The red, white and blue will be colors as essential to Friday night's Columbus Blue Jackets game as the traditional goal red, capital silver and union blue worn by the NHL club.
The team's annual Military Appreciation Night presented by Elk & Elk will spotlight the organization's commitment to serving and recognizing our troops, something seen through the Blue Jackets season with the military salute to a service member as well as the Elk & Elk Military Row at select games.
Friday night's game vs. Montreal will be so much more than that. In addition to hosting local military members and their families and the pomp and circumstance that will go with such a game, the game also provides the chance to spotlight the Blue Jackets' partnership with the USO.
Long thought of as the organization behind the military tours overseas of such entertainers as Bob Hope and Toby Keith, the United Service Organizations also provide essential services to military members and their families across the country, including our community.
The USO of Central and Southern Ohio serves 150,000 people throughout a 65-county area of the state.
"I think a lot of people, when they think of the USO, they think of days gone by with Bob Hope and entertaining the troops on the big stage," said Sue Ann Carroll, community relations manager of USOCSO. "What they don't think about is your local troops, and that is our mission here at the USO of Central and Southern Ohio is we take care of the troops that sit right here in our backyard. Our backyard just happens to be 65 counties strong, so we have a lot of space to cover and a lot of service members."
For Military Appreciation Night presented by Elk & Elk, the Blue Jackets provided hundreds of free tickets to the USOCSO, plus a buy-one, get-one ticket offer that should result in more than 1,000 military members in the stands for Friday's game.
Thursday, local military members and their families were present for the team's practice. Brandon Dubinsky - who often wears a camo-styled Blue Jackets hat in the team locker room - staged a meet and greet with local military members, while Cam Atkinson presented the USO with a $1,013 check after practice.
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"Since the team's inception in 2000, the Blue Jackets organization has committed time and resources to the Columbus community and has enjoyed a longstanding relationship with the military community," said Andee Boiman, the organization's director of fan development and community programs.
"Partners such as the USO demonstrate how the sport of hockey has the ability to connect our community, whether it's celebrating those who had served or are currently serving during the game or providing the opportunity for the 5th Line to march alongside the team's mission to give back off the ice."
For head coach John Tortorella, whose son Nick is a U.S. Army Ranger, the game takes on special importance.
"To have them around us, they dwarf us. They do. The military people dwarf us," he said Thursday. "We talk about mind-set with athletes. Are you kidding me? The mind-set that (military members) have and the (courage) that they have to give us our opportunities … it's emotional for me, not because my son is in it, but just the people we have an opportunity to meet in our sport as we go from city to city and have an opportunity to meet these guys.
"We're entertainment. To have them around us, they stand over us and cast a huge shadow as far as how they handle themselves."
From the military-style jersey auction to special in-game touches, all fans will have a chance to take part in the festivities.
For military members in attendance, there will be special perks, such a lounge set up in Nationwide Arena for the game, one way the Blue Jackets have strived to enhance the partnership with the USO.
"We always strive to provide a way for the military members that do get tickets for it to not just be about that, but it to be about the experience," Carroll said. "They get to hang out with other military members and have an overall great experience, and the Blue Jackets have worked with us for years to do just that. They have upped the ante quite a bit."
That's an important thing to provide right now in the midst of the partial government shutdown. While military bodies affiliated with the Department of Defense are still receiving funding, those outside of the DoD are not.
That includes the Coast Guard, which is under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security.
"One of the Coast Guard families that I had signed up to come be part of the luncheon (Thursday) and then the high-five tunnel at the game the next night, he assumed he had to buy tickets," Carroll said. "He's part of the government shutdown issue, so his supervisor emailed me and said he thought he was going to back out because he just didn't feel like he could spend the money on tickets right now the way things are.
"I was like, 'Wait, we have tickets! You don't have to spend the money.' That's the kind of thing that means a lot to them. It makes them feel like the community is thinking about them, and the Jackets always provide that feeling every year."
Another part of Military Appreciation Night presented by Elk & Elk that Blue Jackets fans can take part in is a drive to collect supplies for area USO support lounges.
Before the game, donations of personal care items and snacks will be accepted by USO volunteers on the Front Street and McConnell Boulevard plazas outside arena entrances. Items collected will be donated to stock central Ohio USO lounges that offer respite for military personnel and their families. Fans who donate items will receive a voucher redeemable for a pair of complimentary tickets to select upcoming home games.
Last year, the drive was held for the first time, and it netted more than 17,000 items.
"We didn't know what to expect going into it," Carroll said. "I was just kind of dumbfounded. It was so many items and so generous. It saves us money that we can now use to do other things for our service members. That's literally dollars we don't have to spend. It was a success last year, so we expect that it will be again."
The Blue Jackets work closely with the USO and other military outreach programs throughout the year, not just on Friday night. But the experience in Nationwide Arena for the game should be one local military members and their families won't soon forget.
"We have a great partnership and we're certainly grateful for it because it's another way we can fulfill our mission to the troops," Carroll said.