Puck Daddy Summer Series: Weird Columbus Blue Jackets
[Ed. Note: Some lists chronicle the best in hockey. Others the worst. Others the most memorable or greatest or essential. What Puck Daddy’s 2016 Summer Series seeks to do is capture those indefinable, quirky, oddities that occur every season. Moments that defy prediction or, in some cases, logical explanation. Welcome to WEIRD NHL.]
By: Paul Berthelot, Sam Blazer, Alison Lukan, Derek Marr and Matt Souva of Buckeye State Hockey
1. The story of Boomer the Mascot
Blue Jacket fans love themselves some cannon, man. The team has one that blasts for every home goal, and it’s a big part of the team brand, including when the Jackets decided in 2010 to release new third jerseys with a cannon-themed logo. And mascot.
By now “Boomer” is a character who most hockey fans have heard of – he is the cannon-themed mascot that instantly gathered comparisons to (best case) a bong, and (worst case) male genitalia.
While the mascot rose to the challenge of satisfying his target audience – kids – the damning court of public opinion was simply too much and after just three game appearances, Boomer was never seen again.
Happy Birthday Boomer! #CBJ ????????????
Exactly 5 years ago today! via @timehop pic.twitter.com/lIURIMnwbI
— Steven (@telepathetic) November 24, 2015
Many people just couldn’t believe such a gaffe would make it through the gauntlet of marketing review, not just within the team but also at the league level.
Let us all take in the first time ever that Boomer was presented to the public… wait for the payoff of the first “oh my god” as the cheers die down. (And yes that’s Tyler Wright modeling the new jersey):
But here’s where it gets weird.
As the Jackets have fought for increased respect on the ice, you’d think that such a misstep as a mascot shaped like anatomy would be erased from team history, or at the very least cause cringes that kept references to a minimum.
But Columbus seems to Want. Boomer. Back.
Jacket fans have embraced Boomer as an emblem of their local hockey love. They’re looking for him:
People are seeing Boomer, if this is true, pics need to happen #CBJ pic.twitter.com/fZIGpOb6BQ
— Robert (@Cujorulesdtown9) February 27, 2013
They have started petitions to Bring Back Boomer, they’ve dressed up like him for Halloween, more than a couple Boomer accounts popped up on twitter, and there’s even been an unofficial recoupling of Boomer and his distant mascot cousin, Stinger:
@LoriSchmidt Stinger and Boomer reunion! #cbj pic.twitter.com/aiUQpALfWo
— The Scarlet Liners (@Scarlet_Liners) November 1, 2015
Local reporters have gotten in on the act by not just mentioning Boomer well after he’s gone, they’ve included him in a March Madness Mascot Bracket Challenge (seriously… He did lose in the first round, but he’s not known for lasting long anyway.)
And the media continues to remind the public that finding the living cannon is a real mystery that won’t fall off the Columbus pop-culture agenda:
Fans missing their favorite mascot have turned Boomer into Beer League hockey team names, complete with jerseys:
And the franchise itself got in on the act…they’ve subtly let Boomer pop up in promo activities now and then:
No one knows where the real Boomer is – but should he ever come back, there will be an eruption of glee from Jackets land. The mascot seemingly everyone said shouldn’t be loved has somehow turned mockery into devoted affection in Columbus.
2. Who is in net now? How Shawn Hunwick became a Blue Jacket.
Most Blue Jackets fans are just fine forgetting the 2011-12 season, thank you. No need to re-live the Jeff Carter saga, or the Rick Nash trade request, or that last place finish. Of all the weird things in that miserable year, one of the brightest CBJ moments came to Columbus via Ann Arbor, Michigan driving a Ford Ranger, wearing Wolverine goalie pads, and standing at only 5’ 7’’ through two minutes and 33 seconds of NHL action.
The condensed story of Shawn Hunwick’s NHL experience is bizarre even just from the CBJ perspective. On March 28, 2012, starter Steve Mason suffered an injury during morning skate in Columbus. The Blue Jackets were set to face the Detroit Red Wings, and were already short on goalies. Mark Dekanich never got to play in Union Blue, replacement backup Curtis Sanford was out, and fill-in backup Allen York had only 7 games of NHL experience.
The CBJ solution? Sign Shawn Hunwick, the starter from the University of Michigan, to an amateur tryout contract. Hunwick was to fill the backup gap for one night and be ready if something happened to York. A goalie shortage was an odd enough situation for the struggling Jackets. The selection is made stranger for fans given the college town animosity between Ohio State and Michigan.
The real surprise is that Shawn Hunwick was even playing on an NCAA DI team, never mind playing as starter with one of the nation’s premier programs and helping push his team to success.
It’s easy enough to joke that such a diminutive goalie was overlooked in his pre-Michigan career, but that’s seriously what makes the Shawn Hunwick story. Everett Cook explored Hunwick’s unlikely place in Wolverine hockey history with The Michigan Daily. Hunwick wasn’t recruited and was a walk-on practice player. After only two games through two years in Ann Arbor (including a redshirt sophomore season), Hunwick finally got his chance after starter Bryan Hogan pulled a groin in the final regular season series of the 2009-10 campaign.
And wouldn’t you know, the walk-on became the hero. Hunwick powered the Wolverines from mediocrity to a CCHA championship and NCAA berth. And then he did it again, piloting Michigan to an NCAA Tournament Final in the 2010-11 season (playing Cinderella a second time, to paraphrase Michigan Radio). And then the goalie cemented his legacy, finishing his senior year with an astounding .932 SV% over 40 games. Hunwick’s career GAA and SV% are the best in Michigan history.
Then, just five days after his last game in Maize and Blue (Michigan’s OT loss to Cornell), Shawn Hunwick was called to play for the Jackets.
Zach Helfand recounted the Ann Arbor side of the ATO experience with The Michigan Daily, as Hunwick hit the road. And that’s meant in a literal way: Hunwick threw his goalie equipment in the back of his truck and drove the three-ish hours to Columbus (but not before the netminder had to turn around because, as Helfand notes, Hunwick “had forgotten his wallet and his shoes”).
After one more parking delay, Hunwick was a Blue Jacket (the goalie told Helfand, “I don’t think he [the arena parking attendant] really believed me, but then he radioed up to somebody, and they said I was good.”) There he was, a Michigan goalie wearing Michigan pads and a Michigan helmet with a Blue Jackets uniform against the Detroit Red Wings in Columbus, Ohio. It was (and still is) a bizarre visual.
I just saw this picture of @shawn_hunwick and I love it. So funny. #CBJ sweater and @umichhockey gear. #CCHA pic.twitter.com/Cc1IPXg0
— Shannon Hogan (@Shannon_Hogan) April 2, 2012
Hunwick didn’t play in his ATO game, but he shared his thoughts on the experience with the media afterwards. For me the best part is Hunwick’s incredulity. A reporter asks, “Are you planning on being here tomorrow?” Candidly, the goalie replies, “I have no idea! As far as I know, I really don’t know anything, actually. Yeah, I’m not sure. I guess I have to ask somebody. I don’t even know who to ask.”
The CBJ’s Rob Mixer also chatted with Hunwick after the Detroit game. The goalie had no qualms about missing an Astronomy class at Michigan, and had a sound bit of self-reflection to offer. “Don’t fall, and just soak it all in. You never know if you will be back, so enjoy the time here.” For team and player, the time lasted a bit longer, as the Blue Jackets signed Shawn Hunwick for the remainder of the 2011-12 season.
And then, in the final game of the year, the Wolverine-turned-Jacket got his moment to shine on the pro hockey stage. The Blue Jackets were up 7-3 on the New York Islanders, and CBJ coach Todd Richards made the move: Shawn Hunwick went in for the final 2:33 of the game, still wearing those Michigan pads (albeit with a helmet change).
Consider from the CBJ perspective for a moment: Shawn Hunwick logged NHL game time for Columbus more recently than Rick Nash (from the game’s shift chart, final action for 61 ended at 57:15, and the goalie swap happened at 57:27).
To cap off the entire strange situation, Hunwick didn’t end up facing a single shot against the Islanders, and his brief appearance ended up as his only moment in the NHL. But for player and fans, Shawn Hunwick’s two minutes in net was a special story in a season sorely lacking positive tales.
Well this has been an amazing experience. Thank you to all of you have texted, tweeted or emailed. Your support has been tremendous.
— Shawn Hunwick (@shawn_hunwick) April 8, 2012
3. The time Nathan Horton scored a goal in a game in which he did not play
The Nathan Horton era in Columbus was a disappointment to say the least. Despite his much ballyhooed arrival as an UFA in the 2013 offseason, Horton spent only 36 games wearing the Union Blue. He was fine when he was actually on the ice, but injuries were a major problem, and have since (almost assuredly) ended his career. The resulting trade of an uninsured Horton for the albatross contract of David Clarkson could be its own entry in this series.
A fun fact: the CBJ’s top targets in 2013 free agency were Horton and Clarkson. Oh what could have been.
As for the goal in question, it’s part of one of the stranger occurrences in NHL history, albeit in a not very fun way. On March 10th, 2014 the Stars played the Blue Jackets, a game in which Horton scored during the first period.
If you take a look the schedule for March 14 you see the game in question, but looking for that box score brings a big fat nothing. That’s because the game started but never finished. If you are reading this, you likely remember the unfortunate situation with Rich Peverley. While Peverley survived the frightening cardiac incident, it did ultimately end his playing career.
The Stars-Jackets game was rescheduled for April 9th. That led to wild ends to the season for the Stars and Blue Jackets, with both teams chasing playoff spots. The Stars ended up playing four games in five nights, with the Jackets facing final run that was nearly equally equally nuts:
Beginning on Tuesday vs. #Avs, #CBJ will play eight games in 12 days, including three back-to-backs and no more than one day between games.
— Aaron Portzline (@Aportzline) March 30, 2014
Part of the agreement when the game was rescheduled was to allow the Jackets to start the game with a 1-0 lead, keeping Horton’s goal from the earlier game on the books. This became NHL history, when, in the Jackets’ game prior to the rescheduled Dallas match on April 8th, Horton only played 5:21 after suffering a lower body injury. He didn’t even leave Columbus with the team, staying in Ohio as the Jackets traveled to Dallas.
This meant Horton scored a goal from another state, becoming the first and only player in NHL history to score a goal in a game he didn’t play. For much of the game it looked like it would hold up as the game winner, until Trevor Daley scored mid-way through the 3rd period to make it 3-1 for the Jackets. This game ended up being pretty important for the Jackets, as the CBJ clinched a playoff spot that night. That isn’t exactly a regular occurrence in Columbus.
As for Horton, in addition to being the only player to score a goal in a game he didn’t play, he also joins a very short list of players who have scored a goal in a game without getting credit for a shot on goal. Even more bizarre, this is almost guaranteed to be the final goal Nathan Horton ever scores. Shortly afterwards he had abdominal surgery, missed the rest of the 2013-14 season, and hasn’t played since.
Horton had a pretty good career for someone whose career ended at age 28, picking up a Stanley Cup ring and potting 203 career goals. Officially, the final game of his illustrious NHL career was April 8th, 2014. So Horton will have scored a goal AFTER his final NHL game. Now that is weird.
4. The arena is built where? Surely there’s no curse…
For many fans, their home arena is their sanctuary. They go to have a good time, drink some adult beverages and enjoy hockey. What if you found out that this place was haunted? Would you still go? Well fans in Columbus should be asking themselves this question if they haven’t already. Nationwide Arena is haunted. Allegedly. And why? Because the Arena and Arena District were built on the site of an old prison.
The Ohio Penitentiary was built in 1834 and stood for 164 years before being torn down in 1998 to make room for the Arena and Arena District. Columbus was in its infancy as a city – it had been established just 22 years prior – and with most prisons being built in the center of larger cities at that time, the Ohio prison was built in an effort to grow the area and it did just that. By 1900 the penitentiary had become a tourist attraction and was dubbed “modern” and becoming a “point of pride to the city and the state.”
Despite the popularity of the prison, many civilians had no idea what was going on inside the walls. Overcrowding was a serious problem and disease ran rampant. In 1849, a cholera epidemic went through the prison killing 121 inmates.
The worst though, came in 1930 when one of the deadliest fires in American History was set. Three inmates: James Raymond, Clinton Grate, and Hugh Gibbons wanted to escape and decided to set a fire on the roof of one of the blocks. The plan was for the inmates to all be in the dining hall when the fire would start, creating mass chaos, so they could escape. The problem was that by the time their crude fire caught, the inmates were all locked back in their cells.
On top of that, because the roof was very hot, dry, full of fresh wood and covered in resin with sawdust floating everywhere, when the flame hit, the whole roof essentially exploded. Burning beams started falling and the prison caught fire. Many prisoners burned alive in their cells and 322 people died.
As for the three men who had set the fire, Raymond ultimately turned himself in and was locked in solitary confinement. He confessed to everything, named both Grate and Gibbons and later hung himself. Grate and Gibbons were each convicted of second degree murder and given life sentences. Grate, like Raymond ended up hanging himself. Gibbons lived on for years but was haunted by the travesty and “went to his grave broken by remorse.”
The prison was shut down in 1979 and stood empty until its demolition in 1998. Between the fire and the 315 people executed, the prison grounds had a “reputation as the most notable haunted site in the city.” Nationwide was built on the prison parking lot but workers at the Arena have reported seeing “spectral sights” and hearing sounds of screaming, presumably from those caught in the fire.
While the majority of Columbus fans and media are aware of this, few seem to be bothered; but some believe that the spirits are the reason for the Blue Jackets’ struggles both with performance and health. As recently as 2015, journalists were revisiting the idea that perhaps a curse was to blame for the rash of injuries suffered by the team.
Fans have taken it even further. In 2007 the blog ShakeTheCurse.com popped up – they felt the Jackets were either cursed from the prison or that a mirror was broken during the building of the arena causing the team to have seven years of bad luck. In order to break the curse they suggested fans wear blue wigs and use specially painted maracas to “shake the curse.”
In 2008 “shake the curse” took things to a whole new level. They brought in an actual ghostbuster. Cindy Riggs of OhioGhostbusting.com, is a psychic and a spiritual counsellor and in the fall of 08 she went to Nationwide Arena and tried to lift the curse.
This included putting holy water in the Zamboni, going out to centre ice to bless the ice surface and spreading salt around the arena.
Now this all does seem extreme for a hockey team, but low and behold the Blue Jackets had their best season in franchise history after the “ghost busting” and made the playoffs for the first time.
Was this just a coincidence? I’ll leave it up to you to decide.
5. Gear regulations are hard: the story of the too small pads.
I guess size does matter; especially when you are Steve Mason.
During his time in Columbus, the former Calder Trophy winner apparently didn’t know that he was wearing equipment that wasn’t fitted properly.
Yes, you read that correctly.
The same Steve Mason that had trouble stopping a beach ball for most of his first four seasons with the Jackets. It turns out there was some reasoning behind it, and the discovery came during the 2011-2012 season.
Shawn Mitchell, formerly of the Columbus Dispatch, spoke with Mason at the time and apparently the equipment faux pas wasn’t just affecting his game, it was hurting him as well.
“There were times with the old stuff when I was getting hit in the ribs and was full of bruises,” Mason said. “You almost become scared of getting hit with the puck so you’re turning your body, and … that’s not the right way to play. With the new stuff you have confidence that pucks aren’t going to hurt you, and because it is larger, some pucks that might have squeaked through before are now hitting a piece of equipment.”
When Mitchell pushed and asked why Mason didn’t change his equipment before, the answer was pretty damn simple.
“I never knew I could,” Mason said. “If I knew, I would have done it three years ago. I guess I was a little out of the loop on that kind of stuff. But we’ll make it work now.”
I, uh, what? Imagine any other part of your life not knowing something as critical as that.
“You mean if I donate millions to charity I can deduct that from my taxes?”
“Wait, Capital One gives you double miles for everything?”
“Killing your apps after using them saves your battery life?”
On top of everything, Mason told InGoal magazine that these were the same pad dimensions he’d been using since his career in juniors, and even when Jackets’ goaltending coach Ian Clark encouraged him to switch, he was hesitant to do so.
What? So you didn’t know you could have bigger pads, but then your coach tells you you can and you’re still not sure?
You could beat a dead horse and tell the story over and over again, point, laugh and repeat. It doesn’t change how sad this story was when it came out. The Blue Jackets had only made the playoffs once in their entire history (at the time of this story) and were in the middle of another dreadful season. Mason had become a whipping boy for the team’s woes. For many fans, it felt like being told that one of your players had been playing with a hand behind his back. How could something as simple as this get through the cracks?
Safe to say the whole ‘Steve Mason is bad because his pads are too small’ is actually ‘Steve Mason is bad’.
— Ryan Comerford (@Ryan_Comerford) March 20, 2012
The 6’4” Mason responded wonderfully to the change, and the dividends were immediate. He changed his gear on February 11th in a game against the Minnesota Wild. He stopped all but one shot that evening and picked up his first win since December.
That led to a run that included an 11-7-1 record and a .911 save percentage to end the season. Before that season ending stretch, Mason was 5-19-2 with a .881 save percentage. I think it’s safe to say that this was a little more than an unsustainably bad run normalizing. The smaller pads were definitely part of the reason for Mason’s poor play.
After the 2011-2012 season, Mason only played 13 more games in a Jackets uniform before losing the starting net to Sergei Bobrovsky. Mason was traded to the Flyers for a 2015 third round draft pick and Michael Leighton.
Mason had an .899 save percentage that season but it raises the question, what would have happened if Mason stuck around with the Blue Jackets? Would a career revival ever have been possible? Would the fans in Columbus have gone back to loving him? Maybe the pad decision was a blessing in disguise for Mason, who has gone on to be a respectable goalie for the Flyers.
Once again, the Jackets’ loss is someone else’s gain.
Previous Weird NHL Posts: Anaheim | Arizona | Boston | Buffalo | Calgary | Carolina | Chicago | Colorado
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About the Authors:
Paul Berthelot covers the Blue Jackets for Buckeye State Hockey and HockeyBuzz. He enjoys scouting and does his best to combine scouts and stats. Follow him on Twitter: @PaulBerthelot.
Sam Blazer is the founder and editor of Buckeye State Hockey. You can find additional work of his at SBNation, The Nation Network and The Comeback. He isn’t a very good skater and apologizes to anyone who has seen him out on the ice. Follow him on Twitter: @Sam_Blazer.
Alison Lukan is a freelance writer for BlueJackets.com and editor and contributor at Buckeye State Hockey. Her dad has a scar from where a teammate skated over his hand and that got her interested in the game at age five. She also plays hockey…worse than people who are now at age five. Follow her on Twitter: @AlisonL.
Derek Marr is a guy who writes words, usually about the Blue Jackets. He played some, coached some, and did some stuff for an unnamed NHL team. Once wrote a 65 page paper on NHL arbitration.
Matt Souva is a nerd, loves college hockey, writes at Buckeye State Hockey, and produces the Union Blue Radio podcast. When not thinking pucks, he’s a chemical engineering PhD student. You can find him on Twitter: @zekebud.