Bob Hunter commentary: New Jackets could ice negativity
In the interest of promoting sound mental health among central Ohio hockey fans, I offer this obvious truism: The Columbus Blue Jackets, who play host to the Detroit Red Wings in their home opener tonight, are a different team than the previous 11 that played here.
With so many new faces on the team, repeating that might seem worthy of a chorus of “duhs.” But it bears repeating because it has become so difficult to extricate any Blue Jackets team from the franchise’s long-term failures.
When the other team scores a goal against Columbus 39 seconds into the game — as Nashville did in the season opener on Saturday night — the mind immediately conjures memories of dozens of ignominious starts over the years. We expect the worst, and even when we get the best — a comeback that resulted in a rare 3-2 shootout victory over the Predators — it’s hard to believe it wasn’t the result of a six-day training camp that is going to skew results for a while. After all of the losing, it’s natural to think that failure exists in the DNA of Blue Jackets players, that it even gets transplanted into those who had never worn one of the team’s sweaters before training camp.
Sometimes it seems that those catchy slogans the team’s marketing department uses to promote interest in each new team — “Carry the Flag,” “Ignite the Nite,” “All Out, All Season,” “Gotta See it Live!” and so forth — cry out for a more honest one, such as “Here We Go Again.” Negativism breeds negativism. It is one reason the offseason makeover of the team could turn out to be a real positive, despite the trade of popular captain Rick Nash to the New York Rangers.
Five new players — all likely to have key roles — mean five players who had nothing to do with the team’s 30th-place finish in the 30-team NHL last season. It means five players who aren’t aware of the Predators’ domination of the Jackets in Nashville, who don’t know the feelings of frustration over first-round draft picks who didn’t pan out, who can’t think of a reason that this team shouldn’t be in the playoffs when the regular season ends.
Even most of the returning players haven’t been around long enough to have perennial losing ground into them; the longest-tenured regular, 26-year-old Jared Boll, has been with the team for only five seasons. The Jackets made the playoffs in one of those seasons, and they were close to .500 in three others. As miserable as last season was, it might seem like an aberration to the younger Blue Jackets; when Nash was traded, he was the last Columbus player to have experienced so many years of failure.
Nash wasn’t to blame for the losing; it’s important to make that clear. Regardless of his weaknesses as a captain or player, that can’t be repeated often enough. He wasn’t suited for the kind of leadership role thrust upon him on and off the ice, but he was the team’s best player almost from the time he arrived as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 draft. If he wasn’t the perfect captain for the kind of underachieving teams that the Blue Jackets put on the ice — his laid-back style was mistaken by some as an acceptance of losing — that issue would rank about 60th on his teams’ reason-for-failure list.
But having a new image and starting with a clean slate can be good thing. There is a lot to be said for having a fresh start when the past has so much stale air.
If this year’s team proves itself to be hard-working, a team that fights for every inch and gives no quarter, that would do almost as much in bringing the fans around as winning. Other than the franchise’s one playoff team, the most popular Blue Jackets team was the first one in 2000-01, which had no obvious stars, yet won the fans’ hearts by playing every game as if their hockey lives depended on it.
If these Blue Jackets do that, the season ultimately could be judged a success, regardless of whether they make the playoffs.
Bob Hunter is a sports columnist for The Dispatch.