Hockey has been a huge part of my life from the time I was seven. My father put me into the local travel team and sacrificed his winter weekends to drive me several hours to games. Within my first year he was on the coaching bench and by the time I was in Squirts he was the head coach of my team. The time I spent with him going over the whiteboard covering breakout strategies through the neutral zone have immortalized his existence.
These events began to transpire at the beginning of the 1994-1995 lockout season and the Pittsburgh Penguins were the local team. Once the season finally got underway, I fell in love with the team. Players like Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis and Ulf Samuelsson were so compelling to watch play the game. If those players alone did not enchant you, the return of Mario Lemieux the next season was sure to. I have been a devoted Penguins fan for many years. However, this lockout season has seen me turn full-circle as a Pens fan. I was disgusted by the threat of another season being cancelled and I suddenly found myself in the state of mind that the league or team I support owes me something in return. Thus I began my free agent season as a hockey fan.
When the fighting over millions of dollars finally ended and the season was set to get underway, I was in no position to offer up my hard-earned money to those who were arguing over how much of it they should receive. I was still going to tune in to the TV broadcasts and follow the sport with as much passion as I have always had for the game, but I limited my product purchases and ticket purchases. The Penguins organization, in what could be considered a political move however generous it may have been, was quick to apologize and tried to make amends offering attendees of the first several home games jerseys at 50% off the retail price along with discounted concession products, and began a program called Pens Points that rewards fans for going to and watching the games. However, the prizes were difficult to attain as I eventually attended four games and only received two coupons for a free 7-UP. The coupons were not valid inside the Consol Energy Center.
I did appreciate the courteousness of the organization, but I allowed other teams the opportunity to win my support as well. The bidding war had officially begun, whether teams knew it or not. I still gave the Penguins a chance to maintain my support. I’ve watched them for years, sticking it out through the really depressing times and losing control of myself when I was finally able to see them lift the Stanley Cup. They are the local team and this area loves Penguins hockey. There are also those two superstars, Malkin and Crosby, who make you feel like you are watching history in the making, game after game. However, the fans are the definition of “bandwagon” and “fair-weather”. The attendance mirrors their success and most fans know very little about the game itself. The truly loyal Pens fan is usually overlooked when it comes to ticket pricing. If you want to sit in the lower bowl at a game, you’d better be prepared to overpay for a seat. The tickets sell fast and resale values are always spiked.
The first team I gave a chance to sign this free agent was the New York Islanders. John Tavares, Hart trophy nominee, found his stride this season while leading the team to its first playoff appearance since 2007. I celebrated their entrance into the playoffs and attended game two of the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in Pittsburgh adorned in an Islanders jersey, one of two that I saw at the game. I love their simple jersey and colors. It’s also nice to know that they will keep these colors when they move to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. However, the organization still has some blemishes on its record. In the past decade this team’s front office has been the example of why it is a bad idea to sign a goalie to a long-term contract. Rick Dipietro, who has had many injury issues and ended last season in the minors, is lucky that he is needed to hit the salary cap floor or else he would be a prime target for a buyout. The team’s distance from my home was one of the biggest factors in my decision to hold on to my free agent status. Living in southwestern Pennsylvania, I would be required to plan ahead and schedule days off of work to attend a few of their games.
My favorite player in this league is David Backes. You can expect the captain of the St. Louis Blues to deliver a huge hit and help his team dictate the flow of the game on any given night. The identity of this team has to be mentioned when you begin to talk about them and Backes exemplifies what that identity is. They have no elite players, just many really good players and they are loaded, defensively. They acquired Jordan Leopold and Jay Bouwmeester around the trade deadline to improve their defensive depth and the Boston Bruins may be the only team that has a defensive core that is as good as what the Blues have now. They have also drafted well and stand ready to make several runs into the playoffs over the next few seasons. Yet again, the distance is a huge factor. I almost want to apologize to the organization because the Blues were the only team who didn’t sell out their home stadium for every playoff game and I would love to be able to fill one of those seats on a regular basis.
Alas, the last team I gave a chance to win my support and love was the Columbus Blue Jackets. I noticed the Blue Jackets during the last offseason when they traded their superstar, Rick Nash, to the Rangers and were rewarded in their favor. Glen Sather, GM of the Rangers, has a history of overpaying for players that he wants and this trade was no exception. A large part of the chemistry that held the Rangers together for 1st place in the Eastern Conference during the 2011-2012 season was given to the Blue Jackets, which included Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov. Although the 2013 season started slow for the Jackets, they would find their stride and end the last two months of the season going 19-5-3. They tied the Minnesota Wild for the final playoff spot, who had more regulation wins and thus the tie breaker, which left the Blue Jackets out of the postseason.
It was really easy to choose the Columbus Blue Jackets as my favorite team. I’m a hockey fan who loves teams that make each game a difficult game for the opponent. It took this club awhile to establish themselves and build an identity but they have emerged as a team that can “grind-it-out” and win key puck battles which makes them such a frustrating team to play against. They are also within travelling distance and have better ticket purchasing options than the Penguins have. Season tickets are still available and tickets are not overpriced.
Overall, the Blue Jackets are on the right path. They were backstopped by Sergei Bobrovsky as their goaltender who had a stellar season setting franchise records for goals against average and save percentage in a season at 2.00 and .932, respectively. The league awarded him the Vezina trophy for his efforts. They appear to have a well-coached team that can win the close games that keep you on the edge of your seat. Their GM, Jarmo Kekalainen, who has helped the Senators draft Marian Hossa and Ray Emery, has three 1st round draft picks to use in this year’s NHL entry draft and also made the biggest splash at the trade deadline acquiring superstar Marian Gaborik from the New York Rangers.
It’s tough to be an expansion team hoping to find new fans, especially when you were brought into an area that was already dominated by Detroit or Pittsburgh fans. Yet the Jackets were able to turn a profit this past season and are only looking to improve. The Conference realignment that is set to take place at the beginning of the next season has moved them out of the Western Conference and into the Eastern. This is great news for the fans who cannot view the late games but it’s also bad news for teams in the Eastern Conference. It’s a good possibility that during the next season this team will have many clubs asking why the Jackets are giving them so much trouble all of a sudden.
Next season, I will be in the Nationwide Arena living and dying by the home team and rooting against our new division rival, the Pittsburgh Penguins. I look forward to supporting this team for many years and couldn’t be happier to rid myself of the title “free agent” and sign with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Let’s Go Jackets!