By Stu Hackel
As this unusually calamitous NHL season pauses for a few days, the bleary eyes of the hockey world will try to focus on the big All-Star Weekend party in Ottawa. But about 650 miles to the southwest, a much smaller hockey gathering on Saturday will be less jovial. In fact, it will be somewhat angry.
In front of Nationwide Arena in Columbus, perhaps a few hundred fans will gather to protest the state of the Blue Jackets, the league's worst team and a franchise that has never really achieved much of anything. They want team president Mike Priest and GM Scott Howson replaced -- things that owner John P. McConnell told Aaron Portzline of The Columbus Dispatch in Friday's edition he is not contemplating -- and they want a fresh start for a team that had only 13 wins in 49 games before the break. This stands to become the Blue Jackets' worst season yet.
Their numbers on Saturday may not be large, but the protesters have already had an impact. As noted on the fan blog Light the Lamp, they've gotten a fair amount of local media attention and even some nationally. Not bad for something that was hatched five days ago.
McConnell has certainly noticed. He sent all season ticket holders an email Friday morning (reproduced here on the fan blog Dark Blue Jacket) in which he acknowledges, "All of you are disappointed and many are angry. I and the entire Blue Jackets organization share these feelings....
"I understand you want to know what we're going to do to fix this, but it is important for us to maintain a degree of discretion to prevent putting ourselves at a competitive disadvantage. I can tell you action will be taken in the coming weeks and months, be it around the trade deadline, the entry draft and/or free agency that will be indicative of our direction."
There have been numerous reports that Jeff Carter -- one of the team's prized acquisitions in an offseason that saw its payroll jump to just shy of the $64.3 million salary cap -- is available for trade (not that it will be easy to move a slumping forward with 10 years left on a deal worth almost $5.3 million a year). It also seems the Jackets won't bring back struggling goalie Steve Mason. But player moves alone won't be enough to satisfy this group of protestors.
"Priest? Get him outta here!" they say on Facebook. "Howson? I'll drive him to the airport! Join us at Nationwide Arena on Saturday at 2 pm to make it clear how we feel about this organization."
Just like the contemporary protest movement worldwide, the Columbus folks are using social media to organize and spread their message. They've got a Facebook event invitation page and have communicated via Twitter (#CBJFANPROTEST).
On Facebook, the group lists over a 160 fans who say they will be in front of the Nationwide Arena, plus another 100 or so who say they might attend. That's hardly massive, but it's not insignificant. Teams in all sports have disgruntled fans who boo, chant and put bags over their heads during a game if they want a particular coach or manager removed. They generally grumble among themselves, or call phone-in shows and -- like 53-year-old Carl Bennett, an original Blue Jackets seat license and season ticket holder -- write letters to the local newspaper asking that it take a stronger stand against the organization's incompetence. But the action doesn't often go as far as this.
"We've had it!" the Facebook page says. "Eleven seasons of losing is enough! Let's make this perfectly clear to the franchise: they must clean house from top to bottom!"
The downturn in the economy hit Carl Bennett hard years ago and he admits to have given up a lot, but he's held on to two of his four Jackets' tickets. However, he told columnist Michael Arace of The Dispatch that he will not renew them if the team's management group isn't replaced. "I have been around enough to know that Mike Priest and Scott Howson are really good people, and they mean well," Bennett said. "But they have had five years now, and they haven’t gotten the job done. I think it’s time to bring in true professionals who have a track record, and I am not alone, but it doesn’t seem as if anyone is listening to us.”
So he'll be out there on Saturday.
Efforts to contact an organizer for the protest have so far been unsuccessful. Portzline, too, seems to have had enough of the club's current direction. In a lengthy, detailed blog post on Thursday entitled "It's Never Been Worse" that was filled with frustration, he wrote, "What's more unappealing in sports than a club with a bloated payroll and the worst record in the league? What's more disheartening for fans than a club that opened the season with such high expectations only to fizzle quickly into the worst season in franchise history? What could be more maddening for onlookers than to see a collection of players perform so far below their abilities, their track records?...
"To be clear, it is not the place of this blog -- certainly this reporter -- to call for anybody's head. But it’s painfully obvious that something significant must be done to salvage what has become the biggest mess in the NHL."
“Certainly, we’re aware of (the protest),” McConnell told Portzline for his Friday story. “We’ll see what comes of it Saturday. We’re certainly prepared to get out some hot liquids for them. Whoever shows up on a cold, cold day and gives up a Saturday to send a message of discontent, that they want a winner — in some ways, I suppose we’re lucky to have fans that dedicated."
Well, it's a nice gesture, but coffee, tea and hot chocolate won't likely pacify the protesters -- although the Facebook page and the messages on it stress that these fans are not looking to be anything but peaceful while also being forceful.
"This should go without saying, but since some people are worried, this protest should be a calm one," the Facebook page says. "We're talking signs, chanting, and the like. But, keep it clean, ya know. You might end up on TV so you shouldn't bring a sign you don't want your boss to see. The last thing we need is negative coverage of our devoted fans."
“If they think they’re doing it to get my attention, they really don’t need to," McConnell said. "(Those fans) are, ultimately, our customers, and we need to have them happy. The only way to make them happy is to win.”
Winning has been a problem for the Blue Jackets since their founding. They were flummoxed by poor personnel decisions from the outset, long before the current management team was in place, as we noted when the team fired Coach Scott Arniel earlier this month. Having had but one playoff appearance and with the club moving further away from a top eight finish, the fans have had enough.
Their Facebook page reveals that a smattering of fans from all over the NHL -- coast-to-coast and from both countries -- have expressed support for Saturday's gathering. One from Minnesota posted this: "I'm a Wild fan, and live in MN, but I joined this group to voice my support for what you are organizing here. Eight years ago I made a road trip to Columbus to watch the Wild play the Jackets, and have never been to a more hospitable, fun, friendly, amazing pro sports town. The fans are spectacular, the arena and district are amazing, and frankly, YOU DESERVE BETTER as fans than what you have been given. I support you all 100% - I want the Blue Jackets to be better, because the fans in Columbus deserve it!"
Some locals feel the same way.