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Hockey center is revolving around Ohio

01/09/2017, 12:07am EST
By BY DAVID BRIGGS BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

Briggs: The birthplace of pro football is suddenly the capital of the pro hockey universe


A 16-game winning streak by the Blue Jackets put pro hockey's spotlight on Ohio. Columbus — which has been to the playoffs just twice in franchise history — has the best record in the NHL. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Beneath a century of dust in The Blade archives, I happened the other day upon some compelling early evidence of two phenomena: global warming and Toledo’s hockey bug. 

It was 1916, and our city and its interest in Canada’s curious outdoor winter pastime — also known as ice polo — were heating up. 

Although the game remained in its infancy — the Original Six era would not arrive until 1942 — one headline exclaimed: ”Hockey Interest Spreading; Public Takes To The Sport.” A recent exhibition contest at the Toledo Yacht Club’s ice carnival had delighted fans and plans for another were underway. 

“If the lagoon freezes again,” The Blade reported. 

Therein was the rub. The ice was melting. 

“The fact that there has not been enough natural ice in this part of the country the last few years to provide decent skating is blamed upon the loss of northern forests,” this newspaper noted, “and as they can never be replaced, the outlook for winters such as formerly visited Toledo is not bright. 

“The solution of the question lies in artificial ice rinks.”

Which leads us back to the present. 

You might say the kinks have been worked out. 

Toledo built those newfangled artificial ice rinks, and, through the years, its hockey bug gave way to an incurable fever — and, these days, a small identity crisis. 

You see, that sickness has spread, and Ohio — the birthplace of pro football — is, for the moment, the unlikely capital of the pro hockey universe. 

If franchises elsewhere have put our football invention to better use lately, Ohio has taken Canada’s creation and, well, skated with it. From Cleveland to Columbus to Toledo — a sudden Bermuda triangle for opponents — the state’s teams are winning bigger than everyone at every professional level. 

The long-dormant Columbus Blue Jackets have scalded to the best record in the NHL, their affiliate, the Cleveland Monsters, are the reigning AHL champions, and the Walleye (26-6-1) are off to the hottest start in Toledo’s proud hockey history and on course to break the franchise attendance record they shattered each of the past two years. 

The Walleye are averaging 7,254 fans at the 7,431-seat Huntington Center — behind only Fort Wayne in the ECHL — and outdrawing 23 of 30 teams in the AHL.

For all the championship seasons of the Mercurys and Blades and Goaldiggers and Storm, these, too, truly are the good old days of Toledo — and Ohio — hockey. 

“Who would have thought that?” Walleye coach Dan Watson said Sunday before Toledo’s 4-3 overtime win against Fort Wayne in front of another rollicking crowd. 

“It’s good for hockey in Ohio to build that up. You can see the building is full in Columbus, Cleveland’s getting 12,000 fans at times. You look at us. It’s exciting for hockey in this area.”

OK, so maybe there’s no identity crisis. Toledo is the best per-capita hockey market in the state, and here the game still rates with casual fans behind the other Big Four sports. But hockey more than holds its own, and it’s good to see the interest spreading, especially to the south. 

We’ll be interested if the Blue Jackets’ success helps adjust the power structure of Ohio amateur hockey. If high schools from Columbus or Cincinnati have rarely competed with those from metro Cleveland and Toledo, it’s partly because, well, hockey never was the cool thing to do there. 

The Blue Jackets — who are the lone NHL team in Ohio but, because of markets like Toledo, never will be Ohio’s NHL team — were but a blip in Columbus in their first 16 years of existence.  You might recall Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer saying the city ”really has no professional sports teams.” [Meyer later apologized and said he meant no NFL team, but you knew what he meant.]

“I just think winning, and having successful franchises, good franchises who like to give back to the community, can only make the game stronger with the young kids,” Watson said. 

“A lot of times, these young kids, they’re a first-generation player. A lot of the fathers, grandfathers, they played football, basketball, baseball. This is still new to a lot of people. 

“So it’s about getting into the community, winning, and having a great atmosphere and getting people to games, so they can fall in love with the sport.”

Where this season goes from here will be fun to watch. Surely, detours loom. Playoff hockey, like baseball, is designed to break your heart. 

But for now, appreciate this moment in time for Toledo and Ohio.

It is a long time coming. 

Contact David Briggs at: dbriggs@theblade.com, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.

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