Columbus is no stranger to large-scale hockey events.
It served as host to the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, the 2015 NHL All-Star Game, and now some of the best American-born players have assembled here for Team USA’s training camp and an exhibition game against Canada leading up to the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.
But the benefits of such an occasion stretch far beyond what happens on the ice.
David Backes, now of the Boston Bruins, played 10 seasons with the St Louis Blues, seven of which had him facing the Blue Jackets as Central Division rivals. He’s seen a bit of Columbus both while in town for games and also for friends’ weddings and other events.
“I’ve spent a little time in the city and it starts to grow on you with the pockets of fun stuff to do,” Backes said, while mentioning Ohio State, Easton Town Center and Muirfield Village Golf Club as great destinations.
Backes noted that some NHL cities don’t always get a true opportunity to showcase to visiting NHL teams what they have to offer, with the hectic travel of hockey season giving players limited time outside the rink or a hotel.
“I think Columbus has a little of that stigma (of not knowing awesome places to go),” Backes said. “When you start spending time here and you’re able to traverse and see more of the city, you learn it’s a nice place.”
The hockey aspects – arena, facilities, etc. – have also made an impact on Team USA’s players.
“The rink especially (left an impression), this place is really nice,” said TJ Oshie of the Washington Capitals. “These guys have got it good here for sure.”
Players like Oshie, who play for divisional rivals, see Nationwide Arena quite often during the season but rarely (if ever) get to take advantage of the OhioHealth Ice Haus next door or the top-notch brick-laden home dressing room.
“It’s a great locker room,” said Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh. “There’s great character here with the brick; you’ve got everything you want as a player. It’s a great facility to come to work every day.”
Two guys who definitely agree? Current Blue Jackets Brandon Dubinsky and Jack Johnson.
Both said it’s convenient to be preparing in their home rink, but the benefits of this training camp and the honor of another international experience go far beyond convenience.
Dubinsky said he’s looking forward to showing his teammates around the city while keeping the goal of “making sure we’re ready to go in a tough back-to-back against Canada” at front of mind.
For Johnson, who cites the 1996 World Cup as his first exposure to international hockey, bringing this level of play to Nationwide Arena will only help grow the game by inspiring players of the future much like that ‘96 tournament did for him.
“It’s special for the city of Columbus to have all these guys here and to be able to watch and enjoy the game in person,” Johnson said.
Some of those who may be in attendance Friday night are future Blue Jackets; several of the team’s top prospects are in town preparing for the upcoming season, and in turn, have gotten the opportunity to rub elbows with some of the best players in the world.
“It’s crazy how it happened because I wasn’t hired as the coach here (in Columbus) prior to (Team USA’s camp) being scheduled to start here,” said coach John Tortorella said. “We’re all grouped together. My younger (Blue Jackets players) are working out when Patrick Kane is riding a bike. The number of Blue Jackets guys who are here with the World Cup guys - we’re all intermingling.
“For me, especially with the amount of youth that is here for the Columbus Blue Jackets, I think it’s fantastic. They get to see some of the guys they’ve probably looked up to as they’ve gone on their journey to get to a training camp.”
So while Team USA prepares on the ice and takes in the highlights of Columbus away from the rink, they’re definitely looking forward to having it all come together not just for their team, but this city on Friday.
“Even the color scheme seems to be right here for a U.S. - Canada game (with Team USA) as a home team,” Backes said. “It should be one heck of a festivity on Friday night.”