The Columbus Chill: Paving the Path to the NHL
Who would have thought it would take 14 years for pro hockey to return to Columbus?
In 1991, the Columbus Chill emerged to battle the ghosts of the past, and resurrect hockey at the Fairgrounds Coliseum. Chicago businessman Horn Chen (who is a minority owner of the Blue Jackets) purchased an expansion franchise in the East Coast Hockey League appointing David Paitson as the team's President and General Manager.
With less than three months to get ready for their inaugural season, the Chill took a very unique and different approach to marketing the game, attempting to appeal to audiences outside the traditional hockey boundaries. Their goal was simple. Introduce new audiences to the sport and build a strong fan base. Little did Paitson and his staff know, they were about to embark on a phenomenon.
After a record sellout crowd of 6,400 fans for the Chill's first game, it was clear to the general public the team had created a new wave of excitement for the sport of hockey. In that first season crazy promotions, borderline offensive print ads and biting radio TV commercials caught Columbus sports fanatics off-guard, generating Seinfeld-esque water cooler talk about how much fun it was to attend a Chill game. Many fans started coming to games regularly, not just because it hosted pro hockey, but because it was entertaining for even the non-hockey fan. Prior to the start of that first season, team officials hoped to draw 3,500 patrons per game. However, they soon realized their marketing strategy had worked better than planned as a sellout streak began in early January 1992 and did not end until 83 games later - a minor league hockey record that still stands today.
In the second year of the Chill franchise, the team's future was in jeopardy when the Coliseum made it very difficult for the Chill to obtain sufficient home dates for that season. The controversy almost caused the team to leave town sparking enough public interest that the mayor's office warmed up to the idea of building a downtown arena. In fact, shortly after the Chill's scheduling problems were made public, then Mayor Lashutka stated "the difficulty the Columbus Chill had in nailing down dates for their coming season is one of the reasons we've decided to appoint a citizens commission to study how and where a sports/civic arena might be built in Columbus." As most natives of Columbus know, the Chill's scheduling conflicts would continue for years resulting in off-sight home games for both regular and postseason contests. But, Mayor Lashutka's citizens commission would serve as an unofficial beginning to the city's effort to build a downtown arena and eventually obtain a National Hockey League franchise.
On the ice, the Chill hosted hockey talent for die-hard fans to enjoy for eight seasons. In the franchise's first three years (1991-94) the team was led by then head coach Terry Ruskowski. Ruskowski's passion for the game along with a savvy with the Columbus media made him a legend in the city. However, Ruskowski was not the only one from the Chill who earned celebrity status in those days. Players such as Jason "the Smurf" Christie, Phil Crowe, Rob Schriner, Barry Dreger, and Blair Atcheynum (whose career included 196 games in the NHL) all became as well known to fans as some of the Ohio State Buckeyes.
Following his third season, where the Chill made the playoffs for the first time, Ruskowski became the first ECHL coach to get hired as a head coach in the IHL when he was promoted to the Houston Aeros. Ruskowski was replaced by former NHL'er and Olympian Moe Mantha who would coach the Chill for the next two seasons (1994-96). Mantha's Chill would make the playoffs in back to back seasons, but the team was unable to play any of its home playoff games at the Coliseum. In the Mantha era, a new breed of Chill talent would emerge for the team. Derek Clancey, Keith Morris, Matt Oates and Beau Bilek. These four headline the Chill record books. Clancey was a perennial 100-point-per-season player, Morris was one of the team's most prolific goal-scorers, Oates would go on to spend four seasons in Columbus and Bilek, a two-time ECHL all-star, was also the team's all-time plus/minus leader.
For the 1996-97 season, Brian McCutcheon took over the coaching reins for the Chill as Mantha became the second Chill coach to earn a head coaching promotion (Mantha joined the Baltimore Bandits of the AHL, who would later relocate to Cincinnati as the Mighty Ducks). In his first and only season with the Chill, McCutcheon would lead the team to its most successful season ever. The team tallied a 44-21-5 (93 pts) record good enough for the city's first-ever, pro hockey division title capped off with McCutcheon earning Coach of the Year honors. Shortly after the Chill were eliminated from the playoffs, McCutcheon became the third Chill coach to get promoted to a head coaching position, taking the coaching job with the Rochester Americans of the AHL. At that time, of the 29 ECHL teams, the Chill had promoted more coaches to the AHL or IHL than any other franchise.
With McCutcheon out for the 1997-98 season the Chill turned to former player Don Granato to become the team's fourth-ever coach. Granato came to the team with championship experience and an uncanny ability to make his players better. During the 1997-98 season Granato helped promote a franchise-record 18 different players to 11 different IHL or AHL clubs.
The next season (1998-99), which would be the franchise's final campaign, Granato helped the Chill to its second division championship in three years with a 39-24-7, (85 pts). Although the on-ice success highlighted the 1998-99 season, nothing was more special than the team's final regular season home game. In a perfect blend of showmanship and gamesmanship the Chill earned the division crown by defeating the Dayton Bombers 5-0. In the franchise's 191st and final sellout, Chill fans did not go home disappointed.
For eight years the Chill franchise helped serve as a significant catalyst for pro hockey in Columbus. During their tenure, two new ice facilities were built (Dublin Chiller and the Chiller at Easton), helping over 25,000 people take "Learn to Skate" and "Learn to Play Hockey" classes; High School hockey participation went from two to 11 schools; and, youth hockey participants grew from 150 to over 1,300 kids.
There is no question each of the former pro hockey teams helped lay some of the ground work for what's ahead - the Columbus Blue Jackets. After 30 years, most of the city's hockey fans will tell you, "it was worth the wait."