In the United States, ice hockey has often been considered one of the most violent and aggressive sports. Television and newspaper reports will invariably show snippets of two players pushing, shoving and hitting each other. While this makes for good entertainment, it creates a negative impression of the sport and those who compose it. Unfortunately, many of the uplifting, positive things the players of the National Hockey League do for their communities off ice go largely unspoken and unnoticed. In 2000, the community of Columbus, Ohio, was given the opportunity for change through the hard work and determination of one man – John McConnell.
Even before the first fans entered the doors, the anthem was sung and the inaugural puck was dropped at Nationwide Arena, change was already taking a foothold. John McConnell, owner of Worthington Industries and majority owner of the Columbus Blue Jackets, had a directive for his new, NHL expansion franchise: “Help your community by giving back what you can.” He set out to build the team around this concept. He recruited existing players from other NHL teams who were already involved in programs within their current communities. He searched for young, promising, talented players who remembered their own roots; realizing they too achieved only through the dedication from others – their families, their former coaches, and even their former teammates.
One player, Tyler Wright, heard Mr. McConnell’s message loud and clear. Tyler had a history of visiting children stricken with cancer. Unbeknownst to his teammates, he would go to the area’s local children’s hospital, and spend time with them. When Mr. McConnell asked his newly organized team for ideas on how to continue the NHL’s overall theme of “Hockey Fights Cancer”, Tyler stepped up. He created a program called “Hats for Heroes”. By selling specially designed, autographed ball caps, money was raised to support the research and fight against pediatric cancer.
The “Hats for Heroes” program is only a fraction of the Columbus Blue Jackets Foundation’s four-part mission: pediatric cancer, education, children’s health and safety and, youth and amateur hockey development.
Tyler Wright’s role on the team has since changed. Now the CBJ’s Player Development Coach, Tyler no longer plays professional hockey. However, many of the Columbus Blue Jackets players have adopted their former teammate’s attitude and taken up the cause: Rick Nash, Jason Chimera, Jared Boll, Manny Malhotra, R.J. Umberger, and Steve Mason are just a portion of the players who go out into the community regularly to meet with children, spend time talking to them and spread the message of “giving back”.
What makes the value of the players’ commitment to this mission so important to understand is this: none of them are contractually obligated to do what they do. They do not ask to get paid for their time, nor do they seek media attention for their actions. They take time out of their very busy schedules to spend several hours with other people’s children solely because they believe in “giving back to the community that has lovingly embraced them”.
Sadly, on April 25, 2008, Mr. McConnell passed away at the age of 84. While his strong presence is greatly missed by the entire Columbus Blue Jackets organization, he died knowing that his legacy of change will continue through the combined efforts of the employees of the Columbus Blue Jackets Foundation and the individual team members of the Columbus Blue Jackets Organization.
How much more definition of the title, “Hero” does one need?