The night most Columbus Blue Jackets fans have waited for is finally here. Artemi Panarin comes back to Nationwide Arena for the first time since agreeing to a new seven-year contract with the New York Rangers.
The question on the minds of many is what can we expect to see unfold? To best answer this question, we need to consider the two important viewpoints of this story. First, how will the Blue Jackets view this? Then, how will the fans react to this?
For the team, it’s a pretty simple answer. For the fans, it’s not so simple. We’ll do our best to lay this out for you.
The Blue Jackets’ Perspective
For the Blue Jackets, it’s pretty simple. They have an important game to play. Their focus has to be on defeating the New York Rangers. Head coach John Tortorella reiterated this on his weekly radio hit on 97.1 the Fan in Columbus.
It doesn’t get much more simple than that. After a nice win against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Blue Jackets are losers of two in a row while being outscored 6-2 by the Islanders and Coyotes. They are under hockey .500 for the season with a tough stretch of games coming up. They cannot get caught up in the emotions of Panarin coming back.
Tortorella knows the questions will be coming. He’ll handle those like he’s handled them in the past. He respects Panarin and everything he did for the Blue Jackets. He’s upset that Panarin left when he thought the team was close to winning. But at the end of the day, Tortorella understood the decision. It was within Panarin’s rights to sign with a different team.
Tortorella’s focus will be on the game itself. Because of the opponent and Panarin coming back, he won’t have to say a word to his team. It’s a crucial division game that they desperately want to win. Plus you know the Blue Jackets want to get one up on the bread man.
You can expect there to be a tribute video after the first media timeout. Panarin will be recognized for everything he did while in Columbus. He was an excellent pro and gave everything he had to the team despite all the drama of his final season. It led to the Blue Jackets completing the greatest upset in recent memory and winning their first ever playoff series. That’s something that will never be forgotten. The team will properly honor him. Once that video is over, game on.
The Fan’s Perspective
Here’s the tricky part. How should fans react to Panarin? Then how will fans react to Panarin? This will make for quite the wild atmosphere for a Thursday night game.
Let’s start with how fans should react. Although there’s reason to think he slighted the Blue Jackets and their fans, Panarin should be celebrated for what he did do. When you consider the story of the Blue Jackets and their continued rise in future years, we will all look back on the 2018-19 season when the underdog Blue Jackets knocked off the President’s Trophy winning Tampa Bay Lightning in a first-round sweep. The importance of this moment cannot be understated.
Years of frustration. Years of despair. Years of thinking the Blue Jackets would never win a playoff series faded away in the greatest way possible. Who scored the first empty-net goal in game four to ice the series away? It was Panarin. The celebration inside Nationwide Arena after that goal was scored was a moment 22 years in the making. Tears of joy were shed everywhere. Many waited their whole lives for this moment. But it doesn’t happen without Panarin’s contributions. Just look at how excited he was when this goal happened.
Panarin deserves praise and appreciation for his short career there. From a pure skill standpoint, he was one of their best players of all time. He should get a standing ovation. The key word being should. I can tell you with certainty that many fans are upset with him. This leads us directly into how will they react to him?
It will be a mixed bag throughout the night. If he’s starting and PA Announcer Greg Murray announces Panarin’s name, it will be a mix of cheers and boos with a majority of boos. That is completely fair because he is a member of the Rangers and is the opposition. Expect boos every time he touches the puck. That’s fair too. Where it will get interesting is when they play the tribute video.
I actually expect more cheers than boos. Don’t get me wrong. There will be boos. But for many fans, they will realize how important he was to this franchise. It’s their chance to show him how grateful they are of everything he accomplished. Panarin will acknowledge the crowd and most will cheer.
But not everyone will. They will remember that he turned down both more term and money to go elsewhere. To these fans, it’s a slap in their face. They feel betrayed by him leaving the way he did. They’ll boo him every chance they get including during and after the video.
It just depends who you are. Everyone has their own take on the situation. Some will think he did nothing wrong in leaving. Some will say he shouldn’t have handled things the way he did. Some will be very hurt. Some will have moved on. And some will appreciate him no matter what.
When you add it all together it will be a wild range of emotions because different fans will have a different view of the player returning to Nationwide Arena. One thing is for certain. If Panarin scores, fans will express themselves in a loud way.
While the fans will provide the atmosphere for the night, the Blue Jackets have to stay focused on trying to win a very important game. Can they drown out their surroundings and end their losing streak?
Panarin will be the overwhelming story. But if the Blue Jackets don’t take care of business, their season could be in serious trouble. That’s the real story for the Blue Jackets.
I am a fully credentialed writer who covers the Columbus Blue Jackets, Cleveland Monsters and Erie Otters as well as the Ontario Hockey League and NHL Draft. The 2022-23 season will mark nine seasons with the Hockey Writers. I am also the site’s Credentials Manager. Please take note of the updated Twitter handle: @mark_scheig.