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Blue Jackets' signing shows hockey's growth in Ohio

by Craig Merz

COLUMBUS -- The media briefing to introduce the Columbus Blue Jackets' latest signee (no, not Brandon Saad) was attended by the player's Under-18 teammates, his brother, mother, father and another proud "parent."

Ed Gingher, program coordinator and Under-18 coach for the Ohio AAA Blue Jackets, was beaming just as much as Roger and Yuko Sherwood, the parents of Kole Sherwood, who had just agreed to become the first Columbus-born and bred player to sign an NHL contract with the Blue Jackets.

"It's obviously a dream come true to play for the hometown team," Kole Sherwood said Tuesday after he signed an entry-level contract. The 18-year-old is likely to start the season with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League.

Having a player sign with the NHL Blue Jackets has been Gingher's vision since the AAA Blue Jackets were founded 11 years ago to develop elite players in central Ohio.

"It's a special day for Kole and his family, but it's a special day for a lot of young hockey players in Columbus too," Gingher said. "There's been a lot of guys that helped pave the way to get to this point. It's exciting to see the growth that's happened."

Sherwood's signing is another milestone for the AAA Blue Jackets and youth hockey in the area. Trent Vogelhuber of the northwest suburb of Dublin, Ohio, was the first local player to be drafted when he was chosen by the Blue Jackets in the 2007 NHL Draft. He has never signed an NHL contract, although he is still in the organization.

Arizona Coyotes defenseman Connor Murphy, who was born in Boston but is a former AAA Blue Jackets player, was the first to make the NHL. Another transplant, Cole Cassels of Dublin, was a third-round selection (No. 85) of the Vancouver Canucks in 2013.

On June 26, Jack Roslovic became first Columbus-born player selected in the first round when he was taken with the 25th pick by the Winnipeg Jets. In the fall, he is expected to play his freshman season at Miami (Ohio) University along with Dublin's Sean Kuraly, who was selected by the San Jose Sharks with the 133rd pick in the 2011 NHL Draft. Kuraly's rights were traded to the Boston Bruins on June 30.

Also joining the RedHawks program is Kole's older brother, Kiefer Sherwood. The Sherwoods went undrafted last month, but the Blue Jackets invited them to their development camp.

Kole excelled at the camp that ended earlier this month, and contract negotiations quickly followed.

"We made the decision to get after him right now and get him signed," Blue Jackets president of hockey operations John Davidson said. "It's legitimate. He's a good player. He plays the game the right way. He's the real deal."

Davidson joined the Blue Jackets in 2012 after six seasons with the St. Louis Blues and has been pleased by what he's seen in Columbus, noting the market has some catching up to do to more established hockey cities.

"There's 55 [NHL] alumni who live in St. Louis," he said. "We're a 15 year-old organization, but it's moving dramatically up the ladder.

"I've seen the growth in St. Louis. I've seen kids from there playing in the NHL. I've seen kids by the dozens get full rides to colleges to get an education, and the exact same thing is happening here now. To see all this happen is just great. For a lot of people who really care about developing youth hockey in this city, to watch this all this happen, there's lots of smiles in this city for sure."

Davidson added that it's a bonus that the Blue Jackets can scout talent like Kole Sherwood in their backyard.

Under owner John H. McConnell, the Blue Jackets had a plan of developing a hockey base from the ground up. They used the foundation started by their minor-league predecessor, the Columbus Chill, who built several rinks in Columbus and exponentially expanded youth hockey programs in the area.

McConnell had the foresight to build a practice rink attached to Nationwide Arena, meaning that players in the AAA Blue Jackets program often are within a long slap shot of the NHL players.

"They've been outstanding to work with," Gingher said of the Blue Jackets. "Obviously financially they've given us support, but there are other things like [public relations], a lot of stuff behind the scenes with our coaches and organization. They are all in. From our perspective, you couldn't have a better partner. We're very, very fortunate."

The AAA Blue Jackets started with an under-18 team in 2004; since then, they've added Under-16, Bantam majors and minor, two Pee Wee teams, Squirt major, and Under-14 Girls in 2012.

"Our goal is to develop people," Gingher said. "We have a responsibility and an obligation. Obviously hockey is our vehicle, but it's our goal to make kids better on and off the ice and recognize how important school is, recognizing being a good citizen. It's more than just good hockey."

The crowning achievement, at least team-wise, came in February 2014 when the AAA Blue Jackets won the AA tier at the Quebec International Pee-Wee Tournament for 12- and 13-year-olds.

"When you look at the big picture, it's really interesting to watch the reaction of people that now understand the hockey programs here in Columbus are growing in a great way," Davidson said.

Roger Sherwood credits the AAA Blue Jackets for his sons' success.

"Ed Gingher has done the most incredible job with the AAA organization here," he said. "We were here from Day One. Kiefer is the first to actually go through the entire birth year. He's a '95 [birth year], Kole's a '97. We've seen it grow. We've seen all the pains it's gone through. It's been an incredible journey.

"Columbus has become a hotbed. There's a lot of talent here, and I think we're starting to get credit for it."

Kole Sherwood's signing, the draft picks and winning tournaments have made it easier to attract talent from across the country to the AAA Blue Jackets.

"When you pick up the phone now and say you're with the Ohio AAA Blue Jackets from Columbus, people are taking a lot more notice, and it's only going to help future players because these kids are paving the way," Gingher said. "The teams in the youth [level] are as strong as they've ever been, and it's only going to get better from here on out. We have a pretty special thing going."

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