Sunday, July 31, 2016

Part XII: The Dark Blue Jacket's Definitive History of the CBJ, the All-Star Game

Nationwide Arena Looking Good at the All-Star Game
Nestled among the angst of an injury plagued 2014-15 NHL Campaign and a disastrously under-performing 2015-16 season, the Columbus Blue Jackets were a bright star for the NHL over a long weekend in January of 2015 when they hosted the NHL All-Star Game.  During that time Columbus gave the rest of the NHL a glimpse of the potential of the market.  Ironically, there were ripples put in motion that weekend that are still rocking the CBJ lifeboat today, a year and a half later. 

The game itself was a bit of a snoozer, in the third year of the pick-up game format that had the Captains picking their team for the game.  Alex Ovechkin campaigned loud for the last selection, and the car that went with it, as he intended to donate it to a charity.  As one might expect, Honda came through anyway to take care of the charity, so props to the sponsor for being supportive.  They needed to, because no one is dumb enough to pick Ovechkin last in a pick up game, I don't care who you are.  And give the NHL props for recognizing a snoozer when they see one, and changing up the format to a 3 on 3 tournament for the next All-Star Game in Nashville. 

Johansen at Skills Competition
However, the overwhelming theme for the weekend was that it was a really good time, and Columbus showed itself off really well.  The snow slide and the outdoor skating rink were embraced by the citizens of Columbus to such an extent that the outdoor rink returned to McPherson Commons last winter as well, much to the detriment of Coach John Tortorella's ribs, as he was taken out by a sprawling Rene Bourque. 

Given the injury riddled state of the Blue Jackets squad, and their poor record in late 2014, I was concerned that we wouldn't have anyone that the NHL would dare to name to the All-Star squad.  But Ryan Johansen, Nick Foligno and Sergei Bobrovsky were given the homer nod.  In a case of super scary foreshadowing, Bobrovsky got hurt immediately prior to the game and was unable to participate.  And Brian Elliot will always get a soft spot in my heart for climbing off his plane in the Caribbean, and turning around an coming back to Columbus to fill the spot.  I hope things go well for him in his new gig in Calgary.

The Flying-Vee Gets Underway
As things turned out, both Ryan Johansen and Nick Foligno were great ambassadors for our city and hockey club, yet the seeds were planted for future strife during this celebration.  Blue Jackets management was greatly impressed by how Foligno handled himself at this game, and cemented an inclination to make him their new Captain the following summer. Ryan Johansen was the star of the celebration for the home team, especially in the skills competition by wearing an OSU jersey celebrating Braxton Miller, and instigating a 'flying-vee' of movie fame.

Following an acrimonious contract negotiation with the club, the All-Star performance seemed a good result for Johansen, and he went on to have a very good year with the CBJ.  In hindsight we can see that this was the high water mark for Johansen with the organization, and before another year had passed he would be gone in a trade for an elite defenseman, Seth Jones.  In my opinion, the organization's resolve to name a Captain, Foligno, deepened the rift between the organization and Johansen.  During the exit interviews from the injury derailed 2014-15 season, several of the veterans, led by Foligno, called for a Captain to be named, while Johansen emphatically declaimed that there was no need for a Captain, and everything was just fine.  I believe this was the beginning of the end between the CBJ and Johansen.  In the clarity of hindsight it is easy to see that the disastrous start to the 2015-16 season, where Johansen was clearly not ready to perform, just cemented the rift.

And as we sit here, even today, the CBJ are negotiation with a center, Sam Gagner, in attempting to fill the void created by the trading of Johansen.  I know it is a long time since this game happened, and I likely should have tried to write this piece last summer, but it is easier to appreciate the impact of that weekend from this, more distant, perspective.

For a weekend, Columbus was a shining spot in the NHL, and the quality of the event was widely admired.  Yet the choices that flowed from that weekend have altered the course of the Columbus Blue Jackets, for better or worse.  As we sit hopefully anticipating the 2016-17 season, we anticipate that a young mobile defensive corps built around draft picks (Murray, Werenski, Goloubef) and the Johansen trade (Seth Jones) will take the ice.  This group will be much different from the defense that started the 2015-16 campaign in such record setting fashion (ugh!).  And in 2016-17, Bourque will be spelled Bjork, as Oliver Bjorkstrand should join the NHL club this year, with his game winning goal in the Calder Cup Championship in tow.

The 'let's see what these guys can do when they are healthy' approach for 2015-16 survived the preseason.  The record setting 'not so good' message was received prior to Halloween, and the team that takes the ice in 2016-17 should be quite different.  That should be entertaining.

The All-Star weekend was a really amazing, fun event, and we showcased our City and Team at that event.  But the flow of the history of the game has left that bright spot behind, and now we look to the future with hopeful eyes.  It should be interesting to see what it brings.


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