The Columbus Blue Jackets didn't just qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs and win their first two postseason games in franchise history against the favored Pittsburgh Penguins last season. They won over the city of Columbus by cultivating a blue-collar identity.
With the 2015 NHL All-Star Game coming to Columbus on Jan. 25, and the Blue Jackets looking to make the postseason in consecutive seasons for the first time, the team has been embraced by the community in a way not seen since the inaugural season of 2000-01.
"They're a hard team to play against. They beat us more than we beat them last year," forward Scott Hartnell said of the Blue Jackets after being traded to Columbus by the Philadelphia Flyers on June 23. "It was always a tough game. You were always getting checked, you were always getting hit."
The acquisition of Hartnell this summer, and the signing of free-agent power forward Nathan Horton in 2013, enhance the Blue Jackets' reputation as a challenging opponent.
That character was on full display in the first round of the playoffs against Pittsburgh, and fans and corporate partners have taken notice.
"The hardworking, honest style of play fits right in with the personality of the city," said Larry Hoepfner, Blue Jackets executive vice president of business operations. "This is a strong Midwestern city with strong Midwestern values. A team that has those types of traits in this city is going to play very well with the fans."
That was apparent during and immediately following the most successful season in Blue Jackets history. From 2012-13 to 2013-14, total revenue increased by 18 percent, the largest year-to-year growth in franchise history. Columbus also established a team record for sponsorship revenue, and the Blue Jackets Foundation reached a benchmark by contributing $800,000 to area charities and youth hockey organizations during the 2013-14 grant cycle.
Every conceivable metric has these hard-nosed Blue Jackets establishing unprecedented popularity in and around Ohio. Fox Sports Ohio's five highest-rated Blue Jackets broadcasts came during the playoff series against the Penguins, and the Blue Jackets' following on Facebook (104,800 to 217,600 likes) and Twitter (91,600 to 175,000 followers) each almost doubled between June 2013 and September 2014.
2015 NHL ALL-STAR GAME INFO
"We just passed over the 9,750 mark in season tickets. We have a goal of 10,000 for the season, and we feel confident we're going to reach and even exceed that goal," Hoepfner said prior to reaching that benchmark in early September. "If we do that, it will be a second straight year of double-digit percentage growth in season tickets for this team. That hasn't happened here in a long time."
On-ice success is always going to translate at the gate. But in Columbus, it's not just that the Blue Jackets are winning, but how they're winning.
"We were very competitive and a very hardworking, hard-nosed team. It's a blue-collar type of team, and I think people respect that," Columbus associate coach Craig Hartsburg said. "We're not assuming anything once we start [this season]. We're going to have to go right back to square one and make sure that our players are prepared to have that same commitment again."
It's an exciting moment for a franchise that in its first 12 seasons made one playoff appearance and had no postseason wins. Winning in the playoffs and establishing a tangible identity built on a young core of talented players was a major part. But local and national media were especially taken by the atmosphere at Nationwide Arena during the playoffs. The energy in the building demonstrated what Columbus was capable of as a hockey market.
Hartsburg, who was coach of the Chicago Blackhawks, Anaheim Ducks and Ottawa Senators, and an assistant with the Flyers and Calgary Flames, was impressed.
"It was simply amazing for me, the atmosphere in the city and the building," he said. "You can tell the people are passionate sports fans with [Ohio State University] football there. We want to make it a hockey city. We talk about being a hard team to play against, that crowd makes that building a hard place to play."
All of it puts the Blue Jackets in an unfamiliar position. They must handle the expectations of winning and competing in the postseason. If they can play up to those expectations during a season when they'll host the All-Star Game, it could be a special year for sports in Columbus.
"The way that the city has latched on to this team is something that I have not seen here before," said Hoepfner, who was hired by the Blue Jackets in 2005. "Our three home playoff games were three of the greatest sporting events I've been to, not just here but anywhere."