Like the residential renaissance Downtown, or the resplendent restaurant scene throughout the city, or any other marker of growth that helps define the culture of Columbus, hockey is thriving here. It is another one of those things that visitors and residents alike do not fully comprehend. Columbus is a hockey city?
It is a huge hockey city. The latest testament came last weekend, when the Ohio AAA Blue Jackets won their tier of the Quebec International Pee-Wee Tournament in front of a full house at Colisee Pepsi. They defeated a team from Switzerland in the final.
The tournament, founded in 1960, draws teams of 11- and 12-year olds worldwide. Nearly 1,000 NHL players ? Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Guy Lafleur among them ? played the event well before they could grow a playoff beard.
?It?s an incredible experience just to be a part of the event, but to see the kids win ? it is beyond words to describe,? coach Todd Ehrie said. ?These kids will remember it the rest of their lives.?
In 2011, AAA Blue Jackets alums Connor Murphy and Sean Kuraly were taken in the NHL draft; Murphy in the first round and Kuraly in the fifth. Earlier this season, Murphy became the first Columbus-trained player to make it to the NHL. Last month, Columbus-bred Jack Roslovic played for a U.S. national team that won the gold medal at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.
Fielding a team that wins the Quebec Pee-Wee tournament is an even weightier marker of the growing might of our city?s hockey establishment.
There is a place for high-level competition for some children, but the place must be handled properly by adults, who are more prone to screwing things up. Ed Gingher, who runs the AAA Blue Jackets program, has a reputation for doing things the right way. Character and education are stressed first. Dreams are not discouraged, but the greater emphasis is on tangible life lessons that can be learned amid spirited competition.
Word of Columbus? balance of priorities, strength of coaching and lack of politicking is disseminating.
?Six years ago, when we first got here, Cleveland was considered the hockey city of Ohio and the Cleveland Suburban League was the top league,? said John Carper, a parent of one of the Jackets peewees. ?That is not the case anymore.?
The Carpers used to commute from Dayton to Cleveland for hockey. Then, they switched to the AAA Jackets program. Now, they have their house up for sale, with the plan to move to Columbus.
?The Blue Jackets got involved in growing the game from the start ? and they have stayed involved, and they have continued to invest,? Gingher said. ?It?s not just our program, either. It?s the Easton Youth Association, the CCYHA, CAHA, the Columbus Ice Hockey Club, which has done a terrific job teaching the sport. It?s learn-to-skate programs and rec leagues and high-school development. Everyone is pulling the same direction.?
Players from all over the state are being drawn to many sheets that have been laid in central Ohio. Elite players from outside the state are beginning to trickle into town. High-school teams from Cincinnati are coming up I-71 to find better competition.
?I?ve been coaching in Columbus for 18 years, and I?ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly,? Ehrie said.
?We?ve gone from base-level skills to elite hockey city.?
Imagine if the big club won a playoff round. Everything for an explosion is in place.
Michael Arace is a sports reporter for The Dispatch.
Michael Arace commentary: Columbus becoming hotbed for hockey – Columbus Dispatch