Jeff Barnett / Lantern photographer
It might have taken 10 years, 474 losses and millions of dollars lost, but one thing should be very clear to everyone by now: Professional hockey was not meant to be played in Columbus.
At least not at the NHL level, where in their first decade of existence, the Columbus Blue Jackets have provided Ohio’s capital with little more than one season of winning hockey, enormous revenue losses and an ever-diminishing fan base.
Since joining the NHL in 2000, the Blue Jackets have compiled a combined record of 313-474-33 (the NHL eliminated ties before the start of the 2005–06 season). The Jackets’ best year came during the 2008–09 season, in which the team posted a 41-41 record (10 of those losses came in overtime) and was rewarded with the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference playoffs, in which the Detroit Red Wings promptly swept them.
But, unlike the other NHL cellar dwellers, who can at least point to the future as a reason for hope, the Blue Jackets are more than likely headed toward their third major roster overhaul in 10 years. The Jackets are currently constructed around forward Rick Nash, which is the equivalent of building an NBA team around Danny Granger, Andre Iguodala or Chris Bosh. Nash might put up some nice numbers and make a few All-Star teams, but you’re not getting past the first round of the playoffs with him as your best player.
Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson has also committed $5.8 million over the next two seasons to goaltender Steve Mason, who in the 2010–11 season allowed the ninth-most goals in the league and ranked outside the top 50 in save percentage.
The losses, particularly the 66-98 record the Blue Jackets have owned since the 2008–09 season, also have taken a toll on the team’s once-excited-and-optimistic fan base.
This past season, the Jackets averaged 13,659 fans per home game — the fewest in franchise history. Just six games sold out at Nationwide Arena this season, and on Oct. 20, a record-low 9,802 fans showed up to watch the Blue Jackets play the Anaheim Ducks, a record that was broken eight days later, when 9,128 fans — 49.3 percent of Nationwide Arena’s capacity — witnessed the Blue Jackets beat the Edmonton Oilers.
The most enthusiastic the hockey fans got in Nationwide Arena this season was Dec. 4, when the Blue Jackets played the Pittsburgh Penguins, and jerseys supporting Penguins center Sidney Crosby outnumbered those for the hometown team. Chants of “We want 10” were audible throughout the arena that night, as the Jackets fell to the Penguins, 7-2.
Not surprisingly, the lack of fan support has hurt the Jackets’ bottom line, as The Columbus Dispatch reported last week that the team lost $25 million over the course of last season, bringing the Jackets’ total revenue losses since the 2004–05 NHL lockout to $80 million. The financial forecast for the Blue Jackets isn’t looking any brighter either, as the franchise’s dim future isn’t likely to bring any closet Columbus hockey fans out of hiding.
One of the reasons for the aforementioned NHL lockout was the overexpansion that the league experienced in the early 2000s, and putting a team in college-crazed Columbus was a part of that problem. Does it really surprise anyone that a city that had trouble selling out games for the No. 1 basketball team in the country this past season isn’t supportive of an irrelevant team in the least popular of the four major sports leagues?
As cities like Winnipeg and Kansas City long for a professional hockey team, there’s one in Columbus wasting away. Ten years ago, both the Blue Jackets and the city of Columbus were full of hope and optimism, but as neither the organization nor the city has proven capable of fully committing to the other, it’d be best for both to go their separate ways, because things just aren’t working out.