SBJ/January 7-13, 2013/Franchises

Jackets’ Davidson brings straight talk to public

Columbus Blue Jackets fans and corporate partners are frustrated. Their concerns are not over the NHL lockout, the league’s second since the Blue Jackets came on board as an expansion franchise in 2000 and this one costing the city its choice as host for the now-canceled 2013 NHL All-Star Game. No, the consternation comes from the team’s last-overall finish in the league in 2011-12 and a failure to qualify for the playoffs in 10 of the club’s 11 years in the NHL.

So in comes John Davidson, hired Oct. 24 by the Blue Jackets as president of hockey operations. Davidson was president of the St. Louis Blues for the previous six seasons, before their sale to Tom Stillman led to a management overhaul. Before his front-office career, Davidson, a former NHL goaltender, had been the TV analyst for the New York Rangers for more than two decades.

“A big part of my job is not just implementing a plan for success on the ice but explaining how it will work and why it will work.”
John Davidson (left)
Columbus Blue Jackets
Photo by: COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
This is a man adept at communication, at providing clear and earnest answers to a cynical public. Over the last six weeks, Davidson has been putting that gift to use, meeting with current and prospective Blue Jackets ticket-holders and corporate clients.

“There’s a lot of frustration that the club has not been the powerful force in this market that everyone had hoped for,” Davidson said. “I can learn from the past, but I have nothing to do with it. A big part of my job is not just implementing a plan for success on the ice but explaining how it will work and why it will work.”

When Davidson interviewed with Blue Jackets majority owner John P. McConnell and President Mike Priest, he understood the job was to oversee general manager Scott Howson and be the face of the club’s hockey operations staff. His experience in St. Louis, where the Blues finished last overall in 2005-06 and saw their season-ticket base dwindle before retooling into a contender, prepared Davidson for Columbus. A town hall-style meeting with more than 400 season-ticket holders Dec. 17 and a series of sponsor dinners in December have evoked memories of his first days with the Blues.

“I’m getting a lot of the same questions in Columbus,” Davidson said.

According to Davidson, the questions are about faith in the Blue Jackets’ latest rebuilding phase and the team’s ability to compete with big market franchises. His responses have been well-received.

“I never expected someone so personable, so engaging, with his insights into the league and teams,” said Dale Heydlauff, vice president of corporate communications for Ohio-based American Electric Power. AEP is a championship level sponsor of the Blue Jackets, with dasherboard and concourse advertising along with season tickets, among other deal points.

Heydlauff represented his company at a Dec. 5 dinner between top team sponsors and Davidson with other Blue Jackets executives at the Hyde Park Prime Steakhouse in Columbus. Besides AEP, there were executives from Nationwide, OhioHealth, Dispatch Media Group and Fox Sports Ohio.

“John spoke candidly about how to build and sustain a winning team and about the challenges along the way,” Heydlauff said. “We’ve been saddened and frustrated because the team’s struggles and the lockout mean we haven’t been getting the return on investment we’d hoped for. But the meeting gave me confidence that the Blue Jackets will be a better team and fill more seats.”

The Blue Jackets were 27th last season in attendance in the 30-team league, averaging 14,660 at Nationwide Arena, and have just over 7,000 season-ticket holders. Sponsorship sales, down over the last year and now challenged by the lockout, also need the boost that Davidson’s meet-and-greets provide.

“John gives us a lot of credibility,” said A.J. Poole, Blue Jackets vice president of corporate development, who has attended two sponsor dinners and two cocktail receptions for premium-seat holders with Davidson. Poole said the team, while respecting Davidson’s hockey operations schedule, will use him at pitches when his voice is required.

“John’s sincerity would play well anywhere, but our fans and partners in Columbus are really taking to him,” Poole said. “I’m optimistic that we’ll see these meetings were good for business.”

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