COLUMBUS – Me and my big mouth.
That’s the orifice – with the first and second assists going to my left and right typing hands – that scored me a trip to central Ohio in late April, when the Columbus Blue Jackets played their first-ever home playoff game.
See, back in December, I thought I had it all figured out. I thought that, given the difficulty NHL teams face when trying to rise through the standings in the season’s second half, I could pronounce the 2009 playoff hopes of four particular franchises dead and buried.
I was so confident in my seemingly seamless thesis, I made a bet via my THN.com Screen Shots column detailing what I’d do if each of the four teams defied my odds and wound up qualifying for the post-season.
If the Ottawa Senators made it, I said I’d listen to a CD mix of Ottawa natives Paul Anka, Tom Green and Alanis Morissette on a car ride all the way from THN’s home base in Toronto to Ottawa and back; for the Colorado Avalanche, I promised never again to watch the phenomenal movie Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead; for the Atlanta Thrashers, I swore I’d ask coach John Anderson to grow and shave his famous moustache, then wear said shavings on my own upper lip.
And for the Blue Jackets, I said I’d attend a game in Columbus…wearing a Civil War outfit to symbolize a key component of the city’s history.
At the time, my chief reasoning for counting out Columbus was their absolutely putrid power play, which was crawling along at a 9.9 percent efficiency rate when I wrote the piece – and which finished the regular season 30th in the league at 12.7 percent.
Stupid me – I should’ve known that, if any team can win while scoring on just one of every 10 man advantages, it would be a Ken Hitchcock-led team.
Shortly after that column, rookie goaltender Steve Mason began to really turn up the heat and make his case for the Calder Trophy. That’s when I first got nervous and began watching every Jackets game I could lay my eyes on. And game by game, I came to learn a lot about them.
I learned defenseman Jan Hejda is one of the NHL’s most underappreciated players. I learned forward R.J. Umberger is made almost entirely of grit, thumbtacks and other jagged little ills that make him so tough to play against.
I learned winger Raffi Torres is a game-winning goal machine. I learned Fedor Tyutin not only is the ideal player to be nicknamed either ‘You’re Darned’ or ‘Rootin,’ but also has become a solid top-four blueliner – not to mention he’s the dude who sealed my fate with a dazzling, shootout-winning goal April 8 that officially put Columbus into the post-season.
At that point, I began working on travel plans. Soon enough. I had to steel myself and – joined by THN.com video producer Ted Cooper and THN.com content specialist Rory Boylen, who doubted my doubt of the Jackets from the day the column was posted – headed out for the Jackets’ first-ever home playoff game April 21.
Before we left, I rented a makeshift Civil War costume (yes, it was a Union outfit) that in my mind made me look like Wild Bill Hickok, but in reality had me resembling something between a Hasidic Jew and an Amish gentleman. If I wasn’t exactly up to Civil War standards, I felt comfortable knowing my long, fake moustache likely would disguise me and shield me from too much verbal razzing.
Little did I know, my reputation – or at least, my wager’s reputation and result – had preceded me.
When I arrived in costume for the game at Nationwide Arena, one subtle Jackets fan waiting to get in saw me and yelled “PRRRRROOOOOOTOOOOOHHHHHHHH!”, while Red Wings GM Ken Holland had a good giggle at my expense when USA Today writer Kevin Allen told him who just passed them in the bowels of the building. And in the press box during the game’s first intermission, Gary Bettman good-naturedly came up and told me that I should look like I did if I lost a bet.
I couldn’t disagree with the NHL commissioner; that was all part of the fun. And my night was made easier by team employees – including Jackets PR man nonpareil Todd Sharrock and his staff – as well as fans and the players themselves, chiefly because they all were gracious enough to stifle their laughs until I was out of earshot.
For a while, I felt like a minor celebrity – posing with fans for pictures during and after the game, appearing on the JumboTron for the pre-game show and conducting a short interview on the Fox Sports Ohio game broadcast. My costume also received the stamp of approval from Blue Jackets coach (and Civil War aficionado) Ken Hitchcock, which was the highest compliment I could’ve hoped for.
But although I was there to make good on a dumb bet, I wound up being most impressed by – and will most remember – the way the crowd embraced their dented-but-determined franchise for its long-overdue achievement.
In talking to fans that night, I learned no NHL team owner was more beloved among his customers as late Jackets owner John H. McConnell, who died in April 2008. I learned they were forever indebted to Hitchcock and GM Scott Howson for turning around the team’s fortunes and providing genuine hope for seasons to come.
And I learned that, as Hitchcock noted in his pre-Game 3 press conference, when you play your first playoff game – and when you have a dedicated throng that aches when you miss the playoffs and quakes when you do make it – you’ve officially arrived as a legitimate NHL city.
Congrats, Columbusites. And thanks, my big mouth.
Looking for video proof of the trip I took to Columbus for the franchise’s first-ever playoff game? Look no further; thanks to the impressive efforts of video producer Ted Cooper – and with a tip of the hat to content specialist Rory Boylen for helping out – here are the highlights of my adventures.
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Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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