As a somewhat rabid hockey fan, it’s been an amazing experience to be a fan from day one of the Blue Jackets franchise. As a fan of the Cincinnati Reds as well, I understand and appreciate the gravitas that 100+ years of history bring to a team. As I get older I find myself appreciating baseball more and more. Unlike say, football, which is unrecognizable from the game that was played in the sport’s formative years, baseball seems to have changed the least over the years. Listening to games on the radio ties me to my parents and grandparents - and their grandparents, in a way that an expansion team never could. And yet, being there from the start of a team brings an irreplaceable connection. I feel even more invested with the Jackets than I do my alma mater, the Buckeyes.
And yet, without the Columbus Chill, the Jackets likely don’t exist. I recently read a gift from my brother, Chill Factor, and it brought back a flood of memories. I highly recommend the book even if you weren’t a fan. This team did a brilliant job of marketing and the book also serves as a great primer for anyone interested in the field. When you consider what it took to make a second-tier minor league team in a niche sport THE thing to see in a football and OSU-crazed town, it is truly remarkable. Some of the old ads in the book still get me fired up and can now be found in textbooks.
And yet I miss the Chill. Minor league hockey is its own thing - or was. One thing this book brought home is that the era of the brutal, brawling, need-a-police-escort-to-leave-the-building game is gone for good. The game has changed. And with what we’re learning about concussions and CTE, this is undeniably a good thing. And yet it still makes me sad.
I remember the old Dayton Gems from my earliest days before moving to Columbus in the late ’70s. One of my favorite stories about my mom was the time she got so caught up in the action at Hara Arena that she stood up and yelled “Kill him!” I guess you have to know my mom, but let’s just say she wasn’t particularly pro-violence, let alone much of a sports fan. We weren’t even allowed to have toy guns in those days. There’s something about the minor league game that brings out these passions.
I think one of the reasons the film Slap Shot has stood the test of time is that it somehow captures this indefinable “something” so well. There is a blue-collar quality to the game that ties fans and players together in a way big-time pro sports can’t. These guys are earning in the ballpark of what the fans do - often less. They’re living the dream but in a much more relatable way. More akin to the relationship between fans and players in the earlier days of pro sports.
A big part of the charm of the Chill was also one of its biggest drawbacks - the old barn, the Fairgrounds Coliseum. It was always overbooked, resulting in long stretches on the road - and playoff games in neutral venues, which sucked. But it was the perfect size and the perfect atmosphere for minor league hockey. There was a wide walkway at the top for SRO. The beer was cheap. The peanuts were - weird. I remember they had Chill-branded peanuts and you’d be chomping away and about every 10th one or so would be spicy. Not sure where the peanuts came from, but who cares - these were the charms.
My wife (girlfriend at the time) Elisa often tells the story of the time I brought her to her first Chill game. I don’t think she’d seen that side of me (yelling “Hey ref!” while everyone around me answered “You suck!," for example), and it was probably a little eye-opening. But she went down and talked to Andyman, (RIP) the in-house announcer at the time, whom she knew - and that was pretty cool in my book.
One of my first job interviews was for Assistant Ticket Manager of the Chill. I had the perfect resume with a playing background and a current job with TicketMaster. This would have been 1995ish. But the interview was in the boardroom at the Chill office in Dublin. There were several people in the interview, including team VP Alan Karpick, and I was inexperienced and intimidated, to say the least. I choked - had no questions prepared, was unprepared, wasn’t expecting to see higher-ups. It was my first blown interview, although it wouldn’t be the last. I ended up with a job at CompuServe out of college and I've been very fortunate, but I do sometimes wonder how my career would be different if I’d gotten that job.
So many memories - the guy who would always wave his arms as he yelled at the refs while everyone behind him mimicked him (in solidarity, not mockingly), “West Virginia Dreaming” (to the tune of “California Dreaming” - you know, "All my teeth are brown, my teeth are brown...") played when Wheeling was in town, my brother getting booted for throwing pretzel nuggets on the ice, our coach getting suspended for throwing all the sticks on the ice… I miss the Chill. But go Jackets!