COLUMBUS, Ohio — It was an accomplishment which came too late for the man who made it possible. For long-suffering fans of the Columbus Blue Jackets, it arrived just in time.
The Blue Jackets clinched their first trip to the Stanley Cup playoffs with Wednesday night’s 4-3 shootout victory at Chicago. They had been the only NHL franchise to never qualify for the post-season.
Ever since self-made steel magnate John H. McConnell put up US$120 million to finally bring one of the four major sports leagues to Ohio’s largest city, the franchise had struggled. McConnell, called “Mr. Mac” by his friends, died of cancer a year ago after watching the team improve but still finish with a losing record to miss the playoffs for a seventh season in a row.
“He would have loved this,” said his son, John. P. McConnell, who succeeded his father as the club’s majority owner. “He would be going around soaking all this in.”
Many of the players immediately thought of Mr. Mac when the Blue Jackets finally broke through.
“I’m sure he was jumping around pretty high,” forward Jason Chimera said Thursday. “He had always dreamed that the club would get into the playoffs. He cared a lot about us. He loved this team and the city of Columbus. It’s special that we finally made it. We just wish he could have been here to see it.”
During a meeting in 1997, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was told by Columbus civic leaders that, if a referendum to build a publicly financed arena failed, they would not pursue an expansion franchise.
But as Bettman was leaving the room, someone grabbed his arm. It was McConnell.
“Don’t listen to that,” Bettman later said McConnell told him. “I’m going to do whatever it takes to bring an NHL franchise to Columbus.”
McConnell fronted the expansion fee and prevailed upon Columbus-based insurance giant Nationwide to build a glittering brick-and-glass arena downtown. But the Blue Jackets — named for the uniforms made for Union soldiers in Columbus — progressed in fits and starts after joining the league in 2000.
Doug MacLean, the club’s first general manager, traded up to get captain and leading scorer Rick Nash. He also oversaw drafts that brought in several promising young players, including goaltender Steve Mason. But he also traded promising defenceman Francois Beauchemin for aging superstar Sergei Fedorov, saddling the team with a high salary and scant productivity.
The losses mounted.
MacLean was fired two years ago, not long after Ken Hitchcock was brought in as head coach. Mr. Mac then hired GM Scott Howson out of the Edmonton front office.
Since then, the club has grown with its young stars. Nash, just 24, has developed into a two-way beast. He scored his 39th goal with 5:30 left in regulation to tie the Blackhawks. Mason stood tall between the pipes the rest of the way to force overtime, giving the franchise the point it needed to assure itself of a trip to the playoffs.
After Wednesday’s games, Columbus stood sixth in the Western Conference and currently would face Calgary in the first-round, best-of-seven playoffs which begin next week.
“It’s been a long time coming for a lot of people in this franchise who have worked very hard,” said Howson. “We’re all very proud of the fact that we’ve accomplished the first goal and first challenge of making the playoffs and now we’ll try and push the bar a little higher.”
It still hasn’t been easy, though. In November, front-line goaltender Pascal Leclaire injured an ankle that all but put him out for the remainder of the season. A few weeks later, Derick Brassard, leading all NHL rookies in points at the time, sustained a dislocated shoulder that required surgery. The future was uncertain. Attendance was down.
“But we didn’t lose faith,” Howson said. “We didn’t lose faith in trying to achieve the goal.”