Before the All-Stars, Before the Blue Jackets, there was the Chill
Former Columbus Chill President / GM Dave Paitson and freelance writer Craig Merz have co-authored the new book “Chill Factor: How a Minor-League Hockey Team Changed a City Forever.” We asked Craig to give us his thoughts as the city heads in to the much-anticipated NHL All-Star Weekend.
Hockey in Columbus reaches a level unseen, and for many long-time local fans of the sport, unforeseen when the NHL All-Star Weekend descends upon our city January 23-25.
Beginning with the Fantasy Draft the first day, followed by the Skills Completion and finally the All-Star Game, Columbus will be in the bright lights on an international stage as the best players in the world converge on Ohio’s capital city.
I have no doubt the thousands of visitors and media members will leave here knowing that Columbus is the world-class city that I dreamed it could be while growing up on the north side of town.
What many, even those well-versed in hockey, may not know is that Columbus has a long history in the sport. In the new book Chill Factor that I co-authored with former Columbus Chill president and general manager David Paitson, we chronicle how the city reached this grand stage.
No, hockey in Columbus didn’t begin in June 1997 when the NHL awarded the city an expansion franchise. Actually, the roots go much deeper than the Blue Jackets.
Last year the Ohio State men’s hockey team celebrated its 50th season. In 2016, Columbus will mark a half a century since its first pro hockey team – the minor league Checkers – took to the ice at the Fairgrounds Coliseum and from that franchise a gruff but lovable Canadian named Moe Bartoli would become the “Godfather of pro hockey” in Columbus.
Initially, professional hockey in central Ohio was unable to break through to the casual sports fans. The Checkers were quickly followed by the Golden Seals and Owls before Columbus was left without pro hockey from 1977 until the Chill entered the scene in 1991.
There are many responsible for bringing this All-Star event to Columbus but if you walk back the timeline the Chill will be the first in line and by far the most impactful. Colorful personalities such as “Rosco” and “Smurf” immediately won the hearts of fans while innovative and edgy promotions engineered by the “Chill’s Merry Marketeers”, as ABC World News Tonight described them, captured their minds.
Without the franchise’s vision and persistence there wouldn’t be the Blue Jackets and thus the NHL All-Star Weekend in the beautiful Nationwide Arena in the bustling Arena District, a barren area 20 years ago that was dominated by an abandoned, crumbling state penitentiary.
The Chill became a first-year phenomena but its existence was threatened by a scheduling snafu with Coliseum officials before the second season. Strong public support for the Chill caught the attention of then-Mayor Greg Lashutka, and with his assistance, the issue was quickly resolved and within days he announced plans for a commission to study the possibility of building an arena in downtown Columbus.
Little did he know then that his actions would be the genesis for the NHL All-Star Game in Columbus.
But Paitson and the Chill staff, a bunch of outsiders who saw how sports transformed Indianapolis, then moved to Columbus and saw potential its residents couldn’t envision, had bigger ideas than running a double-A level team out of a 5,700-seat facility that opened at the end of World War I.
The Chill was the leading advocate for a Downtown arena and the NHL but also invested in central Ohio by opening the Chiller Dublin ice facility in 1993 at a time when there was one permanent ice sheet (OSU Ice Rink) and Upper Arlington fielded the only high-school team.
The Chill was in existence eight years but its legacy endures.
Today, there are 13 sheets in central Ohio, almost three dozen schools team and nearly 10,000 youths and adults playing recreational hockey or involved in figure skating as ice sports have become a cornerstone of the community.
Columbus isn’t Hockey Town but it is a hockey city as the rest of the world will soon discover.
Craig Merz covered the Columbus Chill from start to finish as part of a quarter century of reporting for The Columbus Dispatch. He is now a freelance journalist in Columbus.
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