Ohio Hockey Franchise Finishes Season Of Loss, Losses

By RUSTY MILLER, AP Sports Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - After a year of loss and losses, the Columbus Blue Jackets organization was relieved to hear the final horn sound on its star-crossed second season.

"Our season is going to be remembered more for the tragedies that went on," forward Geoff Sanderson said.

Everything changed on March 18 when 13-year-old Brittanie Cecil died, two days after she was hit by a puck that was deflected off the ice surface during a game between the Blue Jackets and Calgary Flames.

The players wore a heart-shaped sticker on their helmets that bore her initials. There was a moment of silence, there was debate about putting up safety nets -- and then there was the remainder of the season to be played.

Fans kept coming -- the team sold out all 41 games and has filled Nationwide Arena to capacity in its last 56 games overall -- but it was as if their hearts weren't in it.

The players, most of whom have kids of their own who attend the games, were touched deeply by the death. Maybe their hearts weren't in it either. They went 3-9-0-2 the rest of the season.

"It has affected me, no doubt about it," goaltender Ron Tugnutt said in the days after the tragedy.

The death cast a shadow over the season, the team and the entire organization, and trivialized talk of wins, losses, personnel moves and the team's future.

The Blue Jackets completed their second season Sunday with a 2-0 loss at Chicago, dropping them to 22-47-8-5 for 57 points -- 14 fewer than they had in their inaugural season.

The bad news certainly didn't begin or end with the second-worst record in the NHL.

Center Serge Aubin's father attended a Blue Jackets game in Montreal on April 6 and then was killed in an auto accident on his way home. The wife of leading-scorer Ray Whitney gave birth to a daughter that same week, then suffered severe complications that kept her hospitalized for several days.

Team president and general manager Doug MacLean's father died in the final week of the season.

"It's been a difficult year," assistant GM Jim Clark said softly.

In the dressing room after one of the final practices of the season, a Columbus Blue Jackets player asked forward Mike Sillinger's 4-year-old son Owen who he thought would win the Stanley Cup.

"Columbus Blue Jackets!" he sang out as most of the players chuckled.

But there will be no Stanley Cup or playoffs for the second-year franchise.

Sanderson missed almost 2½ months with a hernia and a concussion, gutting the team's offense. The Blue Jackets scored 164 goals -- the fewest in the NHL and a 16-percent decline from their first season.

Tugnutt and Marc Denis struggled at times in goal, a considerable falloff from their heroic work a year ago.

There were some bright spots amid the gloom, however.

Ray Whitney surpassed Sanderson's first-year points record with 61 and free-agent signee Mike Sillinger had a strong year on special teams and on face-offs while exceeding his career best in goals with 21. Espen Knutsen had a goal and an assist as the Blue Jackets' first All-Star selection and Rostislav Klesla got better and better as his rookie season progressed.

"If you look at the glass being half full, you'd see that we're very pleased with the development of some younger players," said coach Dave King, whose future -- just like his players' -- was being evaluated in the wake of the season. "When you go through the growing pains that we're going through, it's going to make winning feel real good."

The Blue Jackets also invested time in rookies Andrej Nedorost, Derrick Walser, Matt Davidson, Mathieu Darche and Jody Shelley -- arguably the fans' favorite player because of his willingness to brawl. For the most part, the front office liked what it saw of the youngsters.

One of the few paybacks for their sorry season is that the Blue Jackets will likely draw the rights to one of the top two picks in the NHL entry draft this summer.

Before the final home game, team owner John H. McConnell addressed the fans on the video boards.

"You did your job; I'm not sure we did ours," McConnell said. "I guarantee you next year we'll do better. That's a guarantee."

It would be hard to do worse. By merely getting through this season of sorrow, they've taken the first step.

"This is a part of an expansion team growing," King said. "There's going to be some huge bumps in the road. You wish there were little bumps, but there are big ones. That's the way it is."

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)