A brighter future for the Blue Jackets is just beginning to unfold in Columbus. (Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)
By Stu Hackel
Click on the Blue Jackets website and you'll see John Davidson on the start page, the design of which looks strikingly like a campaign ad.
Is JD running for office? Senator Davidson? President Davidson?
Well, Ohio is a battleground state in next month's general election, with the parties spending an inordinate amount of resources to win its 18 electoral votes, so maybe the Blue Jackets' image consultants (or web designer) believes that the political motif is the best, most familiar way to get through to the team's fan base.
Or maybe this team has launched a campaign of its own, one to win its fans back. If so, it could have no better standard bearer.
John Davidson is a throwback, a hockey executive who is also a hockey guy and a people person. He's just what the Blue Jackets need as the face of this embattled franchise that has been mismanaged from the outset, adrift for too long, prone to mistakes of judgement and alienating its fans.
No one can be surprised that once Davidson's status as ex-President of the Blues (which we discussed here) was finalized earlier this month, someone else would come calling. The Blue Jackets are the worst team in hockey and that's what the Blues were when JD took over in St. Louis in 2006. The Jackets need someone to direct the efforts of their hockey department and repair their image. JD has done such things before and that's often the first and best qualification for any job.
Once upon a time long ago, before strikes and lockouts became the norm, the NHL had a lot of folks like John Davidson in key positions working for teams and in the league offices. In the parlance of the game, they were "classy" men and women, and if you worked in hockey, you aspired to be one of them. The culture of the game rested on the understanding that hockey was not the biggest pro sport, but it would be the best. Not only would it offer the best entertainment, but its players would be the most cooperative, the team personnel would be the most helpful, and the game's executives would be the friendliest in the industry. Everyone was in it together. Today, these seem like quaint, naive notions befitting a mom and pop operation, which in some ways the NHL was, and certainly how many outsiders viewed the sport.
If you know the history of the last 25 years or so, you know what happened. There was too much money involved and money changes everything. Eventually, lawyers and business people supplanted many of the hockey folks, and their values were different. It also mattered greatly that the cozy relationship the owners had long enjoyed with the leadership of the players union -- at the expense of the players -- ended. So things changed, and not always for the better.
Still, a few people-oriented figures remained on the scene and John Davidson was one of them. He's one of the best, an honest man with an abundance of integrity, qualities that are in short supply among hockey's leaders. "You can’t blow smoke and fake your way through this,” he said of the Blue Jackets needing a rebuild. It's refreshing to hear that, especially now when blowing smoke and fakery seem to be all hockey has to offer.
That's why when he introduced Davidson to Columbus yesterday, John P. McConnell, the Blue Jackets' majority owner, spoke of how he was initially impressed by the kind of person that JD is.
"I first spent some time with John a few months back," McConnell said, "and I bet each of you are going to have a similar experience as you get to know him better. In the first 10 or 15 minutes, it was like 'Wow, I really like this guy.' Two hours went by and he was leaving for the airport and I was absolutely certain this is a person I want to spend more time with both personally and professionally."
On the personal side, JD will be the guy out front, the face Columbus will see delivering whatever messages need to be delivered about their hockey club's progress. He'll use his plainspoken, engaging manner, his warm and assured voice, and his considerable sense of humor.
Professionally, Davidson has a plan to put the team on the path upward, one that is not overly elaborate, but one he's used before, one that any rebuilding organization would be wise to follow.
"The only way you're going to build a good club," he told Blue Jackets broadcaster Jeff Rimmer, "is one brick at a time. So we're going to sit down and have a a lot discussions about what bricks we have here, what bricks we need and how we're going to do that, building it one brick at a time and we're not going to deviate from that plan. I'm just telling you right now, we're not."
"I know how many points this team had last year," JD continued, sounding more and more like he's running for office. "I know how many points it takes to get into the playoffs and I know what it takes to get from this point to that point. And it's aggressive patience, if that makes sense. You want to be aggressive as an organization in the way you play. You want to be aggressive in doing your research. You want to be aggressive in working with players to get them in better shape, whether they're here or in the minors. You want to be aggressive but you also want to be patient with your plan. And that's the way we're going."
That might sound very much like a politician: lots of great concepts, but short on specifics. Davidson had yet to have his first meeting with his hockey operations department. He knows what he wants, however. “As a team on the ice, we will never be outworked,” he said. “For the coaching staff, that’s a mandate. They know. That’s how you get somewhere. I remember the early days of this franchise coming in (when I was) with New York (as a Rangers broadcaster). I remember the playoff series with Detroit in 2009. The support here has been outstanding, and we’ll get it going here again.”
It's not going to be easy. The exasperated fans in Columbus look at the team's recent past and don't see much hope. The promise of a new start a year ago with Jeff Carter and James Wisniewski coming in fizzled and the underachieving Carter was eventually traded to Los Angeles where he helped the Kings win the Stanley Cup. The Jackets also jettisoned one of the game's very best bench bosses in Ken Hitchcock, last season's NHL Coach of the Year -- who Davidson snapped up to lead the Blues to their long-awaited leap to elite status among the league's clubs. In August, the Jackets traded their marquee star, Rick Nash, and now have to replace his offense and leadership. They don't have a proven consistent NHL goaltender -- and you know J.D., ex-goalie that he is, will be examining that situation closely.
They have three first round choices next June, but a history of bungling their drafts. Columbus has often rushed talented players into the NHL before they were ready for that step in an attempt to please the fans, who the club has always asked to be patient and who finally lost their patience last season.
Now one of the game's best communicators will be asking them for it again.
“The fans are going to see the players grow, and they’re going to grow with them,” Davidson said. “I’m not going to put a number on it; it’s going to take time. But we’re going to get there. And it’s going to be a really good hockey club as we march along."
I'd vote for him.
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