Columbus Ohio has long been known as a football town, and for good reason. OSU football pretty much rules the city, and has long been the most relevant, important sport in Columbus. Sure, we have the Clippers, and lots of people here love going to their games. But it’s more of a hobby than devoted following (sorry Clippers fans, no offense intended). Minor league sports just don’t catch on too well, let alone rival OSU football. There is also the Columbus Crew, and they have plenty of devoted fans in Columbus, but nothing compared to the following of Ohio State Football. They were the MLS Champions, and still they can’t even come close.
And then there’s the Jackets. When the NHL introduced the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2000, lots of people made their way out to the arena, and many became devoted fans. But they just weren’t good enough. The Jackets, while fun to watch, didn’t make the playoffs until 2009, nearly a decade into their existence. They just couldn’t rival the best team in town, and that was OSU football.
Added to the difficulty of being less successful, the Jackets were a young organization. Ohio State has been playing football for forever, especially compared to the Jackets’ mere 14 years on the ice. Many, probably most people in central Ohio grew up watching OSU football. Their parents and even grandparents watched it, and even were students there. The Jackets didn’t have that. But times are changing. The Jackets are growing, and so are their fans. I was five when the Jackets first took the ice in Nationwide Arena, and I grew up watching Blue Jackets hockey. Many people, I’m sure remember the inaugural game in Nationwide, but I don’t. My generation doesn’t remember a time when there wasn’t hockey in Columbus. Time is giving this team the chance they need to build on the fan base they already have, and perhaps eventually people will grow up watching the Jackets play, like many have watched football here for generations.
For many generations, walking down the streets in Columbus and it’s surrounding towns wearing an OSU shirt is bound to get you an “OH!” from pretty much anyone. Everyone knows that, and it’s even expected. But wearing a Blue Jackets shirt around Columbus doesn’t get you much. Most people won’t even notice. That is, until this past season. People who I know are die hard football fans posted about the Jackets all over social media, the very same people who used to tell me that the Jackets would never be relevant in Columbus. Wear a Jackets shirt around town during the playoffs, and you’d get an immediate “Go Jackets!” from any random person who happened to see you. It was fantastic! The Jackets finally became relevant to the average central Ohioan this season.
This season was the first time people started to pay attention. People started to recognize that we have a hockey team. We have a PLAYOFF hockey team. The Jackets were a big deal this year! Not just with their most loyal fans, but throughout the whole city! They had their best season yet, and they made the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second time in team history. And people started paying attention. That’s what it is going to take to convert this football town into hockey central. They have to be good. Probably more than good. Relevant. The Buckeyes have been good for a long time. For the Jackets to rival that, they need success of their own. And I think they are on the right path.
This season was just the beginning. Making the playoffs was awesome. Winning a playoff game (or two) was great. But they can do more. Imagine if the Jackets had beaten the Penguins. This town would be on fire! The tickets to the playoff games were sold out before we even knew who we were playing. The more success this team has, the more people in central Ohio are going to pay attention. The love of hockey is there, the passion is there. This city loves its sports, and the passion for Jackets hockey showed this season. As the Jackets continue to build success, I think they’ll see this town have a sports team with a following that can finally rival football.