This morning, I read the Michael Arace column regarding the job security of Ken Hitchcock. It was an interesting piece, covering most of the bases, but in the end, it walked up to the line without crossing it. That failure to lay out any plan of action, to be honest with the readers and fans, is what NHL hockey in Columbus has become.
So how did we get here?
About thirteen years ago, John H. McConnell discovered an extra $200 million in his checking account. His company was doing fine, trusts were set up for his family, so he used his excess money and founded a hockey team. He shook hands with his buddy Dimon McPherson of Nationwide Insurance for the arena that the team plays in. He hired Doug MacLean, a guy with a lot of energy who had some key experience in building a winning franchise in a new market. Columbus has a team, a nice arena, and a thriving area of town that they play in.
Unfortunately, the story does not end there. In fact, it was the beginning of the trouble that we now face here in Columbus. Nationwide, it turns out, is not really on our side in this deal. They are the ones making money and they are not interested in any handshakes or do-overs. Doug MacLean got power-hungry and decided that being president was not enough, that he needed to control everything that the team did, the press coverage, youth hockey, along with coaching and scouting. McPherson and MacLean have both moved on, but the team is still here, sinking deeper into trouble with each game.
Before he passed away, McConnell tried to make things right by hiring Ken Hitchcock and placing Mike Priest in the office of team president. Those two moves looked solid at the time, but with hindsight, things could have been different.
Maybe the team should have fired MacLean back in November 2006, put an interim coach in place, and looked for a general manager and president first. To me, a blogger, it appears as if the current general manager is out of sync with his coach. It’s not as if he is going through a bad time. No, he is going through a horrible season. I know that Hitchcock is bound for the Hall of Fame when he retires, but in the meantime, the Columbus Blue Jackets are crashing. Either his players aren’t buying into his system, or they are not appropriate (Nikita Filatov), they are unmotivated (Mike Commodore, Kristian Huselius) or whatever. They are not winning and that is what coaches are supposed to do. Either Hitch is telling Howson that he doesn’t care who the team plays because his system will win regardless of the player, or he is not seeing eye-to-eye with Howson and we find ourselves in a world of hurt.
The issues with the players, incompetence, under-performing, malcontents, or something else, seem to mirror the Front Office. I’ve heard and have no reason to doubt that Mike Priest is a very good business guy and a solid accountant, but he had no experience running a professional sports team. The fact that the team is losing money mostly due to a bad business decision (arena lease) does not put Priest in a good light. Did he not see this or know about it in the past? Or did he think that John P. McConnell, current Majority Owner and Governor, would be as generous and carefree as his father?
The team has not changed many of the key people who were around at the beginning. Don Boyd is still head of scouting, the same assistant coaches are in place from the MacLean days with the addition of Claude Noel, the same guy is running legal, and so on. Were these people, many who never made the show before they hit Columbus, the right ones? Because it seems, in the midst of this franchise killing tailspin that the team is in, they could use some new blood. People who know both hockey, the business of hockey, and business.
But that is where the plan comes to a screeching halt. We cannot hire the right people because we don’t have enough money. The team won’t dismiss Ken Hitchcock because it would tell the fans, who are dwindling fast, that this season is gone. Mike Priest will be here forever because he is a McConnell legacy and the younger McConnell, while somewhat different than his father, would not replace a McConnell legacy. (But he might not see this hockey thing through, however.)
The team can’t go out and seek the right players because it doesn’t have money, for one thing. The whole thing is circular anyway; we don’t have money because of a bad lease, but even if we were in first place and filled the arena for every game, the lease is so bad that winning isn’t enough. The owner of the arena is sad about this, but wait, a casino is going to be built and that will put a smile on their face. If a casino goes elsewhere in Central Ohio, then there might be pressure on Nationwide to fix things.
The players are keeping quiet, mainly because they know that Hitchcock is their coach and he is bullet proof. Sure, some of them will leave via free agency or trades, but they know enough to hold their nose until they get out of town. Scott Howson might actually be a casualty in the end. He is a young man who is well-thought of in the NHL and he might just look to further his career in another city.
And who would want to play here after this season if nothing is done? To the rest of the hockey world, it looks like the 2008-09 season was a fluke, that the team was just lucky.
I know, I haven’t answered my question, how did we get here. The Blue Jackets have a pair of issues to overcome, one on the ice and the other off the ice. If the team was winning, they could take care of the off ice problem. If the business issues were fixed, they would have the money to work on the team. But something has to be done or it will be too late.