With all due respect to Detroit and its multiple championship banners, it has nothing on Columbus, Ohio, when it comes to offering hockey at every level – from 4-year-olds to seasoned NHL professionals.
It’s a source of pride for Columbus Blue Jackets General Manager Doug MacLean, who credits the hard work of a lot of people inside and outside of the club’s organization.
“This makes Columbus a unique market in the United States because we can now give kids the chance to play hockey at every level,” said MacLean. “There has been a lot of hard work by a lot of people to fill in the spaces that once existed here. Kids who want to play hockey don’t have to leave central Ohio from the time they are very little to the highest level of the game.”
MacLean credits the Columbus Chill, formerly of the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) and the Chillers for laying the foundation of youth hockey in the area. “When the Blue Jackets came into this market, there was a solid foundation already in place,” said MacLean.
“With the help of a lot of parents and coaches, we built on that foundation through the Blue Jackets fan and community development groups. This was a hard-earned designation and it makes Columbus a special place to play hockey.”
Tom Goebel, who runs the Cleveland Barons, is also given credit for the emergence of the United States Hockey League because of his work in junior hockey over many years, according to MacLean. The Barons field teams for players as young as 9 years old up to 17 years old.
“Tom runs one of the best youth hockey programs in the country,” said MacLean.
What does this mean to the Blue Jackets? While the team doesn’t get its pick of players (that’s what the draft is for), it does have an impact on the sport as a whole.
“Every time a kid plays hockey, every time his or her family and friends go to a game, they become hockey fans. That is the essence of grassroots hockey and fan development,” added MacLean. “That’s exciting to me as a hockey guy.”
One of the last pieces of the puzzle was put in place when it was announced that the Ohio Junior Blue Jackets would play in the USHL for the 2006-07 season. The USHL is for 17- to 21-year-old players with an emphasis on preparing players for NCAA Division I college play. The team plays a 60-game schedule in the league’s East Division against rivals such as Cedar Rapids, Chicago, Green Bay, Indiana and Waterloo.
In the recent past, players would have to go to Dayton, Cleveland or somewhere else to play elite level hockey. This hits close to home for MacLean, the parent of an 18-year-old hockey player, now on the USHL team. His son, Clark, last played for the Cleveland Barons prior to joining the Ohio Junior Blue Jackets.
The big club, the Blue Jackets, feature three former USHL players in its system – defensemen Rostislav Klesla and Duvie Westcott, and Ty Conklin. And scouting staffs from the NHL, colleges and elsewhere have the USHL on their radar looking for the next great talent. According to MacLean, as many as 100 scouts attend USHL games on a regular basis.
“The USHL sends more guys to college than any other league,” Conklin said. “It was a chance to showcase what you had, for a season, or in my case two seasons. Obviously, there are other leagues, but none are as heavily scouted at the USHL. While there had been college scouts at other levels, there’s a pretty big emphasis on guys coming out of the USHL and going to college.”
“With the Blue Jackets here, the Ohio Junior Blue Jackets will be seen by our scouts and the scouts of other teams when they come to town to play us,” said Klesla. “The OJBJ players can watch our practices and our games, and I think it can be a help to their team.”
Added Westcott, “It’s probably the best league in the U.S. for developing young players and the natural route from high school to the USHL. Then most guys get a college scholarship. For me, (playing in the USHL) was a blast. It’s all the best players in the United States.”
The following is a listing of the levels of hockey that are available in central Ohio:
- Learn to Skate/Learn to Play Hockey (4-6 year-olds)
- House or league teams
- Club/Select team
- Elite programs (AAA, Bantam, Midget; 12-13 year-olds)
- OHSAA-sanctioned high school hockey
- USHL (17-21 year-olds)
- NCAA (Ohio State, Miami, Bowling Green, etc.)
In addition to giving credit to the Chill for what it began, the increasing number of Chiller ice rinks in the area is creating more places to play. The Chillers were an additional investment by Blue Jackets Majority Owner and Governor John H. McConnell. There are three Chillers in central Ohio in addition to the Dispatch Ice Haus where hockey teams of all kinds can practice their craft on ice.
“Whether it’s recreational, competitive or elite level competition, there really is something for everybody of every skill level when it comes to hockey in this area,” concluded MacLean. “It’s really a great accomplishment and it speaks to the dedication of a lot of people to the game of hockey.”