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Columbus ready to erupt over Blue Jackets

by Dan Rosen

From John Davidson's vantage point, Columbus has long been the National Hockey League's best-kept secret -- an underrated, underappreciated and undervalued hockey town that will awake ablaze with enthusiasm when the Blue Jackets get good.

Davidson even emphasizes the "when," because with the Blue Jackets new president of hockey operations, there is no "if."

"I've seen the building full before and I've seen them with enthusiasm," Davidson told "I've gone around Columbus and talked to a lot of people -- it's a real good sports town, a real good sports town, and they're just waiting. They're hungry. They want it."

Davidson was hired as president of hockey operations to deliver a contender, to prove to the Columbus community and the hockey world that more than a decade of futility, of one Stanley Cup Playoff appearance and zero playoff victories, doesn't mean the hockey team in Ohio's capital is doomed to be mediocre forever.

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It's his job to do what Doug MacLean and Rick Nash and Ken Hitchcock never could do in Columbus. But Davidson is going to do it the only way he knows how -- with a low, soft build-up to the crescendo, similar to how he helped the St. Louis Blues go from the worst team in the NHL to Stanley Cup contender in six years.

"I know deep down what it takes. I know the perseverance that it takes," Davidson said. "The hard part here is you've got a fan base that is very good, but somewhat frustrated because they've been around 12 years and made the playoffs only one time. I have to take that into account, but I have to look north, look forward. I'm going forward."

He has the full support of Blue Jackets owner John P. McConnell, who made Davidson his first executive hire since he took over as majority owner after his father, John H. McConnell, passed away in 2008.

"He will give us more accountability than we have had in the history of the franchise," McConnell told "I don't think there is any question about that that he brings both an external and internal voice that we're missing. [General manager] Scott [Howson] by nature is kind of quiet. He's a thoughtful, work-his-butt-off-for-you, do-anything for you, but he's a quiet guy. John brings a big personality that we need."

Davidson said he wouldn't have taken on the challenge in Columbus had it not been for McConnell and the stable ownership the Blue Jackets have had since their inception.

He left St. Louis after an ownership change. He didn't want to go somewhere else in flux.

"One thing that bothers me is when you read or hear things and you talk about teams that don't do well, contraction or why are they there, Columbus gets mentioned and it's mostly by people who don't know their facts," Davidson said. "The team has struggled regarding playoffs, no question, but has anybody examined their ownership and their commitment? I wouldn't have gone to Columbus had it not been as strong as it is.

"I could have very merrily gone along and had my summers off, gotten back into television or whatever, and life would have been very good and I would have very much enjoyed it. But these people are very committed to having a team that is going to represent their city, which is an extremely underrated city."

It's a city that has stood behind the Blue Jackets despite their extensive on-ice woes; a city that is helping to pay for the Blue Jackets' long-term viability by helping fund an arena lease that carries until 2039; a city that showed its support of the Blue Jackets on Day One of training camp when 1,200 people packed the OhioHealth Ice Haus to watch practice.

"We've continued to go to the games. We've, as a city, stood behind them on the arena situation and we supported that," Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman told "We have loyal fans and youth hockey continues to be a growing phenomenon in Columbus directly as a result of the Blue Jackets.

"I think there is hunger here, not apathy," he continued. "In this community we're used to winning. With [Ohio State] Buckeye basketball, football, our tradition in Columbus is to be a winner. So we have a thirst and a hunger for winning. Everything I see and feel in the community is that management is now positioning the Blue Jackets to fulfill the expectation of winning in Columbus."

Davidson is front and center in the push to fulfill that expectation. The hardest part of his job may be convincing the community to stay patient, something they've been hearing for a dozen years.

"Patience gets tried, but that's understandable because people want things yesterday. It doesn't happen that way," Davidson said. "You have to make good decisions, draft well and develop as quickly as possible -- but smartly. And you can't panic. We had plenty of folks in St. Louis that wanted us to trade away a young player or two to bring in an older player or two that would help us sneak into the playoffs. But that doesn't do you any good.

"You can try to find deals to get players at the right time."

"I've gone around Columbus and talked to a lot of people -- it's a real good sports town, a real good sports town, and they're just waiting. They're hungry. They want it." -- John Davidson

The Blues did that under Davidson -- and it worked.

Jaroslav Halak, Kevin Shattenkirk and Chris Stewart all came to the Blues in trades after the team had started developing David Backes, Alex Pietrangelo, Roman Polak, T.J. Oshie, Patrik Berglund and David Perron.

"If you're building, a business, a pool in your back yard or anything, you better have a good foundation or it ain't working," Davidson said. "So that's what we're doing [in Columbus]. St. Louis has an extremely good foundation right now. They have a lot of good young players and they can be together for a long time, but it took patience, time and a lot of good work by a lot of different people."

If Davidson is accurate in his early evaluation, the Blue Jackets may already have some big pieces of the foundation in place.

"The good thing is our strength should be keeping the puck out of the net," Davidson said. "If you can do that you're going to stay in every game or most games. We've gotta find scoring, but a lot of teams do."

He said that despite knowing keeping the puck out of the net was the Blue Jackets' biggest problem last season, when they were 28th in the League in goals-against per game (3.13) and dead last in killing penalties (76.6 percent).

"Yeah, but I think [Steve] Mason is much better than what he's showed and I think the strength as far as assets for the organization is on defense," Davidson said. "I think [Sergei] Bobrovsky is going to help. Did you see his numbers in the KHL? They were very good. [Curtis] McElhinney has been very good in Springfield this year, so that's a good thing.

"That should be the strength of the club and then we've got to continue to build."

If it builds into something big?

"It would be more than a buzz," Mayor Coleman said. "It would be a fanatical frenzy."

Davidson is banking on it.

"When it happens," he said, "you'll see this city go crazy."


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