Columbus Is a Hockey Town
If outsiders aren't asking, "What's going on in Columbus?" yet, they will be soon.
Here’s the scene at OhioHealth Chiller North in Columbus suburb Lewis Center on a random Tuesday afternoon in the middle of July:
Well, not completely random.
Yesterday marked Week 3 of the Cap City Summer Elite League, and the crowds are only getting bigger and the rosters more stacked.
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Pictures don’t quite do it justice.
Columbus Blue Jackets fans have been coming out in droves to support the NHLers, college hockey players, and other elite-level hockey players who are gracing the rosters of the inaugural season of the Cap City Summer Elite League.
This summer, fans have been rewarded with free-wheeling, high-scoring, thrilling hockey scrimmages – at no charge. In a few short weeks, players including Sean Kuraly, Jack Roslovic, Patrik Laine, Boone Jenner, Cam Atkinson, Zach Werenski, Gustav Nyquist, and many more have put their mark on Columbus hockey – permanently and with emphasis.
In recent years, Columbus, Ohio, has experienced a surge in the popularity of hockey, even though it’s harder than ever to watch a game on TV. This shift has started the transformation from an underdog to what I believe one day could become a hockey powerhouse.
The growing passion for the sport can be credited to the rise of youth leagues supported by the Blue Jackets organization, training centers like The Battery, the Cap City Summer Elite League, National Champions with the Ohio State Women’s Hockey Team, world-class training rinks at The Chiller, and the unwavering support from dedicated fans heading out in July wearing hockey sweaters in an unrelenting heatwave.
The city's hockey journey started with humble beginnings and a belief in the city from late owner John H. McConnell, who brought the team right into the heart of football country – and into the shadow of the mighty Ohio State Buckeyes.
In the last decade, though, there’s been a marked shift. The sustained success under John Tortorella, highlighted by the playoff sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning (quite literally one of the greatest regular season teams of all-time), added credibility and a new layer of excitement in Columbus – one where it feels like anything is possible.
Sometimes, as Jackets fans know, that “anything” isn’t always positive.
But this year has been different.
I felt it on March 24, 2023. Walking into Nationwide Arena, I expected what I’d seen before – the diehards, the season ticket holders, and a few fans who picked up tickets on the cheap to experience a game.
The Jackets were in a fight for last place, as we all know by now. But I didn’t see a fanbase that had given up on its team (even when a loss could’ve helped the CBJ secure the 1st overall pick).
Instead, it was a packed house, rocking with energy and enthusiasm.
Then Kent Johnson scored a Michigan.
It felt just as magical as a playoff game. A memory that will last a lifetime, something to talk about every time you see a new and old Jackets fan.
I felt it at Pins Mechanical Co. when the crowd erupted in cheers as soon as it became clear Michigan’s Adam Fantilli was going to be a Blue Jacket. Another Wolverine had the heart of Columbus pumping on a Wednesday night in June, and it had nothing to do with football.
I felt it again when Fantilli first stepped onto the ice in a CBJ practice sweater. Hundreds, if not a thousand plus fans, packed into the Chiller North to see newly minted #11 and his stellar Michigan teammate (and second-round steal) Gavin Brindley.
The Cap City Summer Elite League makes it clear: Columbus is a hockey town
Columbus has witnessed a surge in interest and participation in hockey, and Cap City is playing a pivotal role in this ongoing transformation.
The Cap City Summer Elite League has quickly become the heartbeat of Columbus hockey during the summer. This premier summer league has attracted NHL stars from not only the Blue Jackets, but others who live in the area during the off-season and who play for the Nashville Predators (Columbus-born Kiefer Sherwood), Ottawa Senators, Minnesota Wild, San Jose Sharks, and other teams.
With top talent taking the ice, the league has become a magnet for young players eager to learn from the best and showcase their skills, with a number of Ohio State Buckeyes standing out up-and-down the ice, including Powell’s own Carson Meyer.
But the real magic lies in the stands, where fans have packed the rinks with energy and excitement. The influx of talent has also attracted every hockey-loving teen and tween, creating just the right mix of ingredients to stoke future dreams of NHL prospects.
The Blue Jackets organizational commitment to developing hockey at the grassroots level has paved the way for homegrown talent to rise through the ranks and earn spots on NHL rosters. Roslovic, Kuraly, and Meyer, all Columbus-born, all suiting up for the Jackets organization. This is exactly the kind of long-term investment that will one day pay massive dividends.
Columbus's embrace of the hockey culture has given rise to a unique and passionate community, one that’s not granted by birth but instead gained over time. A much more loyal following develops that way; one that results in a packed stadium to watch a last-place team at the end of the season.
It’s safe to say hockey has ingrained itself into the city's identity. Credit to Mr. Mac for his vision so long ago.
With the added success of the Columbus Crew, I can only imagine what the Arena District will look (and sound) like this fall.
Make no mistake: When Fantilli takes the ice for his CBJ debut on his birthday, October 12th against the Philadelphia Flyers, it will be very clear to all – Columbus is a hockey town.