COLUMBUS, Ohio – Unlike many people in hockey, John Davidson wasn’t afraid of the losing tradition of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“I like the idea of the challenge. I mean, it’s possible. In fact, it’s something we’re going to do,” Davidson said Wednesday after being hired as the Blue Jackets’ new president of hockey operations.
The former player, Hall of Fame broadcaster and St. Louis Blues president believes he can transform a franchise with just one, brief trip to the post-season into a Stanley Cup contender.
“The hardest part is to go through the ups and downs of getting a club to get back on its feet and going in the right direction,” he said. “But if you have the right mentality, where your players understand how hard they have to work, we’ll do well.
“We’ll win our share. As we move along here, we’ll win more than our share.”
Davidson will take over a new position. The former president, Mike Priest, will now concentrate only on the business side of a team that had the worst record in the NHL last season (29-46-7, 65 points).
The 59-year-old Davidson served as president of the Blues for the past seven years. He left the Blues when new owner Tom Stillman bought out his contract in an effort to cut costs in the front office.
He will report directly to Blue Jackets majority owner John P. McConnell and will oversee general manager Scott Howson, who has come under fire for the team’s disastrous play and dwindling attendance in recent years.
Priest said Davidson would have “full authority and autonomy over the competitive side” of the franchise.
Howson could not say precisely how the two would work together but figured that would all work itself out.
“This is all about the Columbus Blue Jackets getting better,” Howson said. “That’s what I want to do and John makes us better.”
McConnell liked Davidson’s track record.
“He took over an organization that was losing,” he said, “and turned it into one that is winning.”
The Blue Jackets have had losing records in 10 of their 11 seasons. Their only respite was a short, four-game playoff sweep by Detroit in 2009. Their coach at the time was Ken Hitchcock, later hired by Davidson and the Blues after he was fired by Columbus. Hitchcock now is in charge of a Blues team that a year ago finished second in the Western Conference with 109 points.
During his time in St. Louis, Davidson helped the club acquire standouts such as forwards Andy McDonald, Alex Steen and Chris Stewart, defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk and goaltender Jaroslav Halak.
“You build it one brick at a time,” Davidson said, drawing a parallel between building a team and the brick facade of Nationwide Arena. “That’s the only way to go. That’s what’s going to happen here.”
Davidson said he is intrigued by the Blue Jackets, who traded the club’s most recognizable and dependable commodity this summer, Rick Nash. The Blue Jackets are young with a promising list of defencemen but big questions in net and when it comes to scoring.
Whenever the current lockout ends, Davidson likely will build around blue-liners Jack Johnson, James Wisniewski and Fedor Tyutin and forwards Derick Brassard, R.J. Umberger and Ryan Johansen. The goalies are Steve Mason and Sergei Bobrovsky.
Columbus traded Nash, the franchise’s scoring, goals and games leader in addition to being captain, to the New York Rangers in July for forwards Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov and defenceman Tim Erixon and a first-round draft pick. The Blue Jackets have three first-round draft picks next summer.
“The draft is huge for this club this year,” Davidson said. “Just huge.”
The problems that Davidson will face in Columbus are not unlike what he encountered when he first arrived in St. Louis. The Blues were last in the NHL in 2005-06 with 56 points but have gradually become one of the league’s top teams. This past season, they lost in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs to eventual champion Los Angeles.
Davidson first met with the Blue Jackets in May because his Blues contract permitted him to look elsewhere when it became clear that St. Louis management would undergo a shakeup. A week after his buyout was finalized in October, Davidson met with the Blue Jackets and reportedly came away impressed.
A native of Ottawa, Ontario, raised in Calgary, Alberta, Davidson spent 10 years in the NHL with the Blues and Rangers. He had a career mark of 123-124-39, leading the Rangers to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1979.
After his playing days came to an end, Davidson became a popular NHL television analyst on several networks and stations. He received the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award for outstanding contributions as a hockey broadcaster and was officially inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2009.
He said he had a message for the fans. The club drew 14,660 per game last season, although there are signs due to the team’s losing ways and, now, the lockout that some have reached the end of their patience with the team and the league.
“I know the fans, as in St. Louis, you get frustrated. That’s totally understandable,” Davidson said. “But if they see how we’re going to work our way through this and be a very hard-working, honest, no-shortcut team—stay with us and we’ll bring you something you’re going to be very proud of.”
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