If you’ve been to a Blue Jackets game at Nationwide Arena, you know there’s much more to it than just three periods of hockey on the ice. There’s in-game music, gate promotions, crowd activities during play stoppages, LED lights, a video board and a litany of other seemingly trivial entertainment features you see, but probably never think too hard about. But one man whose job it is to think hard about all of these things (and more) is Derek Dawley, the Blue Jackets Senior Director of Game Operations and Event Presentation.
Dawley has been with the Blue Jackets for five years, but he has been well traveled during his long career in the sports industry. On his way to Columbus, he made stops in Ottawa, Austin, and Edmonton after leaving Phoenix, where he got his start as a ballboy with the NBA’s Phoenix Suns as a high school student. Dawley said his time as a ballboy was instrumental in helping him find his passion for game operations.
“[As ballboys], we did a lot of the stuff that interns or promo teams do these days: handing out promo items at the doors, rolling T-shirts, getting props ready for halftime shows, putting out signage,” Dawley said. “It was really an internship starting my freshman year of high school. That’s how I got into things.”
After getting a degree in marketing at nearby Phoenix College, Dawley continued to work in game operations for the Suns (as well as for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, AFL’s Arizona Rattlers, and indoor soccer’s Arizona Sand Sharks, which all shared what was then called America West Arena) until 2001.
But Dawley said his 12 years in Phoenix left him feeling like he would always be looked upon as a former ballboy, and that it was time for a career change. He saw an opening in game operations with the Ottawa Senators and jumped on it, despite having only been to three NHL games beforehand. Given that fact, he said he was surprised he was given serious consideration for the job. But his new boss reassured him that he had the skills necessary to succeed.
“I basically asked ’Why me?’ and he said ‘you know game ops, you’ll learn the game,’ which I did,” Dawley said. “I came to fall in love with hockey.”
When the Senators cut staff in 2004, Dawley rejoined the ranks of the AFL with a new team called the Austin Wranglers, where he continued to work in game operations on top of sponsorships. That team began to fold in 2007, so he moved on to the Edmonton Oilers, where he was again working in game operations, but this time intensely involved with video production, as well.
Three years in Edmonton gave him chances to add to his already diverse skillset, but he said at that time was ready to get back to the States. The Blue Jackets had an opening, and despite what Dawley said was a “stigma” surrounding the new franchise in Canada, once he realized he would have the opportunity to work with a strong ownership group and help the team transition to using a new video board, he was on board. Columbus’ relative proximity to Toronto, where Dawley’s girlfriend (and future wife) lived at the time, also factored strongly in his decision.
In his longest career stop since his 12-year start with the Phoenix Suns, Dawley said he is here to stay.
“This is where I want to be,” Dawley said. “This is a great city, I’ve settled down. I’m married, and I’ve got two kids. It’s a great place to raise a family. I think that this is kind of a hidden gem amongst the NHL.”
Dawley said he likens working with the Blue Jackets to wearing a badge of honor that everybody around the city can recognize and appreciate. His optimism for the team is overflowing, and you can tell he really means it when he says it’s a privilege to work here.
“Like anybody you’d probably talk to [would say], I feel like this team and this city is just on the cusp,” Dawley said. “If we can win, and when we do, this city’s going to rally behind us, this building’s going to be full every night and it’s going to be a spectacular place to be. That’s what really excites me about being in Columbus with the Blue Jackets.”