As Ron Tugnutt watched the Columbus Blue Jackets sweep through the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, he just knew he had to make a trip south.
The starting goaltender for the original Blue Jackets team in 2000-01, Tugnutt has settled in Peterborough, Ontario, but still remembers his time in Columbus fondly.
Tugnutt remembered how wild about the Blue Jackets the Columbus fanbase was when the team first arrived. To finally see it be rewarded with postseason success, Tugnutt had to come back to see it with his own eyes, tripping to Columbus for the first time since 2004 to watch Game 4 of the second-round series vs. Boston.
"I want to see this thing in life," he said before the game last Thursday night. "I don't want to see it in TV. I want to see it live and see how crazy this place will be."
While the city of Columbus has gone crazy over the team's success -- witness the record-setting TV rankings and ear-splitting noise in Nationwide Arena, even for the team's watch party for Game 5 on Saturday night when the team was in Boston -- some original Jackets also are excited to see what's happening in Columbus.
They played in front of excited, sellout crowds when Nationwide Arena first opened and there was a bug on the sleeves of the sweater instead of a cannon blasting after every goal.
And now they see a city similarly amped up for a playoff run unlike any other the Jackets have ever had going into tonight's must-win Game 6 vs. Boston.
"It's fun," said defenseman Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre, who settled in the Columbus area after his playing days and is part of the Blue Jackets Radio Network for the postseason.
"To see the enthusiasm, it's like the fan base is actually growing as well. You have a lot of casual fans that are really involved now and a lot of people that have never watched hockey. Many people that have never watched hockey or attended a game are playing attention or watching on TV. It's great for the growth of the game and it's great for the Columbus Blue Jackets as well."
The original team is remembered fondly in Columbus not just for the fact that it was the first one but also because you could argue it exceeded expectations. It was a motley group, as most expansion teams are, from veterans like Tugnutt and Geoff Sanderson to journeymen like first-ever goal-scorer Bruce Gardiner to fresh-faced rookies like 18-year-old top draft pick Rostislav Klesla. From Tyler Wright to Espen Knutsen to David Vyborny, the names and faces come to mind easily.
Columbus went 28-39-9-6 that year, though no one knew at the time it would be the team's most points until its fifth season. There were plenty of great moments, too, from the opening win at Calgary in the third game of the season to the first home win Oct. 27 vs. Washington to an overtime win vs. Chicago in the final game of the season to send the people home happy at the end.
"We could lose every game the first year and the place was going crazy, but we didn't," said Tugnutt, who played in 53 games. "We actually had a good, hard-working team and a great fanbase. They did such a good job promoting that team the first year. I think it was truly a great experience."
Tugnutt was part of one of the most memorable parts of the inaugural season -- his promotional run for president of the United States. 2000 was an election year, so Tugnutt cut a series of television ads suggesting he was running for our nation's highest office.
Of course, as a Canadian, he was ineligible, but he still has fond memories from the situation.
"We have the videos of me campaigning for president of the United States," he said. "It's all on video and I can show friends. People just crack up with it. You have no idea how much fun that was. I came in here in early July and they had me going around, wearing my equipment, walking up and down the street, kissing babies, shaking hands, walking with cows in farm fields.
"I got 12 votes. Mickey Mouse hammered me, but I got 12. For a Canadian kid that was 30, that was pretty good."
When Tugnutt returned to Columbus last week, one thing that stood out was not just the growth of the fan base but the growth of the city. The downtown area and particularly the Arena District has exploded, especially to the west of the arena, which now features restaurants, residences and Huntington Park, none of which were there when the arena opened.
"Ron yesterday was mentioning, 'I remember when we were practicing back at the Ice Haus back then. "(Head coach Dave King) used to love looking at that field in the back. That was his peace.' Now you see not only a parking garage, you have apartments and you have condos and then you have a baseball stadium. He was like, 'What the heck?' He didn't recognize the place.
"From being here since day one, I've seen that growth happen from year to year. A lot of the guys who haven't been around Columbus, they come back and it's really special. Not that we built those additional buildings, but I see the growth that's happened around here. It's huge."
While Columbus will fight to keep its playoff life alive tonight, those with a rooting interest will hope the Blue Jackets can stay in the spotlight as long as possible.
"I knew there was a day coming that great things were going to happen here," Tugnutt said. "I think everyone would agree they hoped it would happen sooner, but what's really nice is a beautiful city like Columbus is being put on the map right now for people to see as a special place. I think more than anything, that's the neatest thing is the community is recognized."