Embrace the hate

(Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)

Anyone who has been around the social media feeds of the Columbus Blue Jackets over the last month or so, can likely tell you a story about fans from other markets dumping on our team, our fanbase or our city. I chose my wording carefully here because it’s important – it’s OUR team. We should be proud of it, even if history suggests otherwise.

I’ve followed this team since its inception. Actually, since well before its inception… I was one of the few kids in Columbus who played hockey BEFORE there was an NHL franchise there. I know that will probably cause some jaws to drop (especially if any out of market fans are reading this). I remember going to tryouts when there were only enough kids signed up for an entire league, that we needed just one ice surface for two hours to divvy up the teams. Man, a lot has changed since then.

Hockey is a big deal in Columbus now, far more popular than even I could have ever imagined. Those of us who remember going to Chill (ECHL) games have now seen an entire generation of kids grow up watching the Blue Jackets. There are even Central Ohio kids playing for the Blue Jackets now, who weren’t even born until after the Blue Jackets were playing NHL games. But there was a growing hockey market in Columbus, well before the NHL announced it was coming to Columbus.

Nashville Knights’ Gary Lebsack, center left, and Columbus Chill’s Craig Binns (5) battle it out near the end of the first period as officials wait for a moment to break it up. The Knights went on to a 6-4 victory before 3,130 fans at Municipal Auditorium Jan. 6, 1995.
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The reason I bring all of this up is because it seems like we have always sought out approval from opposing fanbases. Many of us have felt the need to belong, to be included, and welcomed by the league. That hasn’t ever happened, and it never will. The Blue Jackets didn’t dominate the league in their first year like the Vegas Golden Knights did. We don’t have a handful of other major sports teams to fall back on like Seattle or Minneapolis does.

In fact, years of mismanagement caused this team to struggle heavily. I’m sure that fed into us feeling left out. We’ve long been the bottom feeders. We watched almost every franchise have success – fall to the bottom – then have success again, all while our Blue Jackets waited for the next draft pick to be made. Sure there were flashes of success … a playoff berth in 2009. We actually won some playoff games in 2014, giving us arguably the most memorable moment in our history, at least thus far:

We saw the John Tortorella years, which we may inevitably look back upon and wonder how truly close this team was to competing for a Cup. There wasn’t a lot of big name talent here, but man, they were OUR Blue Jackets, and they worked hard. We saw glimpses then of the hate. Most of it was directed towards Torts; or maybe how our players still weren’t good enough.

But hate is a funny thing. It only comes along when your team is good.

COLUMBUS, OH – APRIL 16: The Columbus Blue Jackets celebrate after Game Four of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Tampa Bay Lightning on April 16, 2019 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. Columbus defeated Tampa Bay 7-3 to win the series 4-0. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)

Most people couldn’t have cared less about the Blue Jackets in 2007 or even 2015. We were written off as a “trash organization”, or were told “relocate them to (insert city here)…” But when this team was pushing larger market teams out of playoff spots? We saw it. This summer’s signing of Johnny Gaudreau caused shockwaves in the hockey world that are still being felt, several weeks later. Since then, we’ve gotten nothing but shade from fans around the league. People want to dog on our city, our fan base… even bring up our team’s past failures.

Simply put, they wouldn’t care if it didn’t matter. This team is rising quickly, and for the first time in our history, we have a superstar player that chose to play here. The other fanbases in the NHL aren’t used to that. They don’t want to see the Blue Jackets competing for a Cup, and that’s exactly what’s going to happen. Jarmo Kekalainen has a mix of talent here the likes of which we’ve never seen before, and it’s scary good. So embrace the hate as it flows in, make some noise, be proud. These are our Blue Jackets, and the entire landscape of the Metropolitan Division just changed.

They can’t write us off as forgotten anymore, Columbus is firmly on the map as an NHL market. Most of us have known and seen it for years. The rest of the NHL is about to find out.

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