Just over six years ago, on January 28, 2012, approximately 300 Blue Jackets fans braved bitter cold to hold a protest as a Blue Jackets season that held great promise spiraled into chaos. Earlier in the month, the team had fired Head Coach Scott Arniel ending a tenure that was probably most notable for Arniel’s infamous quip after a question from Lori Schmidt in a press conference (“so just keep piling on”). Days later it would come out that the team’s superstar and captain, Rick Nash, had demanded a trade.
The preceding offseason looked good on paper. A team that had only made the playoffs once seemed to have finally acquired the center it had needed for so long when an offseason trade landed them Jeff Carter. They had also attempted to address their problems on defense by adding free agent James Wisniewski. The Nikita Filatov era ended as the former first round pick was shipped to Ottawa for the Sens’ third round pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.
However, there was also a conspicuous failure to address concerns about the goaltending situation. Mark Dekanich was signed to backup Steve Mason with Curtis Sanford, out of the NHL for two years at that point, signed as the primary goaltender for the AHL affiliate in Springfield. Sadly, Dekanich would never see a game with the Jackets due to injury.
Things quickly went off the rails and never recovered. Wisniewski would be suspended as a “repeat offender” for a preseason incident with Cal Clutterbuck in a preseason game that meant he didn’t start his first game for the Jackets until Game 9 of the season, which was, coincidentally, the team’s first win of the season. Carter would get injured and be out for 10 games. Steve Mason struggled. Management, desperate to turn things around, made trades for Mark Letestu and Nikita Nikitin. Rumors started to surface that, grasping at straws, the Jackets might bring back Ken Hitchcock as head coach. Fortunately for Hitchcock, he instead took a job with St. Louis. Ownership seemed to be questioning management when they brought in former Pens GM, Craig Patrick as a “special advisor.”
Just six months after they enacted one plan to right the ship, they were about to enact a new plan—blow it all up. And, to that point, it looked like they would let the architects of the prior failed plan—GM Scott Howson and President Mike Priest—carry out the new plan.
With the All-Star Break approaching, on January 23, 2012, the Jackets played a seemingly meaningless game against the Predators in Nashville and got shellacked, 4-1. In many ways, it was a typical Blue Jackets loss for that era. The Preds always seemed to have the Jackets’ number. Mike Fisher had two goals in the game, bringing his total goals that season against the Jackets to six. Over half of his goals to that point in the season were against Columbus, to which he responded after the game: “It’s kind of a funny stat. I know I’ve got to make sure I keep going and see if I can score against some other teams.” The Jackets were 13-29-6 after that game. One loss shouldn’t have been any different than the 28 that preceded it.
But the fact that the loss was so typical, so ordinary, was probably what set me off. It was a Monday night. With the All-Star Break coming up, the team wouldn’t be in town on Saturday, but, as luck would have it, I would. I had moved to the West Coast, but I was back visiting family. That night I was in Northeast Ohio when I went on HFBoards and posted that we needed to have a fan protest to make it known that casual losses and being dead last in the league weren’t acceptable for a team that had been in the league as long as the Jackets had. I didn’t really expect much to come out of it, but it struck a nerve and soon it was like a snowball rolling downhill.
I was driving south to Columbus the next afternoon when a fellow HFBoards member called me on my cellphone. One of the local radio stations wanted to talk to the “organizers.” To this point, no one was really organizing anything. Suddenly there was a level of expectation. Suddenly we had to think about things like permits, PA equipment, some sort of riser for speakers, a podium, speeches, etc., on a Tuesday afternoon, for something that was now, apparently, really going to take place on Saturday morning. In the next 48 hours, somehow a core group of six of us came together to coordinate these things.
I had never met any of these guys in person before. One of them was a guy I had sparred with over the years on HFBoards. One was a musician and Day 1 season ticket holder. One was a fan who traveled up to games from Kentucky. One was an Iraq war vet and another was a father who brought his kids to games. Other people volunteered to help in various ways including lending us PA equipment, picking things up where we couldn’t, etc. It was the first experience I really had of how quickly you could organize something with social media and with crowd-sourcing. The protest would have never happened without the contributions of a number of people, and I cannot thank them enough.
Meanwhile, people debated the protest online, particularly at HFBoards. Some thought it was a joke or an embarrassment. When national hockey media started to cover it, I think some started to fear that this would make the Jackets and, by extension, Columbus, a punchline.
The Jackets, for their part, were concerned about how this would play and, allegedly, hired a PR firm out of Chicago to address the situation. On the eve of the protest, owner John P. McConnell wrote a letter to the fans and via the press let protesters know that they would be welcomed with a cup of hot coffee on what was expected to be a blustery day as a way of the organization showing its appreciation to the fans. A nice gesture by McConnell which pretty much wrote my speech for me since I had a 2/3 replica Stanley Cup at my disposal. (“You offered us a cup of coffee, but that’s not the Cup we want!”)
The night before the core group of six of us and my always patient wife met up at a bar in the Arena District to make our final arrangements as to order of speakers and what we wanted to cover. Who happened to walk into the same bar? John P. McConnell’s son! You really can’t make this stuff up. We finalized our plans in hushed tones about 10 feet away from him.
The next morning, the rumors about the Jackets being awarded an All-Star Game were everywhere. I showed up at Nationwide at least an hour before the start time for our protest. The Arena District was dead quiet. It was bitterly cold. I wasn’t sure if, after all of this, anyone would actually show up. It didn’t look good 15 minutes before start time. Then, suddenly, people started spilling out of the various bars and restaurants in the Arena District. Probably 10-20 people at first. With minutes to go before the start time the courtyard was nearly filled. With only a few days’ notice, approximately 250-300 people had showed up on a cold day. They showed up with signs supporting the team, but questioning management.
As we kicked things off with Bush’s “Machinehead,” the Jumbotron across the street carried the news that the Blue Jackets had been awarded an All-Star Game. It was a bittersweet moment given the state of the team, but it was the first sign that maybe things would get better. Over the next year, Rick Nash would be traded to the Rangers in a blockbuster deal, Mike Priest would be “promoted” and replaced by John Davidson, Scott Howson would be fired, and current GM Jarmo Kekalainen would be hired to replace him. I don’t know if we influenced any of those decisions, but I’m glad the decisions were made.
In the aftermath, a lot of people who had been skeptical about the protest felt that it was well done and that it wasn’t the embarrassment they feared it would be. At All-Star Weekend, Gary Bettman was forced to address the protest, doing so in the way you’d expect Gary Bettman to respond to such a question:
“I saw that somebody was trying to organize a pep rally. But that’s a good sign. It’s kind of like when you get booed when you go out on the ice, it’s better than when it’s quiet. I know about that firsthand.”
It was interesting to see the Browns Perfect Season Parade last month. I heard a lot of the same things I remember hearing when we were planning the protest about whether it should be done, whether it would be an embarrassment. You had another element that we didn’t have—players taking to social media to voice their anger over the parade. In the end, Chris McNeil and the organizers deserve a lot of credit. They raised over $15,000 for a good cause–wish we would have had the time and forethought to do this. McNeil and his fellow organizers should be very proud in what they did, bringing out over 3,000 fans on another cold Ohio day. Hopefully the Browns ownership and management takes the frustration of their fans to heart. Bettman was right: having 3,000 fans show up to voice their anger beats having 30,000 empty seats in your stadium.
That is the challenge for fans of dysfunctional sports franchises. Some would propose boycotts as a way motivate teams, but boycotts can backfire. Sometimes a boycott isn’t an option. Witness the situation with the Columbus Crew where, once again, a dedicated fan base is speaking up. In the case of the Crew, the issue isn’t as much the team’s performance as it is ownership’s desire to move the team and mischaracterize the fan base in the process. Columbus was the first team to have a soccer-specific stadium, but the old house is starting to show its age. Instead of sitting down in good faith with officials of the City of Columbus, team owner, Anthony Precourt, is more focused on moving the team to Austin and is doing everything he can to paint a picture of a franchise that no longer has local support from fans or businesses. While John P. McConnell did all he could to show that he heard the fans concerns, Anthony Precourt is content to thumb his nose at Crew supporters, area businesses and local government officials.
Morgan Hughes and others behind the #SaveTheCrew effort have done a brilliant job of attempting to disprove Precourt’s anti-Columbus narrative by getting support not just from fans, but from businesses in Columbus. They’ve put up billboards and have developed a “community kit” complete with a corporate sponsor. We still don’t know how the story will end with the Crew, but I applaud the creative efforts of all of those behind #SaveTheCrew and I hope it shows other fans of troubled franchises in other cities that they don’t have to be hopeless, that they can attempt to do something about it instead of just accepting the loss of their franchise. Show them some support in their efforts even if it is a little thing like sending them a few bucks.
I don’t know what the future will hold for fan advocacy, but I think fans are better off speaking up than being silent. For years, fans of teams were the one group without a voice. Fans have been used as pawns in disputes between players and owners over labor matters and in disputes between owners and government officials over financing matters. At the end of the day, the fans are a team’s consumer base and they shouldn’t be silent about an investment of hundreds or thousands of dollars any more than they would be silent if they went to a restaurant and were given the wrong food, much less if they got the wrong food every time they went to that same restaurant. Remember the words of Gary Bettman—it is better for owners to hear your “boos” than silence. Sometimes that means you need to hold a “pep rally.”