The Hockey News - Money & Power
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
JOHN H. MCCONNELL’S rags-toriches life is a well-told story in central Ohio. As Columbus Dispatch columnist Michael Arace wrote upon the death of the original Blue Jackets majority owner in 2008: “He was raised in a home without electricity, and died in a hospital in which he’d donated towers.”
It could be said that McConnell left his son, John P.
McConnell, with a billion-dollar steel empire, a fledgling NHL franchise and some impossible shoes to fill.
John P. McConnell has mostly carried on with his father’s approach to club ownership, which is to say that he’s passionately interested in the day-to-day operation of the Blue Jackets, but not so closely that “hockey people” are burdened by his presence.
The elder McConnell used to make an annual speech to Blue Jackets fans after the final home game. Sadly, in the early awful years of the franchise, it was mostly an end-of-season apology – the first seven seasons of Blue Jackets hockey featured zero playoff appearances.
John P. McConnell, who has made no such speeches, keeps a much lower profile. (He has issued written public statements during crisis times.) McConnell hosts a golf outing at his exclusive Double-Eagle Golf Club a few days before training camp and a team dinner at his home early each season. Otherwise, his interaction with the club – the players, anyway – is limited to an occasional post-game dressing room appearance.
Perhaps it’s humility. John P. McConnell attended public schools, not private schools like most billionaires’ kids. When he came to work for Worthington Industries in 1975, it wasn’t in a corner office – it was as a general laborer at a plant in Kentucky, and later as a sales representative. His father wanted him to fully understand the day-to-day operations of the company, and to gain the respect – and the perspective – of the workers.
It might be a stretch to call McConnell a man of the people; he’s worth an estimated $3 billion. But he did gain appreciation in the local hockey community by skating in a men’s league and showing up unannounced occasionally at dropin games in the early 2000s.
It hasn’t all been smooth. McConnell made an unfortunate gaffe during an on-ice ceremony honoring former Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock for winning his 500th NHL game in 2009-10. McConnell was thanking the Blue Jackets’ opponent, the Detroit Red Wings, when he mistakenly called them “the Detroit Blue Devils.”
But the most turbulent times during John P. McConnell’s tenure as majority owner have all related to the Nationwide Arena lease, which has been restructured at least twice.
In 2012, McConnell allowed Nationwide Insurance, whose name is on the Blue Jackets’ arena, to purchase a 30-percent share of the team as part of a restructuring on the arena lease, but the club is once again seeking public money, this time to help keep the 20-year-old building looking spiffy.
McConnell still owns a majority stake, though the exact figures haven’t been made public. A few other minority owners – Ron Pizzuti, Jay Crane and Wolfe Industries – have singledigit stakes, as does Horn Chen, a minor-league hockey owner who once owned the Columbus Chill of the ECHL.
Six years ago, the Blue Jackets’ on-ice struggles drew an angry mob of fans protesting outside Nationwide Arena, demanding change after more than a decade of mostly hopeless play on the ice.
Within one year, McConnell made sweeping changes to the structure at the top of the Blue Jackets, becoming one of the first NHL franchises to hire a prominent hockey mind under a new title: director of hockey operations. John Davidson, who had just left the St. Louis Blues, was McConnell’s pick.
Davidson’s hiring allowed Mike Priest – long a trusted executive at Worthington Industries, and a close friend to the McConnell family – to leave behind the hockey side of things and focus squarely on running the business side. The Davidson era has delivered to McConnell and fans the franchise’s most promising on-ice product since the club’s inception. The next challenge: winning a playoff round. – AARON PORTZLINE