IF KEN HITCHCOCK didn't believe the Blue Jackets were an exceedingly inconsequential franchise, the point was driven home after his first season coaching the club, at the Vancouver airport. "I told the customs agent what I did for a living, but she didn't want to let me in the country," recalls Hitchcock of that day in the spring of 2007. "I had to show my NHL I.D. card to prove that Columbus is in the league."
Let's face it, the best-known hockey-playing-athlete in the Buckeye-crazed burg is James Laurinaitis, who patrolled the blue line for Wayzata (Minn.) High before starring at linebacker at Ohio State from 2005 through '08. The most anonymous pro team in North America is also the oldest—in the four major sports—never to reach the postseason.
Now, the nine-year-old Blue Jackets could rid themselves of that dubious distinction. At week's end Columbus was 38-28-6 and had won six of its last seven games. After selling out Nationwide Arena only seven times over the previous two seasons—in contrast to OSU's always-packed Horseshoe, three miles north—the club had sold out six times since December. The Jackets' 82 points, a team record, slotted them solidly in sixth place in the Western Conference with 10 games left.
In the team's 4--3 OT win over Chicago last week the game-winner was scored by Antoine Vermette, his seventh point in six games since Columbus plucked him from Ottawa at the trade deadline. Vermette cashed in a gorgeous saucer pass from R.J. Umberger, whom the club got from Philadelphia last June (and who, serendipitously, played college hockey at Ohio State). They're part of the dramatic makeover—13 new faces in 14 months—directed by second-year G.M. Scott Howson, that has left Columbus much younger, and grittier. "This is a Woody Hayes kind of town," says Hitchcock. "If you don't compete with a blue-collar work ethic, if you don't get in the other team's face—the fans won't respect you. We're not the prettiest bunch, but we refuse to lay down."
To get Vermette the Blue Collars unloaded goalie Pascal Leclaire, who'd been rendered expendable by the incredible play (NHL-high nine shutouts) of Steve Mason, a preternaturally serene rookie from Oakville, Ont. "It's tough to believe he's only 20; the guy looks like he's been in the league 10 years," says Columbus captain Rick Nash, 24. The lone superstar in franchise history, Nash has 188 goals since the Jackets took him No. 1 in 2002. But until Hitchcock arrived in November '06, Nash admits, "I was definitely just geared to score." Hitchcock dusted off a speech he'd delivered to skilled center Mike Modano a decade earlier in Dallas. Recalls Nash, "Hitch told me that his best player needs to be the best player in every situation, over all 200 feet of ice."
"That was key," says the coach. "If Rick didn't buy in, I couldn't sell playing at both ends to the group." Nash bought in. Now he's one of the league's best penalty killers and the Jackets are one of the best stories in the NHL—and one of the best sports stories in Columbus ... after Buckeyes spring football.
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MEASURING UP Former Flyer Umberger (18) and rookie Mason (inset) fit the Jackets.
DEBORA ROBINSON/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (MASON)
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