One of the more hopeful things to happen for the NHL so far in this season is the upward swing of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Since the start of the season, the Blue Jackets have been playing good steady hockey which has taken them to first place in the tough Eastern Conference. From 15th to the top of the standings in one year is quite an accomplishment. Nobody saw this coming. Coach John Tortorella is getting the Blue Jackets to play the way he failed to get Team USA play in the recent World Cup.
The problem IS that nobody saw this coming. The success of the Blue Jackets on the ice has not translated to success off the ice. Columbus is 4th last in attendance this season, averaging 13.5 thousand per game, approximately 75% capacity.
There are several reasons for this sad state of affairs. Columbus has always been a precarious franchise; more than once there has been talk of the franchise being moved. For starters, Columbus is located in what I have termed the “Death Valley” of major professional hockey, Ohio-Indiana.
This is a strange area for hockey. It is a northern United States climate, close to the Canadian border. For that reason alone it should be a hockey-loving area. Wrong. Ohio-Indiana is the graveyard of many NHL-WHA franchises from the 1970s. Who remembers the WHA Cleveland Crusaders, Indianapolis Racers, Cincinnati Stingers, and the NHL Cleveland Barons? Who remembers that the top two NHL scorers of all time, Wayne Gretzky, and (recently displaced by Jaromir Jagr) Mark Messier got their professional start in these cities? All these franchises folded within a few years because of horrible attendance. Strange though it may seem, the Columbus Blue Jackets are the most successful major professional hockey franchise in Ohio-Indiana history. They have lasted 16 years so far. (Note: See my article about Cleveland on this blog for more details about this.)
One of my colleagues on this blog, Amanda, wrote an article about the AHL champion Lake Erie Monsters (located near Cleveland) and complained that they were not getting the media coverage they deserved. By her account, the Monsters are actually surpassing the Blue Jackets in fan support. But the NHL with its memory of the horrible attendance of the Cleveland Barons hope the Monsters rest in obscurity. That is why when the NHL starts talking about expansion, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis are never mentioned. To date nobody can explain why hockey is so unpopular in an area so close to the Canadian border and located between such hockey loving cities as Chicago, Detroit, and Minneapolis in the west and Buffalo and Pittsburgh in the east.
But the low attendance for the Columbus Blue Jackets can be explained by more than the fact that they live in a cursed hockey area. Their horrible history has dampened the enthusiasm for many hockey fans and stunted the growth of hockey in Ohio-Indiana. In 16 years, the Blue Jackets have only made the NHL playoffs twice and have failed to win a playoff round. Maybe the low attendance can be explained by fans tired of false hopes and are saying “Show me” before jumping on the bandwagon.
Not only does Tortorella have to keep up this high standard of play during the regular season to attract more fans, he has to get this team over the hump to win at least one playoff round to make believers of the disillusioned. One other problem is that with the possible exception of goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, and defenseman Seth Jones, there are no stars on this team. This is a low-key team made up of cast-off players from other teams that is playing good, solid hockey. There are no big shooters to capture the imagination of the fans. Nobody realizes or believes that this is a good team. Most fans probably figure the Blue Jackets will collapse or bow out meekly in the first round of the playoffs. Hopefully aa fans continue to see the Blue Jackets win, they will start supporting the team.
What happens if the Blue Jackets continue to win during the regular season, do well in the playoffs and the fans still do not support the team? Well this is Death Valley for professional hockey and one more team leaving the area is nothing new. And unlike the Arizona Coyotes that the NHL does not want to move to the east because it will make the league conferences even more unbalanced, the Blue Jackets can be moved anywhere because they are an Eastern Conference team.
In the east, Quebec and Hamilton have arenas and they want a team. In the west, the NHL would not be sorry if the Blue Jackets landed in places like Portland, Milwaukee, Seattle, Houston or Kansas City.
So this may be the last chance for Blue Jackets to be a success in Columbus. If a successful team on the ice is still not enough to draw fans, maybe the owners will conclude that it is time to leave Death Valley like their predecessors did and play hockey elsewhere. It is said that Quebec is eying the Carolina Hurricanes if they cannot get an expansion team because currently Carolina has the worst attendance in the NHL and the owner wants to sell. But Quebec will gladly welcome the Blue Jackets instead if Death Valley adds one more notch to its belt.