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Nash sparks the fireworks in Columbus

A look at how the Columbus Blue Jackets are trying to become a relevant NHL team, despite a troubled economy and playing in a non-traditional market.

Rick Nash, the Columbus Blue Jackets' high-scoring captain is expected to lead the team to the NHL play-offs again this season.
Rick Nash, the Columbus Blue Jackets' high-scoring captain is expected to lead the team to the NHL play-offs again this season.

COLUMBUS, Ohio // A crowd of 700,000 gathered in downtown Columbus three months ago for a massive fireworks display that lit up the skyline for more than 45 minutes. The date was July 3, and the extravaganza was to celebrate the United States' Independence Day the following day. But to fans of the Columbus Blue Jackets, there could have easily been a dual meaning. Rick Nash, the captain of the franchise and one of the top players in the National Hockey League, signed an eight-year, US$62.4 million (Dh229m) contract extension just before dusk that evening, putting to rest rumours and fears that he might leave the Blue Jackets as a free agent after the 2009-10 season, which opened on Thursday.

This sprawling central Ohio city, which exists under a massive inferiority complex in the shadows of Cleveland and Cincinnati, finally could exhale. With one stroke of the pen, Nash secured his own future in Columbus, further established Columbus as a pro sports city, and, most experts believe, guaranteed a bright future for the Blue Jackets. "I've said all along that this is where I wanted to be, that I love the city and I love the direction of the team," Nash said. "I hope this finally proves it."

Thus, the biggest news of the off-season for the Blue Jackets wasn't the trades they made or the free agents they signed, but the player they were able to keep under contract until 2018. "He's such an integral part of this team," said the Blue Jackets' goaltender, Steve Mason. "To have him locked up that long is a comforting feeling. "When anybody thinks about the Blue Jackets, he's the first thing that comes to mind. He is the franchise."

Nash holds the club's record for goals (194), points (355), power play goals (61), short-handed goals (10) and game-winning goals (six), so when Mason calls him "the franchise" it's not hyperbole. Already the ripple effect of Nash signing his extension is being felt in various ways with the Blue Jackets. Season ticket sales have increased for the first time since 2002. Young players have eagerly signed long-term contracts. And NHL commentators are picking the Blue Jackets to make the play-offs again.

Nobody at Nationwide Arena - the Blue Jackets' home - wants to even think about the fallout if Nash had not committed long-term. The struggles of teams in non-traditional hockey markets has been well chronicled in recent years, with many believing the NHL commissioner Gary Bettman's attempts to "Americanise" the game have failed miserably. When Wayne Gretzky generated headlines in the United States during his stint in Los Angeles - a rarity in the 1980s in a country consumed by baseball, basketball and American football - the NHL was considered by many to be the next big thing, and went headstrong into many non-traditional hockey markets.

Since 1991, the NHL has grown from 21 to 30 clubs. While NHL expansion franchises have thrived in some markets - Minnesota, Ottawa, San Jose and Anaheim, for instance - they have struggled mightily to attract fans and corporate support in other expansion cities, such as Nashville, Florida and Tampa Bay. Consider, for example, the mess in Glendale, Arizona, where the Phoenix Coyotes' owner, Jerry Moyes, wants to sell the team, but where a bankruptcy court just threw out both bids to buy them.

Columbus are somewhere in the middle of these scenarios, and desperate to not go down the same route as the Coyotes. The most popular passion in central Ohio, of course, has always been Ohio State University's football team. The Buckeyes get more than 100,000 fans at their home games and can attract an astonishing 50,000 to a spring practice. The Blue Jackets can never expect to match those numbers, but they have developed a loyal, passionate and growing fan base. Columbus is the largest city in Ohio - bigger than Cleveland and Cincinnati - and the 16th largest city by population in the United States.

There is room here for more than college football. The Blue Jackets joined the NHL as an expansion franchise for the 2000-01 season. The team's name - homage to Ohio's rich history in the US Civil War (1861-65) - was confusing to many at first, but not so much any more. The Blue Jackets were far from impressive on the ice during their early years, but that was hardly surprising; expansion franchises have to build from the ground up.

What was surprising, though, was the local support. Every game during the second season was sold out, and most of the others during the first three seasons were close to capacity. Inevitably, the losing eroded the fair-weather fan base, and attendance began to decline. The Blue Jackets' fortunes started to look up during the 2006-07 season, when Ken Hitchcock - a future Hall of Fame coach - was hired to take over from Gerard Gallant.

The following summer, Doug MacLean, the original president and GM of the club, was fired and replaced by Scott Howson. The Howson and Hitchcock show has reshaped the roster and pointed the Blue Jackets in the right direction. They finally made the play-offs last season - the last NHL franchise to taste the excitement of the post-season - and are expected to do the same during the campaign that has just started.

Blue Jackets season ticket sales are expected to top 10,000 for this campaign, and more than 800 fans crammed into the practice facility for the first day of training camp. For a club who have had just one winning season, some pretty deep roots have been established, and despite a struggling US economy more sell-outs are expected in 2009-10. "People here can sniff out what's going on," said Hitchcock. "They're smart fans. They see what's happening. They sense that we're turning the corner as a franchise, and it's something they want to embrace."

In the days leading up to July 1 - the first day Nash could extend his contract - there were growing rumours throughout the NHL that he was likely to leave the Blue Jackets next summer, probably headed back to his hometown club, the Toronto Maple Leafs. If that had happened, it would have been a huge blow to the Blue Jackets on many levels, and some would have questioned the long-term viability of the franchise.

That he chose to commit for eight years with the Blue Jackets was seen as affirmation of Columbus and the club on many levels - as a major-league city, as a hockey market and as a franchise with a bright future. "You look around the league, and there are lots of teams that have attractive qualities," Nash said. "I mean, in some cities you could be hanging out on a beach one hour after practice. Or, in a place like Toronto, I could play at home. I could play in beautiful Vancouver. There's all kinds of possibilities.

"But Columbus is a special place to me. It feels like a second home. And I wanted to prove that." Nash, 25, has a huge season ahead of him. Not only do the Blue Jackets have higher expectations than ever, but Nash is expected to represent Canada in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. "It's obviously a huge honour to play for your country," Nash said. "And in Canada, playing international hockey comes with a lot of pressure. If you don't win the gold medal, nobody considers it to be a successful tournament. Even the silver or the bronze aren't enough for most of the fans.

"But you know that going into it, especially this year, with the Olympics being in Canada. It's good that so many people care so much." Canada finished a disappointing seventh in the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, and Nash - then only 22 - had no goals and one assist in six games. "I was one of the youngest guys on the team," Nash said. "It always helps to go through something the first time, and I'm sure it'll feel different this time around.

"We're going to have a really talented team, obviously. There's going to be a lot of different faces from the team four years ago." Nash's game has taken a dramatic turn since 2006, too. Early in the 2006-07 season, Hitchcock was hired to save a franchise that had done nothing but wallow in losses and aimlessness during its first five seasons in the NHL. Immediately, the new coach sought to make Nash into a well-rounded, three-zone player, not just a goal-scoring machine.

One week into Hitchcock's tenure, Nash was killing penalties for the first time since junior hockey. And, along with the rest of the Blue Jackets, it was drummed into Nash's head that checking is every player's responsibility, not just the grinders and defencemen. "I've learned a lot from Hitch, no question," Nash said. "He's put a lot of trust in me on the ice and in the dressing room, now, as the captain. I'm a much different player now than I was back then."

What's surprising, however, is how Nash has continued to pile on the goals despite the Blue Jackets' checking-heavy system. He has scored 78 in two full seasons under Hitchcock. "There's still room for Rick to improve," the coach said. "For those of us who get to watch him every day, we see that he's still an emerging player. For the rest of the league, that's probably a little scary." The Blue Jackets also have emerging talents in left-winger Nikita Filatov, right-winger Jakub Voracek and centre Antoine Vermette, giving them the potential to be a dangerous offensive club. With goaltender Steve Mason, the NHL's rookie of the year in 2009, the Blue Jackets have that end of the ice covered, too.

It will certainly take significant contributions from all of the rookies if the Blue Jackets are to prosper in the Central Division, which is also home to two of the league's Original Six franchises - the Chicago Blackhawks and the Detroit Red Wings - as well as the St Louis Blues and the Nashville Predators. From a young talent point of view, the Blue Jackets' future is brighter than that of most NHL teams.

The Hockey News recently ranked their collection of prospects as fourth-best in the NHL, behind only Los Angeles, Phoenix and Montreal. Howson, after getting Nash signed long-term, turned his sights toward signing young cornerstone players to contract extensions. So far, Vermette, centre Derick Brassard and right-winger Derek Dorsett have signed extensions, with Mason and Voracek likely to do the same next summer.

The fireworks, it seems, are just getting started in Columbus. sports@thenational.ae