Updated: Sep 28
COLUMBUS– It is no secret that central Ohio has had a rough go of it when it comes to hockey. It took nine years to make the playoffs and another decade after that to win a series. In the past two years, everything that could go wrong went wrong, except attendance and the interest that was accumulated off of the ice for the team and the sport itself.
Getting people in seats doesn’t just happen. It requires a ton of advertising, along with putting a product on the ice that people want to watch. It takes plenty of outside influences to nudge people in the right direction and an in-game experience that leaves people with fond memories, win or lose. You can’t just expect 18,000 people to come out on a weeknight to watch a team with one of the worst records in the league; it just doesn’t work like that.
I started my hockey experience when I was in second grade, going to an early-season matchup vs. Ottawa. I don’t remember too much about the game other than that we were some of the only people in our upper bowl section. To be completely honest, all I remember was the physicality.
It didn’t matter. I was hooked.
From that day on, it has been “hockey hockey hockey” all the time. I was signed up to play the following season. But it wasn’t the fan experience that got me engaged; it was the sport itself. All the fights, the nonstop action, and the fan experience at Nationwide Arena just never really played a part.
Yours truly posing for a picture with Boone Jenner, 2017.
With fighting almost gone from hockey, there has to be a way to cater to the interests of people who go to a game for the first time.
That won’t be fighting—or even hitting, for that matter. There is no doubt that the ones to draw people to the rink will be skilled players that can make fans jump out of their seats with God-given talent.
There hasn’t been that type of raw, pure talent in Columbus until now. A lineup with skill from top to bottom replaced one with speed at the top and grit at the bottom. Laine, Gaudreau, Fantilli, and Johnson all can blow the roof off of Nationwide the same way Jared Boll did a decade ago.
If skill was the lone factor that determined attendance, Nationwide Arena would be packed effortlessly. The fact is, there are a lot of moving parts that go into the sold-out crowds that Columbus has seen more and more of.
How have the Jackets stepped up?
To put it simply, things have changed. I have to give credit where credit is due, and the fan experience team has stepped up their game big time. With the unveiling of the new Fan Zone, the younger kids, especially the ones taking in a game for the first time, aren’t just left with an idea of what happened on the ice; they are also left with the memories created right outside of section 118, where the new additions are located. The Fan Zone has interactive mini-games that include everything from the newest edition of EA Sports NHL to synthetic ice where you can shoot a puck at a digital goalie, plus tons of interactive activities.
If they had introduced something like this a decade ago, it wouldn’t have been a fight that got me interested in hockey; it would have been one of these game-changing additions.
COLUMBUS, OHIO – Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers skates with the puck as Johnny Gaudreau of the Columbus Blue Jackets defends during the second period of a game at Nationwide Arena on February 25, 2023, in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Ben Jackson/NHLI via Getty Images)
Last year, the Jackets hosted their annual Kids Takeover Day against the Edmonton Oilers. What better way is there to introduce someone to hockey than to put them in the presence of arguably the most entertaining player in hockey?
The game couldn’t have gone any better. The Jackets squeaked out a 6-5 win, and Connor McDavid scored two dazzling goals for the Oilers that were admirable, even for a diehard Jackets fan. The music was loud, and everyone was out of their seats dancing and having a good time.
Kids left happy, and searched for McDavid highlights the moment they got home.
This summer will go down in the history books with the debut of the Cap City Summer League.
Founded by locals in the Columbus hockey community, these guys have had truly unbelievable success in their mission to grow the game for families free of charge. Complete with access to meet players like Patrik Laine, Zach Werenski, Cam Atkinson, and Boone Jenner (just to name a few), games are free of charge.
Chiller North has been filled to the brim with fans of all ages excited to watch professional-level hockey every single Tuesday afternoon.
“This whole rumor about Ohio not being a hockey hub is going to change pretty quickly,” said Columbus Blue Jackets forward Cole Sillinger.
Ayo and Desmond during intermission. Credit: Dani Smith
Ayo Adeniye chats with Desmond Garrett during the first intermission of a Cap City Elite League game on August 8th, 2023. (Photo credit- Dani Smith)
Desmond Garrett (@3yearoldskater on Instagram) and his dad Adam attended their first Cap City game on August 8th. Garrett was reunited with Ayo Adeniye, a senior at Adrian College, who was participating in the games.
Adeniye has played quite a role in Desmond’s hockey career. They met through the Columbus Ice Hockey Club. This initiative focuses on fostering diversity and inclusivity within the sport of ice hockey, particularly in communities that have been underrepresented or underserved.
“It is really great for Desmond to see someone who looks like him who is excelling at a high level”, Adam Garrett said. “After the games, we were able to play an inline game with Ayo… He has been such a great ambassador and great friend to Desmond”.
The CIHC engages with local neighborhoods, schools, and community centers to introduce ice hockey to individuals who might not otherwise have the chance to participate. Along with the rest of the youth hockey organizations in Columbus, the CIHC has played an integral part in the growth of the game.
Yamo Media would like to express our deepest gratitude to the extraordinary people that have made hockey so popular in Columbus.
-Ian Phillips for Yamo Media