America is often tagged as a nation that has evolved into a countrywide landscape of commercial sameness.
On nearly every corner there seems to be a Wal-Mart, Panera Bread, Home Depot, Starbucks, Olive Garden, Hampton Inn, McDonald's and so on. Original, one-of-a-kind establishments are difficult to locate. Off-ramps are concrete slides swerving our shiny, metal boxes toward Homogeneous Avenue.
"OMG, it's a Subway!!! YES!!!!"
Combating the indistinguishable signage is our country's stunning and varied scenery. Just look. America is a certified, natural beauty. Get a plane ticket or jump in your car and get out and see it. Now.
Sports teams also interrupt the sameness. Think about it: There is only one of each. Yes, sports are corporate and regimented in many ways, part of organized leagues, but the logos and nicknames are different. The 30 NHL arenas have their own personalities even if they aren't all The Forum, Maple Leaf Gardens, Boston Garden or Pittsburgh's Igloo. The menu of players is obviously unique.
The NHL last expanded into the sameness of America in 2000, when Minnesota and Columbus began play and were teams No. 29 and 30.
St. Paul, Minnesota, was an obvious choice after the North Stars moved to Dallas for the 1993-94 season. It took seven years before the NHL finally returned the land of 10,000 skates for the 2000-01 season, and the soul of hockey in the United States resides in Minnesota. When you sell out an NHL arena for a high school hockey state tournament every year, you win. Game, set, match.
Columbus, Ohio, was not a natural choice. Yes, the economy has been relatively strong and diverse. The population continues to swell, and sports are an important value to the residents. Football is king in Ohio, though. Could the city, and towns within a two-hour radius, make a hockey team part of the fabric of their lives?
Ticket sales are OK, and local television ratings haven't been all that good, but the Blue Jackets have lasted longer than the Atlanta Flames did in Georgia. The Flames were epically terrible. Not only did they not win a playoff series in their eight Georgia seasons, but their playoff record was 2-15.
The Blue Jackets just finished up their 13th NHL season. In the playoffs, they were swept by the Detroit Red Wings in the first round in 2009 and won two games in the first round against the Pittsburgh Penguins this season.
Minnesota hasn't had much more success. Yes, the Wild did reach the conference finals in just their third NHL season, but that was the only postseason in which the Wild had won a series before this year's seven-game first-round triumph over Colorado. They seemed better than Columbus, though.
Together, these two teams were second-class NHL citizens, part of the mediocre sameness with all the personality of your local CVS. Switch their uniforms and you couldn't tell them apart. Especially when Ken Hitchcock in Columbus and Jacques Lemaire in Minnesota coached against each other for two seasons.
The treadmill was headed toward a slow arena exit and on a perpetual incline. The Wild had Marian Gaborik and the Blue Jackets had Rick Nash, but both would be gone at age 27 after their teams realized they weren't players to build around but rather ornaments for a bigger tree.
Things have changed, though. The Blue Jackets and Wild have at long last arrived and should be here to stay.
Columbus has built a culture around the extroverted Americans who play in a city that is decidedly middle America. Five of the team's top nine scorers this season -- Jack Johnson, Brandon Dubinsky, R.J. Umberger, Cam Atkinson, Nick Foligno -- were born in the U.S.
You could tell early this season that Columbus had a strong unit with a strong energy. It was like a high school or college football team whose players put their goals on paper and immersed themselves in the community. I'm surprised they didn't have a Boone Jenner Car Wash in the parking lot at a BP gas station in Westerville. It's exactly the kind of team Columbus needed to finally hatch into the thriving NHL market that some of us always thought it was.
The hiring of John Davidson as president of the Blue Jackets in 2012 cannot be overestimated. Davidson brings competence, organization and energy to a hockey operation. He has a good eye for talent and hires good people around him.
The star of the show on the ice is Canadian Ryan Johansen, the fourth overall pick in 2010 behind Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin and Erik Gudbranson. Johansen, 21, exploded for 33 goals this season and has thrived in the strong, supportive culture in Columbus.
The Blue Jackets will not be a one-hit wonder this time around. This is the beginning of a trend.
The same is true in Minnesota, which seemed to have it all when the Wild began play in 2000: fantastic arena, sold-out games, early success.
However, that deep playoff run in 2002-03 was an outlier. The Wild would be an 80-plus-point team for six of the next eight seasons. Average, not terrible, but you need to be terrible to get generational players like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Steven Stamkos, etc. Average is death.
Then everything changed in the summer of 2012. Zach Parise and Ryan Suter eschewed teams like the Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, Red Wings and several others to sign together with the perpetually average Wild. You couldn't plug in two more sure things than Suter and Parise. They are tree stumps, not mere ornaments.
I never mocked those contracts because time flies and Suter and Parise are redwood, rock-solid legit. And around these stumps are an array of shiny ornaments. My goodness, the team speed. It's thrilling to watch Charlie Coyle work down low and the emerging Mikael Granlund -- the ninth overall pick in that Hall/Seguin/Skinner/Johansen draft -- attacking and slithering around the cage like Parise.
And, of course, Erik Haula. Some pronounce it "HOW-la," but his teammates call him "HALL-A," so I'm calling him "HOLLA"!
For the first time, Wild fans have the team they deserve. A legitimate, fast, exciting north-south team they can identify with and be genuinely excited about. And they can feel that their team is no longer just the cuddly upstart. Minnesota will become a destination for players.
A good number of young players already go there to train, hang out and live for the summer. Why go off to your Canadian lakeside cottage when you build one for year-round use in the Land of 10,000 Lakes?
Like Columbus, Minnesota has a great balance of established players in their mid-to-late 20s and top-level 20- and 21-year-olds who will able to experience winning while they develop.
Nash, now with the New York Rangers, built up scar tissue while trying to carry a franchise and waiting for the Blue Jackets to get him some help. He didn't have what's in Columbus and Minnesota now. It's a great lesson, this Columbus/Minnesota awakening.
Both have arrived in the big time. Things take time, but you show up, keep trying and hire smart people with big hearts. It will get better, your day will come, and good deeds will be rewarded.
The Wild and Jackets are real teams now.
Recognize, (Mike) Yeo. Fo Bryzzle. Holla.
"Somewhere in middle America
Get right to the heart of matters
It's the heart that matters more."
--"Omaha" by Counting Crows