Blue Jackets Shine for the Local Special Needs Community

Since the organization was founded in 2000, the Columbus Blue Jackets have played a major part in the area’s development. You could even say they transformed the city.

The most significant role they have had is in charity. A sizeable amount of that focus has been on the special needs community. That work includes granting wishes through Make-A-Wish, allowing those who can’t see to feel the game and building accessible playgrounds.

Recently, I sat down with the team’s Director of Fan Development and Community Programs, Andee Boiman, to discuss some examples of those efforts and what those projects mean to the players, coaches, and management.

The Blue Jackets Mission in Columbus

When the Blue Jackets came to Columbus, founder John H. McConnell had a vision for what he wanted his organization to accomplish. He wanted to focus on giving back to the community and making the city a better place. He helped shape Columbus into what it is today through multiple projects.

The most recognizable was the establishment of the Columbus Blue Jackets Foundation in 2000, which has since put over $11.4 million back into the community.

He also donated $15 million to Riverside Hospital. The donation was used to create the McConnell Heart Hospital, which provides treatment and prevention for heart-related illnesses. This was the largest donation OhioHealth and the Hospital had ever received.

Columbus Ohio skyline
The Blue Jackets’ mission in Columbus was started by found John H. McConnell to better the city through philanthropy. (John Mueller/FlickrJohn Mueller/Flickr / The Hockey Writers)

McConnell’s legacy did not end with his passing in April of 2008. His mission is continued in the organization through people who strive to keep his vision alive.

“In 2008, Mr. Mac, as we affectionately called him, he passed away,” Boiman said, “But despite that, his wishes for the city, his desire for philanthropy, his desire to make sure that, you know, his vision lives on within the community is really what our organization strives to do.”

The Blue Jackets Grant Robby’s Wish

Throughout their history, the Blue Jackets have been active in granting wishes through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. In February of 2016, they did no different.

17-year-old Robby Bing went to his first Blue Jackets game with his dad when he was three and loved hockey. Bing has intractable epilepsy and Rasmussen encephalitis, and he told the Make-A-Wish foundation he would love nothing more than to see his hometown team in another city.

The organization made it happen and sweetened the deal. On February 27, 2016, he was invited to watch the Blue Jackets take on the Florida Panthers. He participated in a ceremonial puck drop where he received a surprise custom video from Nick Foligno, telling Bing and his family he would be flying with the team to New York to see them take on the Rangers.

Nick Foligno Columbus Blue Jackets
Nick Foligno gave Robby Bing a personalized message at the ceremonial puck drop telling him he would fly with the team to see them take on the New York Rangers. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

“That was really special for Robby to see really what it was like to be a Blue Jacket,” Boiman said, “I think what made it even more special is that he got to see what it was like to… go to an away city… go to Madison Square Garden. You know, he’s really embraced by the organization and the team. And just to be able to provide that experience is so unique and touching.”

Hudson Gets to Feel the Game of Hockey

Hockey is a game you can’t just see but feel. No story can confirm that more than the story of Hudson Phillips.

In January of 2015, Hudson was diagnosed with a rare disease called Juvenile Batten’s Disease. The condition is a progressive neurological disorder that first appears as declining vision. Phillips lost his sight within a year.

Fast forward to January 16, 2016. The Blue Jackets invited Hudson and his family to a game against the Colorado Avalanche. Knowing of his visual impairment, they seated them on the glass.

He may not have been able to see the action, but he felt it. He felt the players’ high fives, he heard the music, and he felt every check. Luckily for Hudson and his family, the Jackets won that game 2-1. Even better, the game-winning goal was scored 1:07 left and was scored by the family’s favorite player, Jack Johnson.

Jack Johnson Blue Jackets
The game-winning goal was scored by the family’s favorite player, Jack Johnson. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

“Hudson loves hockey. So Hudson wanted to come to a game and knowing that he had some visual impairments… we asked the family… if it would be okay if we had Hudson sit on the glass,” Boiman said, “So when the guys would check each other on the boards, he would ask his dad who just checked him… he really could feel the excitement of the game.”

Charlie Skates With the Blue Jackets

Charlie Cook was fighting the odds since before he was born. He suffered a stroke in utero, and his parents were told he had a zero chance of survival. Charlie’s full story is below.

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Charlie survived, and he built up his core strength over the years by participating in special hockey. He did so by using a K-trainer, which is a harness that holds him upright to skate and glide on the ice. He eventually got the ability to skate on his own.

On last season’s Hockey is for Everyone Night, he was given an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. He came onto the ice in his k-trainer with one of his coaches. He was announced in the starting lineup and stood with the team for the National Anthem. They also played a video on the jumbotron of him playing a hockey game.

“For me, that one was really special,” Boiman said, “Because a lot of the work I do is helping to remove barriers and give individuals the opportunity to try our sport. So that one was incredible.”

The Organization Helps Builds an Inclusive Playground

The last example we discussed was the organization’s grant that helped to build an inclusive playground.

In the spring of 2019, the Columbus Blue Jackets Foundation gave a grant to Gahanna Parks and Recreation to build an all-inclusive playground. The park was dubbed Kaleidoscope Playground (from ‘Updated: Gahanna unveils newest park’s name — Sunpoint Park,’ The Columbus Dispatch,  April 29, 2019) because of this reason.

“For the city to be able to have the first all-inclusive playground just meant so much to the families there,” Boiman said, “Everything was accessible. It was a flat surface. So kids and families like to come and enjoy that playground… that’s doing more off the ice in the community, which is what our mission is… to be able to impact our community so that being able to help invest and fund a playground, just like that was really big for us and really big for Gahanna… this one’s probably most special to me because it’s one that I was able to be a part of personally.”

The Mission Continues

The Blue Jackets organization continues McConnell’s vision in the community. They particularly go above and beyond in the special needs community, making sure that hockey is a sport that anyone can be involved in, no matter physical ability. Their work surely will continue on, even a pandemic couldn’t stop their efforts.

“It’s been a year I can’t believe it,” said Boiman, “Our mission hasn’t changed. Our efforts haven’t wavered. What we have had to do is be a little creative and how we show up for the community in general and the special needs community.”

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