Sitting high above Nationwide Arena for (at least) 41 games a year, I’m lucky enough to get one of the best vantage points in the building.
You can see everything unfold up in the press box: plays developing off the rush, a big hit coming, what I think is a ‘too many men on the ice’ call that goes undetected (I probably spend too much time looking for those), but one of the really genuine and cool things I feel privileged to see on a nightly basis is the relationship that builds between fans and their team.
Listen, no one that follows the Blue Jackets is living in denial that this season hasn’t been disappointing. The season officially ended April 11, 2015 when the Blue Jackets crashed the New York Islanders’ party in the final regular season game at Nassau Coliseum, and that’s not what these guys had in mind when they wrapped up a productive training camp and went through the preseason with a 7-1-0 record and feeling really good about where they were headed.
Injuries? You better believe it. Inconsistency? Yeah, there was plenty of that. And the fact that there’s a bitter taste in the mouths of the players who wear the jerseys should be construed as nothing other than a good thing. They know they came up short, and they’re going to be thinking about it all summer – particularly in their quiet moments when they open Twitter and happen to scroll through Stanley Cup playoff updates.
You’ve heard of the phrase “going off the grid,” right? Seeing playoff scores and hearing about the NHL’s postseason tournament while you’re teeing off on the back nine or having dinner with friends back home is enough to make any professional hockey player sick.
Yes, that’s where the Blue Jackets are – but the fans have been behind them all season long, through a nine-game winning streak and a nine-game losing streak. From having a relatively healthy roster to wondering if they’d have enough bodies to field a complete team that night. From seeing a star goaltender get injured to seeing two of their stars on hockey’s biggest stage under the brightest lights, right there on their home ice.
The one constant through it all was a loud, appreciative, crowd at Nationwide Arena, one that has been particularly noticeable down the stretch as the team reaches full steam and builds some serious confidence going into the offseason.
One memory that sticks out was Saturday afternoon (Apr. 4) when the Blue Jackets had a one-goal lead deep into the third period against the Pittsburgh Penguins. They held that lead, as you know, got an empty net goal from Nick Foligno to complete his first career hat trick, and the sold-out crowd of 18,500-plus didn’t again sit down until they were in their cars and headed home.
It compounded in the home finale against the Buffalo Sabres when Boone Jenner sealed the deal with an empty net goal and the building thunderously approved.
It was as if the crowd, roaring through key penalty kills, prolonged shifts in the offensive zone and big saves from the guy they lovingly know as “Bob,” had wrapped its arms around the team skating off the ice and said “it’s going to be alright.”
In the last month or so, the fans have once again seen the group they fell in love with over the past two-plus years, and the players have felt that love.
“Our fans have been awesome all year,” said Boone Jenner. “They deserve a successful team and we wanted to end this season on a good note, not just for ourselves but also for them. It’s too bad we can’t give them playoff hockey this year, and the only thing it does is make us want to get right back there next year. We’re playing good hockey and the atmosphere in the arena has been awesome, too.
“We have to keep playing the way we know we can play, play hard, and be the kind of team we know we can be – and I think it’s the kind of team the fans here appreciate.”
That’s the Columbus way, baby: honest and appreciative. The Blue Jackets started on this run two springs ago, going 19-5-5 down the stretch of a lockout-shortened season only to miss the playoffs on a tiebreaker. A year later, they boisterously barged their way into the Stanley Cup tournament with a dramatic overtime win over the Coyotes and officially clinched with a win in Dallas the next night.
There have been some unforgettable moments along the way, starting with the 48th and final regular season game of 2012-13 when the Blue Jackets had to outlast a Nashville team that was looking to spoil its party. I know I’ll never forget the crowd – my pen was shaking up in the press box – making the building tremble when Cam Atkinson put that game away with an empty net goal in the final minutes.
If you ask the players, what they’ll remember most about that game is watching their playoff fate unfold on a television screen. Knowing it was out of their hands and someone else controlling their destiny only revved them up more for 2013-14.
The electricity in the arena for Games 3, 4 and 6 last April are memories that we’ll all have forever. You won’t forget who you hugged or whose drink you spilled when Nick Foligno beat Marc-Andre Fleury from just inside the blue line two minutes into overtime. You won’t forget how the hairs on your arms stood up when Foligno scored a goal that brought the Blue Jackets within 4-3 after falling behind 4-0 in an elimination game.
And those are all great memories – but this group of guys wants to add a few more pages to the book.
“The fans have been great and they’ve been supportive,” said coach Todd Richards. “There have been times when we’ve been booed here at home but we’ve deserved to be booed. Over this last stretch and the way we’ve finished, you can feel the energy from the crowd. I think they appreciate the way the team’s played, appreciated the efforts – sometimes despite the scores.
“I told the guys: we have a great fan base here. (They want) honest efforts. I think the fans expect it, and we need to expect it as well.”