Thursday, February 2, 2012

Capital City Protesters Become All-Stars?

(Jamie is guest writing for CST. Hailing from Cleveland, he now cheers from two hours south, where the Ohio NHL representative doesn't let him forget his roots.)

In case you aren't following the happenings with Ohio's lone representative in the NHL, the Columbus Blue Jackets are having their worst season in the 12 year history of the franchise. Going into the All Star Break this past weekend, the Blue Jackets are dead last in the NHL. 23 points out of a playoff spot. 32 points out of fourth place in their division. Adding to the insult, the Blue Jackets have one of the highest payrolls in the league. This is not a good hockey team and the problems start at the top.

This past Saturday saw an estimated 250 Blue Jackets fans stage a protest at Nationwide Arena. Fans gathered to console each other and call for change, hoping their voices would be heard by majority owner John P. McConnell. Pleas to mercifully remove GM Scott Howson and President Mike Priest from their positions were both spoken and written on signs. The Columbus Dispatch did an admirable job of covering the protest, which you can read about on their website.

I first heard about this protest last Wednesday. I admit that I thought it was a waste of time by a lot of self-proclaimed internet heroes. To my surprise, less than a week later, their impact is already being felt.
Less than 2 days after the first plans were being bandied about, majority owner John P. McConnell did an interview with Dispatch beat writer Aaron Portzline. Whether this was a preemptive strike or not, McConnell showed that he respects the fan base by acknowledging their protest and agreeing that things need to change. He also said that he would make sure that “hot liquids” would be there for the rag tag group of protesters on the cold January afternoon.

My first instinct was that this was a PR move, complete with attempts at humor. Then, less than a few hours after the interview was published on the Puck Rakers Blog, Mr. McConnell sent a letter to the season ticket holders. I was hoping that it would be written in Comic Sans, but apparently that is reserved for a different type of frustration. McConnell's letter detailed his disappointment, but it also didn’t indicate any solutions. He said changes would be coming in the next few weeks and months, but they could not be shared at this time. This sympathetic PR machine was in full force and it wouldn’t be doing so if the movement wasn’t happening. Regardless of the sincerity of the letter and interview, the protest plans were gaining momentum.

The final indication that these internet-turned-reality heroes were not being ignored happened just hours before the gathering was to begin on Saturday. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced that the Columbus Blue Jackets would be hosting the 2013 All-Star Game. During the announcement, Bettman himself singled out the the protesters indicating that they were an example of a hockey crazed fan base that is starving for a winner. Bettman is a very calculated decision maker, but he also scares easily since the lost season of 2004-05. I don't know if the decision had already been made to have the mid-season celebration in the capital city, but I do know the timing made it even more significant.

Amazingly, all of these events happened prior to the actual protest, which went off without a hitch. McConnell was true to his word and representatives from his office were there to speak with fans and serve free coffee. Reading the fan blogs today, it appears that this movement is just getting out of the gate. The positive events that transpired prior to the protest have given this group hope and a hunger to continue to be heard. My hope is that all of this positive feedback from McConnell and the NHL itself isn’t just a ploy to sell season tickets, but a catalyst to get this franchise competing for Lord Stanley's Cup in a few years.
It also makes me wonder what would happen if a group of Browns fans tried something similar at Cleveland Browns doesn't seem to be taking effect being executed one fan at a time.

Oh, did I mention that by ordering a season ticket package for the 2012-2013 campaign you will be able to get first crack at tickets for All-Star weekend?

Thanks to CST for letting me say a few words about a team that feels all too Cleveland-like.