Blue Jackets' rebuilding revitalizes downtrodden franchise
On his first day of work with the Blue Jackets last November, John Davidson compared the “brick by brick” construction of the Arena District with the patient, painstaking approach he would use inside Nationwide Arena to rebuild the downtrodden hockey team.
That phrase has taken on a life of its own — in the daily lexicon around the rink, and even on T-shirts in the gift shop.
But no one could have expected Davidson and the Blue Jackets to have this many bricks in place only months later.
The Jackets open the season tonight against the Calgary Flames at Nationwide Arena, steeped in an optimism and high expectations that are in stark contrast to the hard luck and hopelessness that saddled the franchise only months ago.
“It’s always nice to underpromise and overdeliver,” said Davidson, who noted that previous general manager Scott Howson left the cupboard stocked beyond what many realized.
“From what I saw, we just needed to grab this thing, change that culture, and make sure people knew their seat on the bus and go from there.”
Backed by goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, fortified by a stout defense, and hopeful that young, energetic forwards can generate enough goals, the Blue Jackets are determined to prove that last year’s magical 19-5-5 run to finish the season was not a fluke.
The Blue Jackets, who are moving to the Eastern Conference after spending their first 12 years in the West, have not shied away from saying the Stanley Cup playoffs — and even a shot at the Stanley Cup — is the expectation this season.
“When you’re at the very bottom, it seems like a long way out, and you imagine it’s going to take a long rebuilding process,” forward R.J. Umberger said. “They’ve brought in some guys here who really want to work, really know how to win and really have the right work ethic.
“I get excited for every season. This feels real, though.”
The franchise has undergone a transformation in so many ways.
Club president Mike Priest spent at least four years negotiating with county and city officials to change the team’s lease with Nationwide Arena.
He finally got the fix two years ago, when Franklin County bought the arena and made several favorable changes to the deal. The club gets casino tax money to help balance its books.
Now, Priest said, the club still will lose money this year, even with a playoff appearance. But it stands a chance to make money next season and beyond if the club plays well and averages 16,000 or more in attendance.
“We increased our season tickets this summer by almost 2,000,” Priest said, putting the team around 8,500 regulars. “The goal is 12,000, so we’re still a ways from our goal. The high was 13,600 (in the early days of the franchise), so there are people we still need to win back.”
The Blue Jackets started to win them back late last season, with an energetic, passionate style that had been missing from their game.
Bobrovsky gave the team hope. The players brought in when Rick Nash was traded to the New York Rangers — especially Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov — helped establish a professional approach. Then Nick Foligno and Marian Gaborik arrived.
“We brought in six guys or so who are used to winning,” said forward Jared Boll, the longest-tenured Blue Jacket. “They pushed the bar higher. They wouldn’t accept it any other way.”
This summer, the Blue Jackets signed big-ticket free agent Nathan Horton (he’s out until December or January following shoulder surgery), brought crowd favorite Jody Shelley back into the mix as a broadcaster and used Davidson’s booming voice and strong presence in a marketing campaign that seemed to resonate.
“At times, there was a Murphy’s Law feeling with the team, that nothing was going to work out as you intended it,” Priest said. “We just had to push through that. And you can sense a different atmosphere now.”
Now comes the hard part: proving that last season wasn’t lighting in a bottle.
“The amount of time we’ve spent talking about last season is incredible to me,” Dubinsky said. “We didn’t make the playoffs. As far as I’m concerned last season was a failure.
“We’ve made a lot of strides, but we’re still a team that has a lot to prove.”