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Jackets, Monsters aim to further grow hockey in Ohio

by Rob Mixer / Columbus Blue Jackets

“We plan on being here a long time. We’re really looking forward to it.”

And so begins a new era of hockey in the state of Ohio, one that was officially ushered in with a Thursday media event at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. The Blue Jackets and Lake Erie Monsters, two teams separated by only a two-hour drive but who had been unaffiliated for the past eight years, finally joined forces with a multi-year agreement that was signed off on last week.

In the short term, it means a natural and convenient fit for two teams that were looking to better their AHL affiliations from a business perspective and get players to and from destinations faster. It means more opportunities for coaches and management on both sides to make the drive up and down I-71 and watch players live and track their progress.

But in the long term and the big picture, it means so much more.

You could see it on the faces of the 70-plus local kids in attendance at the press conference, all wearing their respective team jerseys from around the Cleveland area. A large group of them emphatically raised and waved their hands when John Davidson, a Hall of Famer and former NHL goaltender, asked how many of the kids were goalies.

The kids waited in a line that wrapped halfway around the Cavaliers’ practice court to get an autograph from Mike Rupp, a former Blue Jacket and Stanley Cup champion who grew up playing hockey in Cleveland.

VIEW: Photos from the Blue Jackets-Monsters press conference in Cleveland

And perhaps, in previous years, some of those kids had traveled to Columbus and played tournaments in any one of The Chiller facilities. Surely, they had seen the Blue Jackets banners and advertising in those rinks and watched some games on TV, but due to distance and a lack of affiliation with their own local team, the Monsters, there wasn’t a true connection.

That’s what, hopefully, this new partnership represents: a connection of professional hockey in the state of Ohio that grows the game from the grass roots levels above and beyond where it is today.

“One thing about is hockey is: you need to grow, and you need to grow at a grass roots level,” Davidson said. “We don’t only have kids playing youth hockey, but they’re playing at an extremely high level. There’s going to be some draft picks out of there, (also) kids that maybe don’t get drafted but they’re going to get scholarships and have their education taken care of. There are some kids who are just going to play for the love of it. I

“If you do it right and you’re on a good team, you can learn a lot about life. That’s what the growth of hockey can do for a city, and it can make a city a better place. With this affiliation – and obviously, hockey is really growing here – the idea of the state of Ohio, FOX Sports, all of this stuff…one and one makes two.”

The Monsters’ footing in Cleveland is already strong; since joining the AHL in 2007-08, the Lake Erie franchise has been among the league’s best in average home attendance.

In 2014-15, the Monsters ranked third in attendance (over 8,000 per game) and drew 15,288 fans for their home finale.

So, next steps? The question was asked about the Blue Jackets playing a preseason game at Quicken Loans Arena, and possibly, the Monsters playing a game at Nationwide Arena down the line.

While the NHL preseason schedule has been set for the upcoming season, the aforementioned ideas will be at the forefront of discussions as the partnership develops.

“Unfortunately, this (affiliation) came to fruition quickly but usually, a year in advance, you set up your exhibition schedule,” Davidson said. “It will be something we address.”

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