Ever since the Blue Jackets came to Columbus in 2000, Michelle Harklau has been a fan. She'd been a lifelong supporter of hockey, but when Ohio finally got an NHL franchise, she decided it was time to align her support with her hometown team.
Now, the 2016-17 Blue Jackets season has rewarded her like no other year has.
"It's been an extremely special season," Harklau said. "It seemed like we finally had all the right pieces in place to make a real run for the Cup. All the franchise records that were broken and the number of award nominations that our players received are impressive. It finally seems like the rest of the league is taking notice of us and giving us some respect."
This year Harklau, a season ticket holder who rarely misses a home game, celebrated highlights like Matt Calvert returning to play after taking a puck to the face and scoring the game winning goal over the New York Rangers, and the 16-game win streak. She also took notice of fan support growing throughout the community.
#CBJ FAN WALL OF FAME
Harklau is the communications chair for the Jacket Backers, and the team's official fan group saw interest increase across the board for their charitable outings, game-watch parties, and away game road trips.
How much did fan support grow? Kevin Valentin is President of a fan support group called "Union Blue Soldiers." He saw the membership on the group's Facebook page grow from 800 to over 2,000 members through the course of the season.
"It was awesome to see the support that the Blue Jackets were getting from all over Ohio," Valentin said. "Ohio State, the Crew, Clippers, Reds, Indians, Cavs, Urban Meyer, Kirk Herbstreit, and even Governor Kasich. Just to name a few. The 5th Line is awesome and the Blue Jackets are fortunate to have them as fans."
Video: Blue Jackets thank fans
Valentin, who lives in Illinois, made it to six home games including Game Four of the playoffs against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The 5-4 Jackets win was a personal highlight for Valentin.
"This season was very special to me," Valentin said. "The Blue Jackets have shown that they can do good things, it's just a matter of doing it on a more consistent basis. You saw some of that this past season. This team came together as one. The guys they got from the Cleveland Monsters plus the players they already have, it was something to special to see."
And this season has been a signal to fans that it's not just the present they can be happy about, it's the future as well. Valentin sees a lot of lessons coming out of this season for the young Jackets team that put up 108 points in a 50-win campaign. He sees future success coming not just in current players but in the prospects that the Jackets are developing around the world.
"I think our future is pretty bright," Harklau agreed. "We have a young team that will only get more experience down the road. I feel that John Davidson and Jarmo (Kelalainen) have done a great job with drafting and letting those kids mature and develop instead of rushing them. It's helped create depth."
And while the off-season is far too long for fans like Harklau and Valentin, memories of this year will be something to reflect on until the puck drops next October.
"It was one heck of a season," Harklau said. "I'm very proud of this team. (What they did) means that the bar has been set higher."