Blue Jackets: Reflections One Year After the Shutdown

Flashback to exactly one year ago today, 3/8/20. What were you doing that day? How normal did life feel for you?

For the Columbus Blue Jackets, that random day in March will forever be remembered in NHL history. That game against the Vancouver Canucks turned out to be the last regular season game of the 2019-20 season. The whole situation remains surreal to this day.

In this space, we will revisit that game in Vancouver and what was going on in the season at the time for the Blue Jackets. Then we’ll revisit the days after leading to the NHL shutting down its season. Then we will reflect on the moments both for the team and for us since.

No matter what your perspective is, this chain of events will never be forgotten. It was hard to imagine ever seeing something like this come to fruition. It’s hard to imagine we’ll see anything like this again.

While we are still working our way back to some semblance of normalcy, seeing this season playing out now is extremely encouraging. The light at the end of the tunnel is coming so long as we each continue to do our part. We now look back at the last year. What stands out the most for you? What’s changed in your life during this crazy year?

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Let’s start with a quick refresher. The Blue Jackets were mired in a bad losing streak in February 2020 leading up to the trade deadline. It all started with a game on Feb 8 against the Colorado Avalanche.

In a tightly contested game, the Avalanche prevailed by a 2-1 score. But then in their next 10 games to finish the month of February, they won just once. Injuries were just brutal (Seth Jones, Oliver Bjorkstrand to name a couple.) To their credit, they got the overtime point in five of those games but couldn’t get the elusive second point. Their only win came on the night of the trade deadline, a 4-3 overtime win over the hapless Ottawa Senators. If you recall, the Senators started the game shorthanded as players arrived at the arena late after all the happenings of the deadline. It was truly a messy situation for the Blue Jackets.

Then came consecutive losses to the Minnesota Wild, 5-4 and 5-0 to end the month. It was fair to wonder if this team would have made the regular playoffs had they happened. But then the calendar turned to March for the stretch run.

Sunday night March 1 against the Canucks. That game will be remembered by both the Blue Jackets and Canucks for different reasons. J.T. Miller gave the Canucks a 3-1 lead in the second period. That lead remained until late in the third period. The Blue Jackets scored four unanswered goals to stun the Canucks. It started with Riley Nash. Then Zach Werenski tied the game. Then Canuck killer Emil Bemstrom scored the game winner before Gus Nyquist found an empty net.

That game injected life into the Blue Jackets, albeit for just a short time. But for the Canucks, it was a brutal loss given where they were at in the standings at the time. The same two teams got to meet again on March 8 at Rogers Arena. That was a game the Canucks had to have.

But before that happened, the Blue Jackets suffered two more losses. They lost 3-2 in overtime in Calgary before dropping a brutal 4-1 decision to the Edmonton Oilers. That led to the rematch in basically a must-win game in Vancouver.

The Blue Jackets built a 2-0 lead thanks to goals by Eric Robinson and Bemstrom. Elias Pettersson scored in the third to make it 2-1 but they could get no closer. That win by the Blue Jackets kept them in a wildcard position going into a huge game that Thursday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

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Except there was no huge game to be played against the Pittsburgh Penguins. It never happened. The world as we knew it came to a full stop in the coming days.

The Shutdown

In the days after the Blue Jackets return from Vancouver, things got crazy in a hurry. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine recommended that indoor sporting events in Ohio be played without fans. Despite this, the Blue Jackets were originally going to defy DeWine’s orders.

This recommendation came after three positive cases were confirmed in Cuyahoga County, in the Cleveland area.

The Blue Jackets consulted with the NHL and determined that they were going to welcome fans who wished to attend. However it was still a fast moving and changing situation. Then come Thursday morning, everything changed.

Gov. DeWine’s recommendation became an order and no fans were allowed to attend the game against the Penguins in Nationwide Arena. The players were prepared to take the ice that night as usual. But that morning, they knew something was up.

The NHL ultimately decided to suspend the season on that Thursday morning in wake of the Covid-19 situation. They really didn’t have a choice, not after NBA player Rudy Gobert tested positive on that Wednesday night. I think we’ll all remember this moment for the rest of our lives.

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The Blue Jackets along with the rest of the league got word of the suspended season. Their game against the Penguins was canceled. Then on that Friday, players were advised to self-quarantine in their own homes.

It all happened in a flash. The normalcy that we all depended on was gone. What was going to happen next? How long was this going to last? Could the season resume in any way? If so, would the Blue Jackets make the playoffs?

The Bubble

After months of waiting and figuring things out, the NHL was able to resume in a bubble format. With that came an expanded format to start its postseason. The Blue Jackets got to play a five-game series against the Toronto Maple Leafs all at Scotiabank Arena.

That series won’t soon be forgotten either. Pierre-Luc Dubois arrived on the big stage. Joonas Korpisalo played out of his mind. Each team made comebacks from being down 3-0 in a game. The Maple Leafs forced Game 5 after being down 3-0 in Game 4 only to have the Blue Jackets shut out the Leafs in Game 5. For as bad as stretches of the 2019-20 season went for the Blue Jackets, this win during the pandemic was huge for them. They got the chance at a rematch with the team they knocked out in historic fashion the year before, the Tampa Bay Lightning.

And oh yes, Game 1. Hope you didn’t have plans that day. Five overtimes later, Brayden Point finally beat Korpisalo to win Game 1. It can be argued this game was the springboard for the Lightning to go on to their eventual Stanley Cup victory. They were able to exorcise the Blue Jackets’ demons of last season. The weight of the world seemed like it was lifted off of them. Although the Blue Jackets fought back and won Game 2, they weren’t able to win again despite giving the Lightning everything it could handle.

The Blue Jackets’ season was over. One could only wonder what was next after this. How long would it be before we had games to look forward to again? What would the team look like? Were we making any progress against Covid-19?

A New Season, A New Hope

As expected, the NHL wasn’t able to start in its traditional timeframe. We had a virtual draft. But we still didn’t know when a new season would begin. And who knows if fans would be allowed?

Finally after months of waiting, we got our answer. The 2020-21 season was a go after several new protocols were put in place at all levels. Fans for the most part weren’t yet allowed to go to games. Players had to follow a very strict set of rules in order to mitigate risks. But to be able to play again, it was all worth it, even if everything was different.

If nothing else, this season being able to go on is a sign that we are trending in the right direction. There is still a long road ahead of us. But at this point, there is hope and there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

Just look at the current landscape in the NHL. Games are mostly going now without a hitch after some early issues. As of Sunday night, just four players were on the league’s protocol list. Fans are being slowly allowed back in buildings around the league especially in the United States. The Blue Jackets will have 25% capacity for this Tuesday night’s game against the Florida Panthers.

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Patrik Laine and the Blue Jackets will play Tuesday night with the arena at 25% capacity. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)

It has been a long road for everyone to get to this point. A spring with no hockey. A summer of uncertainty. Everyone has had to adjust in their own personal lives no matter who they were. Players felt just as anxious as the fans. We are all on the right path but we have to remain vigilant. The vaccine is starting to make its rounds. We’re right there. We’ve all waited for the moment we can start returning to our normal lives.

A Big Thank You

For the Blue Jackets, as well as every other team, being able to play is the world they know. Every team has their set of issues and concerns. But at the end of the day, we are all very fortunate that we get an opportunity to watch them, write about them or whatever role it is you play.

Right here, right now, we need to be thankful. We are thankful for all of the frontline workers who had a hand in trying to navigate this crazy challenge, who put themselves on the line everyday to doing good in an otherwise dark world, and who willingly sacrificed of themselves for the betterment of others. We are not in this position without you.

The Blue Jackets will take the ice at Nationwide Arena for their next game on Tuesday night. But let’s not forget how we got here. The timeline from March 8-today is something none of us will ever forget. Enjoy what you are seeing and don’t ever take a moment of this for granted.

Sometimes you don’t know how good you have it until it’s completely gone. For the Blue Jackets and their fans, this year has been full of challenges, questions and lots of unknown. But through it all, they managed another playoff appearance and a series victory in the bubble. They’ve adjusted to the new norms and have made the best of this situation.

There’s a time and place to ask tough questions of this team. But on this one year anniversary of their last regular season game of the 2019-20 season, today is a great day to be truly thankful for the little bit of normalcy they’re bringing to all of us.

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