Reviewed by Mark Brown
David Paitson and Craig Merz, Chill Factor: How a Minor League Hockey Team Changed a City Forever New York: Skyhorse Publishing, Inc., 2015.
Any road to a successful minor league operation is fraught with untold horrors, roadblocks to strategy, and unknown disruptions of well-intended aspirations.
Don’t tell any of that to David Paitson and his intrepid band of hockey entrepreneurs. Don’t try and tell Paitson that an attempt to bring a minor league hockey franchise to Columbus, Ohio had failure dangling from the bottom line, and decorated with red ink.
And, please don’t tell Paitson that any attempt at success, however that is defined, must create some kind of dent in the formidable grip the Ohio State athletic monolith holds over Columbus in particular, and the state of Ohio in general.
After three dubious failures of minor league hockey in Columbus, dating back to 1966, Paitson, working under Chicago businessman and sports promoter Horn Chen, decided, for some crazy reason, Columbus could stand a chance to budge the behemoth Ohio State presence ever so slightly.
The original intention, and the way things evolved, was much different from the ultimate reality.
As one of the principal founders of the East Coast Hockey League, Horn’s vision was to establish a league franchise in Cleveland. With that in mind, he sent Paitson, who was working for Horn in the operation of the Indianapolis Ice, to Cleveland and survey the landscape.
Rejecting Cleveland as a possible franchise location, Paitson came back to Horn and said he had certain vibes about placing the franchise in Columbus. Horn then committed $100,000 in 1991, and the Chill, aptly named for a hockey team, embarked on a tenuous journey filled with untold and unknown pitfalls.
As the Chill flourished not so successfully on the ice but clearly in the hearts and minds of their supporters, Paitson, and co-author Columbus sports writer Craig Merz, tell the story, in an engrossing account, Chill Factor: How a Minor-League Hockey Teams Changed a City Forever, of a franchise destined to gain international attention and unexpected triumphs. The emphasis relies on the process to get people in a building clearly not equipped to handle hockey, hold those who crunch the turnstiles begging for more, and keep them screaming.
Brought as president and general manager to both get the Chill franchise on the ice and then oversee its operation, Paitson immediately immersed himself in the task at hand.
Instead of head-butting Ohio State for fans and media attention, he and his loyal staff decided to wisely circumvent the all-encompassing leviathan and create a marketing strategy targeted directly at millennials.
Commencing operation in 1991 and ending in 1999, and in an age before social media, the internet, twitter, Instagram and all of the valuable platforms held so dearly by their target market, Paitson and his staff, with outlandish promotions and an ever-increasing cadre of loyalists, pushed Ohio State to various portions of the Columbus Dispatch sports section, if not off at certain times.
Revealing numerous struggles of getting the franchise on the ice and staying there, Paitson proudly outlines the eight joyous and rewarding years in creating a foundation that transitioned into a viable hockey market.
During their presence in Columbus, the Chill sold-out, at one point, 83 straight games, a minor league record at that time, and grossed revenues, according to Paitson, estimated at $3.5 million, unheard for a minor league operation.
Sure, Paitson’s tale has a few empty holes, like no history or reasons of previously failed hockey franchises on the Columbus sports landscape. Read between the lines and the implication here is that the presence and monopoly of Ohio State athletes gave few sports operations any chance at survival.
In the early years of trying to forge and promote a stable franchise, there is little discussion of the NHL in a Columbus future. Paitson seems to imply that the NHL push may have been an after-thought, and a likely conclusion in the quest to fund a new, civic arena.
There was no input from the ECHL about Columbus as a potential market, and no history of organization. Horn’s involvement and direction remain largely ignored. As well, there is no history in dealing with local governments in formulating ballot issues and soliciting help with tax breaks to assure financial viability.
Let’s not get too critical.
If Paitson was interested in development of a major league franchise, his approach would have been much different. This is not an account about wealth, power, political intrigue or back-room politics. It’s a “feel good” story about a group of dedicated sports enthusiasts whose dream was jump-start a hockey franchise and keep the engine from sliding off the road.
Though Paitson takes credit for the Chill’s input in eventually bringing the NHL to Columbus, the story could have ended quite poorly.
Emphasis for the eventual NHL push was a result of horrible scheduling for the Chill in the Ohio Expo Center Coliseum, a facility built in 1917. Not only were attractive dates blocked and the Chill played several late-season and playoff games in neighboring Ohio cities, the lack of an adequate arena and sub-standard playing surface caused Paitson to jump directly into the community and lobby for a modern playing facility.
In what appeared to be a domino effect, the quest led to a public ballot question in 1997 for a new arena and soccer stadium on the site of the old Ohio state penitentiary, The Pen to locals, and on the edge of downtown Columbus. While voters were set to go the polls on May 6, 1997 and ready to pass judgement on Issue I, a $277 million, three-year sales tax to raise revenue for the two sports facility and commencement of a downtown entertainment district, the NHL was about to announce its choice for four expansion franchises.
Paitson writes that the entire Chill organization lobbied media, public officials, their loyal fan base and influential citizens on the necessity of the arena. Plus, a positive vote, Paitson was convinced, would sprinkle rose pedals from the NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s door to Columbus. In the end, their urgent and collective cries fell on deaf ears.
To the chagrin of Paitson and his intrepid staff, voters killed the proposed sales tax by a margin, according to Paitson’s figures, of 56.3 percent to 43.7 percent.
With hopes apparently dashed of a publicly-financed arena and supporting area, a last-second savior charged upon the scene on a white horse, and saved the day.
With the financial commitment of John McConnell, founder of Worthington Industries, a $3 billion enterprise and life-long resident of Columbus, funding of the proposed NHL franchise was secured. At the same time, Nationwide Insurance, whose corporate headquarters is located in Columbus, pledged $125 million to construct the new arena, and immediately placed its name on the building.
With the franchise now financially healthy and the arena shovel-ready, the NHL then moved into Columbus, along with establishing franchises in Nashville, Atlanta and Minnesota, in June, 1997. Columbus commenced its NHL operation for the 2000-2001 season.
The end result was Joy in Mudville, and unlike Casey who struck out, Paitson knocked this out of the park.
At times, Paitson seems to labor with his pen and moves from stories legion to minor league franchises and colorful personalities to the quest in securing fan, financial and municipal support for the arena. While some stories are hilarious, like the Zamboni driver who quit after the first period of the first game in franchise history to Paitson’s Mad Cow promotion to open the Chill’s final season, the impression is like sitting at a sports bar and, through several rounds, Paitson continues to slap you on the back and rejoice in telling his tale over and over.
Make no mistake, this is an “everything ends well” story about overcoming enormous odds of previous franchise failures, confronting the essence and power of Ohio State athletes, and laying the foundation for an unexpected success.
For those interested in pursuing dreams of professional sports ownership, Paitson’s plan is a lively blueprint, covered with guts, daring, and the forging into the unknown, to construct a story important in its community and powerful in its end result.
Mark Brown covers the Arizona Coyotes for thehockeywriters.com. Follow Mark on Twitter, @journalsist193
Mark Brown is a former sports editor for daily newspapers in the Philadelphia and Cincinnati markets. He was named Best Sports Columnist, honorable mention 2004 by the Associated Press Society of Ohio. He is a contributor to major daily newspapers, including the Chicago Sun Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Milwaukee Journal, Arizona Republic, Nashville Tennessean and the Associated Press. He was a Featured Columnist for bleacherreport.com and covered the Arizona Coyotes.