ll continue to do so.

“The return on fan development is not immediate. You have to trust that it will pay off down the road and continue to grow. Through our growth and success stories over the years, you’d have to say we’re doing pretty well here, but we know we still have a long way to go.”

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