Sunday, October 08, 2000

NHL opens in style in Columbus

        COLUMBUS — Three hours before the first faceoff of the first game of their first season, the Columbus Blue Jackets showed up for work like so many movie stars.

        They emerged from chauffeured cars outside Nationwide Arena, where a man with a tuxedo and a microphone attached names to their unfamiliar faces. The players shuffled self-consciously along a red-carpeted rope line, pressing flesh, feeling foolish, failing to fully grasp their significance to the spectators.

        “When I moved out here from Long Island, hockey was about the only thing I missed other than pizza and bagels,” Dave Connelly said Saturday evening. “I've been waiting for this for a long time.”

        When the 27-year-old teacher bought his souvenir Blue Jackets jersey, he had it personalized not with his own name or that of a favorite player, but with a one-word exclamation: “FINALLY.” Like a lot of citizens in the state capital, Connelly has yearned for Columbus to be certified “Major League.”

        Now, there's no turning back. How are you going to keep them down on the farm after they've seen Calgary?

        Saturday's regular-season opener was staged before a sellout crowd of 18,136, and once inside the dazzling arena the fans lined up outside the gift shop as if awaiting an audience with Woody Hayes. Columbus may be home to Ohio State and Jack Nicklaus' Memorial Tournament, but it still hungers for a higher profile. It has embraced expansion hockey as if it were Yasmine Bleeth.

        Before the home team blew a 3-0 lead en route to a 5-3 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, the fans accorded team owner John McConnell a spontaneous standing ovation. (Imagine that, Bengals fans.) They cheered National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman. (Imagine that, Reds fans.) They cheered the corporate sponsors. They cheered the fellow who fielded the first over-the-boards puck.

        Heaven knows what would happen if the Blue Jackets ever win a Stanley Cup.

        (A word of explanation: The name Blue Jackets derives from Columbus' role in the Civil War uniform industry. Yeah, it's a reach. But the sweaters are pretty sharp.)

        Hockey has some history here. The late Columbus Chill set a minor-league record by selling out 83 consecutive games at the 5700-seat Fairgrounds Coliseum. But that core constituency has more than doubled despite the NHL's vertigo-inducing ticket prices.

        The Blue Jackets have sold close to 13,000 season tickets -- including every seat in the four sections priced $80-per-game and above. Not all of these tickets belong to corporations. Newlywed Mike Demeter, a transplant from Lakota, has bought season tickets with some buddies and is trying to figure out how many games his bride gets to see.

        Many of those who attended Saturday's game had never seen professional hockey. As a pre-game precaution, the arena message board made the point that spectators should “remain in your seat while the puck is in play.” Wonder if they do that in Montreal?

        Still, the locals seemed to respond appropriately when Bruce Gardiner scored the Blue Jackets' first goal. They also appeared to appreciate the subtle nuances of hockey hooliganism. With an expansion team, fights are part mayhem, part marketing.

        “They know we worked hard tonight,” said Blue Jackets goalie Ron Tugnutt. “We were up 3-0 and we kind of got our feet pulled out from under us.”

        For now, the score is secondary. Columbus is content just having a team.



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