Fans of the Columbus Blue Jackets have known tears of disappointment for seven years, but with the passing of team owner John H. McConnell, the tears cut deeper, and go far beyond the game.
The gentleman so highly regarded by players, coaches and fans all over the National Hockey League lost his battle with liver cancer on Friday. For fans like myself, his loss feels like losing a grandfather. All of the depression from losing seasons and the limited number of highlights mixed in wouldn't be possible without Mr. Mac, and for that, I am so grateful.
What most fail to realize is that prior to McConnell's hard-nosed campaign to the NHL to bring an expansion franchise to Columbus, most around the sport found some snooty one-liner to bash the city. McConnell persisted, and continued to bring league executives to Columbus and sell the market, something few thought he could do. But he did, and look what he built.
McConnell owned Worthington Industries, one of the most successful steel companies in the world, and generated almost $3 billion in annual profits. He retired in 1996.
He bought the Blue Jackets with his own money, which has escalated exponentially after putting up his own car for collateral to buy his first load of steel. Nationwide Arena, one of the league's most beautiful buildings, was built with his own money. Not a single tax dollar, and that’s the way he liked it.
McConnell called the Blue Jackets his 'gift to the city,' and it's a shame the team he watched from its infancy couldn't get into the playoffs for him. Whenever his face is shown on the video board at Nationwide, he smiles and thanks the fans for the minutes-long standing ovation they give him. It's not an ovation just because he's the owner, it's because people in Columbus truly loved him, and he loved the fans.
Upon reflecting, I can't figure out if I'm hurt more by his passing, or by the fact that the players who spoke so highly of him couldn't give a little more to get their butts into the postseason. Throughout his life, McConnell was the dark horse, the one whom few thought could make it big, especially given his humble beginnings. He saw his team and the city as winners, no matter how often people doubted his ability to sell hockey to stupid Midwesterners.
There are some fans in Columbus that criticized McConnell for being frugal with the team's payroll, and not spending enough to get into the playoffs. He publicly stated that he has never set a hard cap for team executives. What did he say? He said he wanted them to spend whatever they needed to win. That alone says it all.
Opening night in Nationwide Arena will be far different this October from years past. There will be the excitement, of course. But there will also be an empty feeling, and no video board message from the man all of us have come to admire.
What will be on that same video board is a tribute to the man responsible for all of the kids wearing Blue Jackets jerseys playing street hockey, parents taking their children to their first game, the people who couldn't afford to attend a game in any other NHL city, and hockey fans just happy to have their own team.
And it better be one hell of a video.
Mr. Mac, we all will miss you, but all we can do is thank you for bringing our team to us.
Just think--when the Blue Jackets do make the playoffs, you'll have the best seat in the house.