COLUMBUS — Nick Foligno was born in Buffalo, and he was drafted by and played a few seasons for the Ottawa Senators. But after being traded to the Blue Jackets in 2012, Foligno now considers Columbus his “home city.” And he, along with teammate Ryan Johansen, are proud of what their city accomplished this weekend in hosting the NHL’s All-Star festivities.
“We’re so proud of our city for showing that hockey is such a big deal here. For it to be the main focus, and then for us to have been involved in it, has been really gratifying for both of us,” Foligno said Sunday following the All-Star Game at Nationwide Arena.
Johansen, the game’s MVP, concurred: “That’s all we’ve been talking about over the last few days is seeing the fans and how much they’ve been enjoying all the festivities and stuff. We did a two-hour signing today at the convention center up there, and everybody just seemed to be having a great time, and all the kids were laughing and smiling and having fun.”
A little trivia for you: Nationwide Arena was built on the site of the old Ohio Penitentiary, once home to infamous criminals like gangster Bugs Moran. Completed in 2000, the rink became the centerpiece of the city’s Arena District, a $500 million development featuring restaurants and bars on a parcel of land that 20 years ago was the definition of urban blight.
“I remember coming here a number of years ago, even before Nationwide Arena was under construction,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. “We went up to the top of the Nationwide building and had a great view of the Union Station Arch, because that was pretty much all there was to see.”
With the construction of the arena came the expansion Blue Jackets, who played their first game on Oct. 7, 2000.
What didn’t come was a very good hockey team. In the decade and a half since their inaugural game, the Jackets have been to the postseason just twice, and they’ve won a grand total of two playoff games.
Because Columbus isn’t Toronto, attendance for Blue Jackets games has dipped at times. But it’s never dipped to levels like we’ve seen in places like Arizona or Florida. The lowest average attendance was 13,658, in 2010-11.
Maybe it’s the chilly winter weather, or perhaps it’s the close proximity to prominent NHL cities Pittsburgh and Detroit, but there’s always been a sense that Columbus could one day join the ranks of great American hockey markets.
If only it had a team that could legitimately contend for the Stanley Cup.
There was a glimpse of that potential in the 2014 postseason, when the Jackets won their first ever home playoff game (and their only one to date), beating the Penguins in overtime to even the teams’ first-round series at two.
Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch, Jackets beat writer since the beginning, was there.
“Just being above the crowd in the press box and looking down on those people, the sheer joy of the win in Game 4 was something that those people had waited so long to witness,” Portzline told NHL.com. “To taste a victory and the way it happened; it felt like a coming of age for the city and the sports fans in the city in that this is what it has felt like for other cities. It made people realize the next level that there is, gave them a taste of it and that the best is yet to come.”
This All-Star weekend has similarly shown Columbus’ worth as a hockey market. Known in mainstream sports circles as the home of college football powerhouse Ohio State, the city has embraced the NHL over the past three days.
“I thought the fans were great,” Foligno said Saturday following a skills competition in which Johansen played to the home crowd by ripping off his hockey jersey to unveil a Buckeyes football jersey.
“It was just great to see the support for hockey and how excited the fans were that hockey was being celebrated in the city.”
The Jackets, hammered by injuries to an almost comical degree this season, are once again in tough to make the playoffs. There’s hope for the future, though, with a young, talented roster to go with a well-regarded group of prospects.
Lightning winger Steven Stamkos sees Columbus in a similar light to Tampa Bay.
“Obviously, you have to have a winning product, first and foremost,” said Stamkos. “We’ve been able to build something in Tampa over the past couple of years where we’re selling out every night and you can feel the buzz around town. We definitely felt that here this weekend.”
In December, Foligno signed a $33 million contract extension that tied him to the Jackets through 2020-21. The 27-year-old was happy to have this weekend to show everyone why he made that commitment.
“I signed here and when you make that kind of a commitment for that long of a time you’re proud of what you’ve accomplished and the team that you play for, and I wanted the guys to see that,” he said.
“I wanted them to see the city, and all the comments that came from the guys, they love it here. They really were impressed with how nice Columbus is.”
It’s not a bad hockey town either.