John Tavares and Patrice Bergeron both had hat tricks in the last week, so Nick and Connor discuss hat trick ethics and more, since celebrations are hot topics these days. Also, everything else that happened in the first week of regular season action.
52-20-10, 114 points, 2nd in the Central Division
Lost in Western Conference Final to VGK, 4-1
Subtractions: F Joel Armia (traded to MTL), F Chase De Leo (traded to ANA), D Toby Enstrom (signed, SHL), F Matt Hendricks (signed with MIN), G Michael Hutchinson (signed with FLA), D Jan Kostalek (signed, ELH), G Steve Mason (traded to MTL, subsequently bought-out, current UFA), D Julian Melchiori (signed with FLA), G Jamie Phillips (signed with Charlotte Checkers, AHL), F Buddy Robinson (signed with CGY), F Michael Sgarbossa (signed with WSH), F Paul Stastny (signed with VGK)
Still Unsigned: F Jimmy Lodge, F Shawn Matthias
Re-signed: G Eric Comrie, F Marko Dano, G Connor Hellebuyck,F Nicolas Kerdiles (acquired from ANA and re-signed), F JC Lipon, F Adam Lowry, D Josh Morrissey, F Nic Petan, D Tucker Poolman, D Cameron Schilling, F Brandon Tanev, D Jacob Trouba
Offseason Analysis: For a city with the word “win” in its name, the Winnipeg Jets sure did a lot of winning last season. Paul Maurice coached his club to a 52-20-10 record– good enough for first place in a normal year, but the Nashville Predators were just three points better in the Central Division. Winnipeg finished second in the Central with 114 points.
They won their first playoff series in franchise history, eliminating the Minnesota Wild in five games in the First Round, then upset the Predators in a Game 7 on the road in the Second Round.
The Jets didn’t just set franchise records, they established the bar for future benchmarks of success (minus a Cup), but while Winnipeg soared into the Western Conference Final, they were in for a crash landing in five games against the Vegas Golden Knights despite having home-ice advantage.
Three wins. Just three wins shy of their first Stanley Cup Final appearance for both renditions of the Jets.
Connor Hellebuyck emerged as a legitimate starting goaltender and General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff made sure to lock him up by re-signing the 25-year-old goaltender to a six-year extension worth $6.167 million per season.
Hellebucyk’s deal is a manageable cap hit and carries him through his mid-prime, leaving Cheveldayoff’s options open for more in the future, let alone vitally important cap space in the now as there’s kind of a big deal in Winnipeg this season.
Patrik Laine‘s entering the final year of his entry-level contract. Based on his abilities alone, he’ll see upwards of $9.000 million per season. Based on his comparison in play to Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel and more– he could be seeing John Tavares money (in the $11.000 million AAV ballpark).
Oh yeah, Matthews is a pending-RFA in July 2019 too.
Laine’s play was elevated in the postseason by offseason departure, Paul Stastny, after Stastny was acquired by the Jets at the trade deadline. Winnipeg wanted to retain his services, but Stastny chose the Golden Knights over a return to Manitoba.
Despite losing a quintessential playmaker in the short run, the Jets gained an edge on cap space in the long run. Cap space that will come in handy for Laine and other pending-RFAs including Kyle Connor, Marko Dano, Jacob Trouba and trade deadline depth pickup turned playoff scoring bottom-pair defender, Joe Morrow.
Trouba went through arbitration this offseason as the ongoing saga continues with his future in Winnipeg– whereas the last couple of seasons it appeared he was on his way out in a transaction, the Jets and the 24-year-old defender have mulled things over on a mutual relationship.
It’s just taking one little step at a time, as the defender was awarded a one-year, $5.500 million extension this summer.
Backing up Hellebuyck this season is Laurent Brossoit, who’s coming off of a career-worst (min. 10 games played) 3.24 goals against average and .883 save percentage in 14 games with the Edmonton Oilers last season.
While Brossoit was with the Oilers (of all teams), that doesn’t scream breakout season by a backup goaltender. In fact, it’s on par with Michael Hutchinson’s 3.26 GAA and .907 SV% in three games with Winnipeg last season and Steve Mason’s 3.24 GAA and .906 SV% in 13 games with the Jets.
Unless Brossoit taps into the once-touted potential he had in his WHL days of Junior hockey, Cheveldayoff’s made a lateral move behind Hellebuyck on the depth chart and lends Maurice to over-rely on his starter to compensate for goaltending struggles.
That’s where things can get ugly.
Otherwise, the Jets should be just fine in 2018-19.
Offseason Grade: C
The Jets introduced an alternate sweater for the first time in Manitoba since the franchise relocated from Atlanta in May 2011. It’s not the low-point of the offseason, however, it will take off a few grade points for such a bland script font as its crest.
Otherwise, Winnipeg’s offseason was par for the course for a roster that has the potential to go just as far– if not further– this season as they did last season. However, next summer is where things could get muddy.
29-40-13, 71 points, 6th in the Atlantic Division
Additions: F Kenny Agostino, F Joel Armia (acquired from WPG), F Michael Chaput, F Max Domi (acquired from ARI), D Xavier Ouellet, F Matthew Peca, F Tomas Plekanec, F Hunter Shinkaruk (acquired from CGY)
Subtractions: D Simon Bourque (traded to WPG), F Daniel Carr (signed with VGK), F Adam Cracknell (signed with TOR), F Markus Eisenschmid (signed, DEL), G Zach Fucale (signed with VGK), F Alex Galchenyuk (traded to ARI), F Jeremy Gregoire (signed with Milwaukee Admirals, AHL), G Steve Mason (acquired from WPG, buyout), F Joonas Nattinen (signed, KHL), D Tom Parisi (signed, Great Britain), F Kerby Rychel (traded to CGY), F Chris Terry (signed with DET)
Re-signed: F Phillip Danault, F Jacob de la Rose
Offseason Analysis: They didn’t get Jeff Skinner, so now what?
The Montreal Canadiens 2018-19 regular season campaign can’t be much worse than 2017-18. While the Buffalo Sabres are sure to climb out of eighth in the Atlantic Division, at least the Ottawa Senators will more than likely be the foundation of the division standings come April.
Claude Julien‘s Canadiens had the third worst goal differential (a minus-55) in the league last season and with uncertainty surrounding Max Pacioretty‘s future in Montreal, well, that’s about to get worse. No amount of a healthy Carey Price can save the Canadiens porous defense, especially with star defender Shea Weber sidelined due to injury for at least a couple months.
General Manager Marc Bergevin made a little splash in the trade market this offseason, sending Alex Galchenyuk to the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for Max Domi. While Domi brings grit to the Canadiens lineup, so does Andrew Shaw— just without the scoring power.
Wait, Galchenyuk had six more points (19-32–51 totals in 82 GP for MTL) than Domi (9-36–45 in 82 GP for ARI) last season? And that was a “bad” year?
Domi emerged onto the NHL spotlight with an 18-goal season in 2015-16 (81 GP). Injuries limited the young forward to just 59 games in 2016-17, a season in which he amassed 9-29–38 totals. In 23 more games from 2016-17 to 2017-18, Domi had seven more points.
Meanwhile, Galchenyuk has reached the 40-point plateau for the last four seasons– including two 50-plus point seasons.
Bergevin is gambling on Domi to return to form– and then some– but the question remains ever present– how long can these Bergevin gambles go on in Canada’s most prestigious club de hockey?
Joel Armia, Matthew Peca and Xavier Ouellet are sneaky pickups by the Habs that may lead to improved depth, depth and a make-or-break season (for whatever reason), respectively.
The ceremonious return of Tomas Plekanec to the franchise may at least bring back something right to the universe– a Plekanec goatee and turtleneck combo, unlike his short tenure with the Toronto Maple Leafs in which Lou Lamoriello’s oppressive regime on facial hair wrought havoc on the hockey universe.
In all seriousness, though, Julien’s time in Montreal may be limited if the front office is looking for someone else to blame other than themselves for their colossal collapse the last few seasons. No amount of Jesperi Kotkaniemi (another gamble at 3rd overall in this year’s Draft) can make up for the inevitable– another long season for Habs fans.
Offseason Grade: D
Like the Ottawa Senators and Erik Karlsson, Montreal really should be receiving an “incomplete” grade until the Max Pacioretty situation is resolved. However, unlike the Sens, the Habs at least added some marginal talent in Max Domi this offseason (albeit at the expense of Alex Galchenyuk) compared to Ottawa’s… well, let’s not compare those two clubs by themselves, shall we?
The Canadiens are like that guy in your class that has a 65 and is technically still passing the class. You know the school year won’t be great for that guy and you also know things could be worse, but they just can’t no matter how hard he tries (or doesn’t try?) because someone is always doing a little bit worse.
Claude Julien is still a good coach, sure, but his system is becoming outdated for the contemporary game. Also, his last Cup win came outside of my “great coach” status (basically, you’re only a “great coach” if you’ve won a Cup within the last five seasons– you’re at the top of the game among the rest– until you retire, then you can lean back on your trophy case all you want to stack up), but that’s a hill worth dying on another day.
Our offseason previews for all 31 National Hockey League teams continues with the Winnipeg Jets and their outlook for the summer.
The Winnipeg Jets soared high in 2017-18, amassing 114 points on the season with a–franchise best– 52-20-10 record to finish 2nd in the Central Division and 2nd in the Western Conference (both in the regular season and postseason, by virtue of having been eliminated by the Vegas Golden Knights in the Western Conference Final).
General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff went all-in on a potential Stanley Cup run at the trade deadline, acquiring Paul Stastny from the St. Louis Blues in exchange for Winnipeg’s 2018 first round pick and prospect, Erik Foley.
Blake Wheeler, Patrik Laine and Dustin Byfuglien were great at their positions as always, while Connor Hellebuyck backstopped the team to glory. Meanwhile, Kyle Connor had one of the quietest sensational rookie seasons in recent memory, scoring 31 goals and 26 assists (57 points) in 76 games played.
Things are only looking up for the Jets despite their Western Conference Final defeat in five games to the expansion Golden Knights.
Both Winnipeg and Vegas were dominant teams in the West and if one of them hadn’t made the Stanley Cup Final, the Nashville Predators probably would have, but the Jets defeated the Preds in seven games in the Second Round after easily finishing off the Minnesota Wild in five games in the First Round.
Paul Maurice got to the Conference Finals for the first time since 2002 as a member of the Carolina Hurricanes head coach, while the Jets made the third round for the first time in franchise history dating back to their days as the Atlanta Thrashers (R.I.P.).
2018 NHL Entry Draft
Winnipeg doesn’t have a selection in the first round currently, thanks to Cheveldayoff’s deadline acquisition bargain hunting.
It’s not entirely clear if the Jets will take a stab at jumping into the first round, but at least they’ve got some pretty sweet third jerseys finally coming along seven years into their tenure at Bell MTS Place since relocating from Atlanta.
Nic Petan, as always, is on the trade bait list and could yield the club a first round pick as part of a return on a transaction.
Pending free agents
The Jets have almost $20.600 million to spend on free agents this summer with their captain, Blake Wheeler, ($5.600 million cap hit) and young superstar, Patrik Laine, ($925,000 cap hit– final year of his entry-level deal) entering contract years.
In other words, next summer is going to be expensive.
Matthias, 30, had one goal and two assists (three points) in 27 games, while Hendricks, 37, had 5-8–13 totals in 60 games this season. Neither of them have to be brought back for the Jets to remain a contender in the Central Division, but what Cheveldayoff does with Stastny could mean a world of a difference.
Stastny, 32, had clear chemistry with his teammates in Winnipeg from the moment he was on the ice with them, right through the postseason. He’s such a great playmaker and dependable on the faceoff dot that it only makes sense you’d let him be the one feeding Wheeler and Laine for as long as you can.
In 82 games with the Jets and Blues, Stastny had 16 goals and 37 assists (53 points). He then went on to have 6-9–15 totals in 17 postseason games. Re-sign him.
Winnipeg has a lot of cap space and a plethora of pending-RFAs to re-sign or let go.
Tanev, 26, is a solid bottom-six forward. Armia, 25, goes hand-in-hand with the rest of the glue guys. Meanwhile, Dano, 23, and Lowry, 25, have made a case for one to be preserved over the other (it’s Lowry, obviously).
On defense, Toby Enstrom, 33, already knows he’ll be hitting the waters of the open market as he has both price himself out of a Jets jersey and been bumped out of contention for ice-time with the likes of Byfuglien, Tyler Myers, Dmitry Kulikov and Ben Chiarot holding down the fort.
24-year-old Jacob Trouba’s bridge-deal is expiring and he’ll need a raise. Poolman, 25, emerged as a top-6 quality defender. Morrow, 25, was acquired at the deadline from the Montreal Canadiens and should return as a top-6 guy that came in clutch under Maurice’s instructions.
Morrow was never really utilized under Claude Julien in Montreal and Boston. Prior to that he was a journeyman from the Dallas Stars and Pittsburgh Penguins (where he was originally drafted). Winnipeg seems like it should be home for the 25-year-old blueliner.
Make of Morrissey what you will, but the 23-year-old defender had 26 points this season setting career highs in goals (7), assists (19) and points (26). He’ll be sticking around.
The real problem with Winnipeg is what they’re going to have to do with their goaltenders.
Starter, Connor Hellebuyck, is a pending-RFA. The 25-year-old solidified his status as a clear number one goaltender with a cut above the rest in the league, winning 44 games out of 67 appearances this season. He had a 2.36 goals against average and .924 save percentage.
Hellebuyck’s earned a raise, but the only problem is it leaves the Jets paying 30-year-old, Steve Mason, his $4.100 million cap hit in his final year of his two-year deal. In 13 games as a backup, he wasn’t great, amassing a 3.24 GAA and .906 SV%. Good luck trying to convince a team to take on his contract at full value.
Cheveldayoff will likely have to ship Mason out while retaining close to 50% of his remaining salary (the maximum allowed per the collective bargaining agreement).
28-year-old, Michael Hutchinson, in the meantime is a pending-UFA and regressed in 2017-18. Though he only played in three games, Hutchinson had a 3.26 GAA and .907 SV%.
For much less than Mason, Hutchinson could rebound back to a goals against average under 3.00, which is the least you expect from a backup– anything between 2.50 and 3.00 is right on target, anything better than 2.50 is godlike (for a backup) and anything over 3.00 is usually a poor investment in an easily overlooked position.
Sure, Eric Comrie is developing in the system, but wait, he’s a pending-RFA this summer too.
Winnipeg looks like they finally have this goaltending thing figured out, but Cheveldayoff cannot afford to mess any part of it up or else he risks long-term success, a la the Ondrej Pavelec saga from Atlanta to Winnipeg until Hellebuyck and Hutchinson overtook him.
Buyouts on the books: Mark Stuart at $583,333 through the end of 2018-19.
Other pending free agents throughout the organization include:
Buddy Robinson (UFA), Michael Sgarbossa (UFA), Chase De Leo (RFA), Jamie Phillips (RFA), Cameron Schilling (UFA), Jan Kostalek (RFA), James Lodge (RFA), Eric Comrie (RFA), Nic Petan (RFA), JC Lipon (RFA), Julian Melchiori (UFA)
Minnesota’s offense exploded in a four-goal second period and the Wild defeated the Winnipeg Jets, 6-2, on Sunday night at Xcel Energy Center.
Devan Dubnyk had 29 saves on 31 shots against for a .935 save percentage in the win, while Connor Hellebuyck stopped 16 shots out of 22 shots faced for a .727 SV% in 40:00 time on ice in the loss. Jets backup goaltender, Steve Mason, turned aside all seven shots he faced in the third period.
It didn’t take long for the action to get going in Game 3 as Minnesota defenseman, Matt Dumba, was sent to the penalty box just 43 seconds into the first period for slashing Jets captain, Blake Wheeler. Winnipeg had a couple great looks on the power play, but was unable to convert on their first power play opportunity of the night.
A few minutes later, Matt Cullen, was taking the skate of shame to the sin bin for slashing Winnipeg’s Adam Lowry, much to the dismay of the fans in the building who all disagreed with the call. Cullen himself was not pleased, but the refs set the standard for the night— nothing was going unnoticed.
Almost a minute into their second power play of the night, Wheeler (1) had the puck near the hash-mark to the left of Dubnyk and fired a wrist shot that deflected off of Wild blue liner, Jonas Brodin, and beat Dubnyk’s short side and gave the Jets a 1-0 lead on just his third career Stanley Cup Playoff goal.
Wheeler’s power play goal came at 4:50 of the first period and was assisted by Dustin Byfuglien (3) and Patrik Laine (2). With the assist, Laine now has points in each of his first three career postseason games in what was also the third consecutive game where Winnipeg scored first.
Jets defenseman, Ben Chiarot, delivered a cross check to Eric Staal and was assessed a minor penalty at 7:26. Shortly thereafter, after Hellebuyck had frozen the puck for a faceoff, already shorthanded, Adam Lowry roughed up Minnesota’s Jason Zucker.
Lowry was handed a minor penalty for roughing and the Wild went from a regular 5-on-4 power play to a two-man advantage with about 1:21 remaining on the first penalty. The Wild did not pass up on the 5-on-3 opportunity.
Mikael Granlund pinched in from the point on the power play to keep the play alive, sending the puck across the ice, where Mikko Koivu eventually ended up with it on his stick. Koivu quickly fired a shot, but Hellebuyck made the save, though the puck rebounded. That’s when Granlund (1) was able to pocket the loose puck in the twine as he was crashing the net to tie the game, 1-1.
The goal, Granlund’s first of the postseason, was assisted by Koivu (3) and Staal (1) at 9:47 of the first period.
Play settled down for a bit until Chiarot cross-checked Minnesota’s Charlie Coyle and was sent to the box with 2:59 remaining in the period. It only took 49 seconds on the power play for Zach Parise (3) to convert on the man advantage and give the Wild their first lead of the night, 2-1.
Koivu set up the play after quickly realizing where Parise was positioned, feigning a shot on net when in actually firing a hard pass towards the goal for Parise— who had his stick on the ice the whole time— to redirect past Hellebuyck. Koivu (4) and Jonas Brodin (2) picked up the assists on Parise’s goal.
In the closing minute of the period, Josh Morrissey centered the puck to Kyle Connor for a redirect on Dubnyk, but Dubnyk denied the Jets of any follow up chances, having absorbed the puck and covered it up.
Regardless, after the whistle, Dumba and Mark Scheifele got involved in a bit of an exchange that resulted in Dumba going to the box for roughing at 19:27.
After 20 minutes of play, the Minnesota Wild led 2-1 on the scoreboard and 13-7 in shots on goal. Minnesota also led in blocked shots (6-5), hits (9-7) and giveaways (4-2), meanwhile Winnipeg led in takeaways (2-0). The Jets were 1/3 on the power play in the first period and the Wild were 2/3 on the man advantage in the opening frame.
Nick Seeler opened up the second period at Xcel Energy Center by beating Hellebuyck and ringing the goalpost. Shortly thereafter, Minnesota scored anyway.
Joel Eriksson Ek set up in front of the goal after passing the puck to Daniel Winnik, who lobbed it over to Matt Dumba. Dumba (1) fired a shot past a screened Hellebuyck and into the net to give the Wild a 3-1 lead. The goal was Dumba’s first playoff goal since 2015 and Winnik (1) and Eriksson Ek (1) picked up the assists.
Eriksson Ek’s assist was his first career playoff point.
A few minutes later, Tyler Myers (2) and the Jets made it a close game after Myers found a loose puck with a clear path to the goal and sent a cannon of a slap shot over the right pad of Devan Dubnyk to make it a 3-2 game. Myers now has goals in back-to-back games, but would leave the game later in the second period with what appeared to be a lower body injury. He did not return.
After Myers’s goal, the Wild took a string of penalties, first for Parise tripping Wheeler at 7:23 and then for Coyle holding Winnipeg defenseman, Jacob Trouba at 10:24.
Winnipeg was not able to amount anything on the scoreboard on either power play and the Wild kept rolling along.
Staal (1) notched his first of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs at 14:40 of the second period when Granlund used the boards to snag the puck in the offensive zone, then send a spin-o-rama pass to Staal for a one-timer that beat Hellebuyck. Granlund (2) and Dumba (1) had the assists on the goal that made it 4-2, Minnesota.
Twenty seconds later, Boston University product and U.S. Olympian, Jordan Greenway (1) scored his first career Stanley Cup Playoff goal to make it 5-2, and the barrage of offense for the Wild continued. Matt Cullen (1) and Nick Seeler (1) had the assists on Greenway’s first NHL goal in both regular season and postseason play.
Marcus Foligno (1) kept the trend of first career postseason goals going as he scored a few minutes after Greenway made it 5-2. Foligno’s goal came at 18:23 of the second period and made it 6-2, Wild. Jared Spurgeon (1) and Seeler (2) had the assists as Minnesota completely dominated every action on the ice.
Through 40 minutes of play, the Wild led 6-2 on the scoreboard and 22-19 in shots on goal. Minnesota also led in blocked shots (15-5) and giveaways (6-4). Winnipeg led in hits (17-15) and takeaways (3-2) after two periods. The Jets were 1/5 on the power play and the Wild were 2/3 heading into the second intermission.
Winnipeg head coach, Paul Maurice, made a change in goal heading into the third period, replacing Connor Hellebuyck with Jets backup, Steve Mason, for the final frame of regulation.
There was no scoring, nor any penalties called in the third period and Bruce Boudreau’s Minnesota Wild played a conservative period, mixed with high caliber defense and some offensive chances.
Minnesota held on to a 6-2 win in Game 3, cutting Winnipeg’s series lead in half (2-1), and forcing at least a Game 5. The Jets outshot the Wild 31-29 after 60 minutes of play, but Minnesota led in blocked shots (20-8) and faceoff win percentage (52-48).
Winnipeg finished the game leading in hits 26-19 and finished the night 1/5 on the power play. The Wild finished the night 2/3 on the man advantage.
Game 4 is set for Tuesday night at Xcel Energy Center where the Wild will look to tie the series, 2-2. Puck drop is expected a little after 8:00 p.m. ET and viewers in the United States can tune in on CNBC, while Canadian fans can get their fill on Sportsnet and TVAS2.
Nick and Connor ponder whether or not Taylor Hall is a legitimate Hart Trophy candidate, which Western Conference team (NSH, WPG or VGK) will make the Stanley Cup Final and dive into the odds of the Florida Panthers making the playoffs and/or fielding a competitive team. Also, thoughts on the Detroit Red Wings and goaltender interference.
Nick and Connor recap the 2018 trade deadline, 2018 Winter Games and 2018 overall even though it’s only March. Marco Sturm is worthy of an NHL coaching job, but will anyone take the risk? Hint: They should. Also, more thoughts on the Erik Karlsson saga.
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.”
The Original Trio reunite for a very fun-filled podcast. The Carolina Hurricanes were sold, Jaromir Jagr is soon to be unsigned, All-Star Rosters were scrutinized, US and Canada men’s national teams were analyzed and more in this action packed episode. #HealthBeforeHockey