It’s been eight years since the Columbus Blue Jackets came into being as an NHL franchise. Eight long years filled with hope, only to see that hope dashed towards the end of each season. Every team wants to be a winner, none more so than the Blue Jackets and their fans. As the saying goes, “Hope springs eternal…” and so it does in Columbus.
This spring, that saying carries more weight around town. There is a “spring” to the step of the fans supporting this team. They’ve waited, sometimes not so patiently, for this team to make the playoffs for the first time. They are on the verge of doing just that this year. Tempering that enthusiasm is future Hall of Fame head coach Ken Hitchcock:
“We put ourselves in a position to get into this race. Keep the focus and just keep going. I don’t think anybody here is looking more ahead than one night and that’s all we’re focused on.”
And he’s correct in doing his best to keep this team focused on winning now. They can’t take a night off and expect to waltz right into a playoff spot. This season has seen it’s fair share of players sidelined with injuries. But they’ve fought hard to have this chance. A chance at franchise history. They’ve proven they can compete with the leagues best teams and come away the victor. The fervor that is manifesting itself around Nationwide Arena is palpable. Hitch has said on numerous occasions that the fans are the 7th man on the ice for this team. In short, they all bleed “Union Blue”.
I had the chance to speak with two guys who know a little about playoff hockey; Mike Commodore and Michael Peca. Between these two and Ken Hitchcock they bring a combined twenty (20) post-season playoff appearances and two Stanley Cups to the table. They know of what they are talking about.
I asked them about the excitement of being in the playoffs before and now being on a team that has never been there. How do they feel now that the schedule has let up a bit in their favor. And also about what it’s like to skate with the youth on this team and their inherent optimism. The man they call “Deuces” said this about making this run with Columbus and his other post-season runs:
“There’s a lot of similarities between this run and the run I went on in Calgary… just in that, things are going well, don’t get me wrong, but nothing’s guaranteed yet. Although everyone’s talking about it, I mean we aren’t in there yet. So we’re on a cautious optimism or whatever. I think people are excited… fans around town are excited and we’re excited in here too; I mean we realize that this franchise has never done this before. You know, I think it’s something special to be a part of that. The opportunity to ever get to do that; to be a part of an NHL franchise’s first ever playoff berth. It’s been a long year, it’s been tough and we’ve set ourselves up nicely to accomplish the goal.”
I also asked him about playing through the adversity this team faced earlier in the season:
“I think it’s a mentality that’s kind of changed throughout the year. Obviously you want to win every game, but you’re going to lose games. You know, good teams, you try not to let 1 loss turn into 2, if it turns into 2 definitely not 3. And although we have lost 3 in a row; it’s been our mentality where, you know what, we lost one let’s figure out what we did wrong. It’s not the end of the world. Just come out and play better the next game and I think over the course of the year our record has gotten better because of that.”
He brings up some great points about having cautious optimism and not getting too far ahead of yourselves. He see and feels the excitement building like never before in the Arena District of Columbus. He understands that this is a special time; that very few NHL players get to experience. Knowing that you can be the “first” to take the Columbus fans to the playoffs. Michael Peca echoed the feeling of what Commodore was saying:
“You know what I think you take out of these runs with organizations that maybe haven’t had the success? A lot of pride. You can feel proud of the work that everybody’s putting in from the coaches up to the players. Those are the situations you want to be in. Winning championships is fun, but I think you want to do it from the ground up rather than being transplanted into situations that are already, you know, coated in gold, I guess.”
He also spoke to the dynamic in the locker room and on the ice between the “Young Guns” and the “Vets”:
“There’s a lot of verbal instruction that goes on. I think a lot of it has to do with what they see you do on the ice; in practice and in games. I think when you want to win a championship you’ve got to have people using their strengths to the benefit of the team. There’s players on championship teams that may have played a limited role in certain areas, but were very significant in other parts of the game in order to help the team win. And that’s a lot like when I was in the Olympics or the World Junior Championships; you cultivate players and all of a sudden you have to assume a role. You have to focus on that role and do it to the best of your ability because your teammates and coaches are counting on it. There’s other guys counted on to do other things and you’re counted on to do certain things. It’s important that everybody buys into that and accepts that.”
That is exactly what this team has done this year. Every player had their role, and was counted on to fulfill that role. Everyone bought into the concept of “Hitch Hockey” and they can almost see the culmination of their efforts. There is a good mix of youthful exhuberance and veteran saavy in Columbus these days that is about to give the fans what they’ve yearned for, for eight long years. Fan favorite Jared Boll spoke to the excitement in the air:
“This year compared to last year is unbelievable! The support we’ve been getting from the fans, I mean, coming to the games and having sell-out crowds; to even just going out to eat and going around town now, you just feel the buzz and you can feel the hype. The fans are getting excited about it (playoffs) and it is fun to be a part of. It helps us out a lot when the fans are like that.”
Well said Mr. Boll. Will you Carry The Flag, Sir?