Jun 22, 2020
We take a rare dip into the minors this week with the intriguing story of hockey’s Columbus Chill – the 1990s sensation that took the East Coast Hockey League and the Ohio capital’s sports scene by storm, and helped set the table for Columbus’s ascension into top-tier “major league” status by the dawn of the 2000s.
Historically overshadowed by the scale, prowess and outsized culture of its hometown Ohio State University Buckeyes athletics programs, Columbus’ pro sports landscape in 1991 largely consisted of AAA baseball’s sleepily long-standing Yankees affiliate Clippers – and not much else. Professional hockey, specifically, had been absent from the market for 14 years, after a largely lamentable run of thinly supported International Hockey League franchises (Checkers, Golden Seals, Owls) during the late 60s and 1970s.
But though cheeky marketing campaigns and promotion-laden game-day experiences – targeted at both the growing city’s young professional set and fun-seeking OSU students looking for off-campus entertainment alternatives – the Chill quickly made an impact and suddenly becoming the hottest ticket in town. Sellouts in the ancient 5,600-seat Ohio State Fairgrounds Expo Coliseum (opened in 1918) became the norm, and national media lauded the club as the vanguard of minor league sports.
After a dubious scheduling snafu by Fairgrounds management amidst the Chill’s second season, fans and local community leaders galvanized around a longer-term plan to solidify the newly popular team’s future and independence – leading to the eventual commitment to construct a top-flight downtown (now, Nationwide) arena – and, ultimately, the awarding of an expansion NHL franchise in 1999.
Ex-Chill President David Paitson and former Columbus Dispatch sportswriter Craig Merz (Chill Factor: How a Minor-League Hockey Team Changed a City Forever) recount the story of the team that paved the way for the Columbus Blue Jackets – and beyond.
This week’s episode is sponsored by the Red Lightning Books imprint of Indiana University Press – who offer our listeners a FREE CHAPTER of pioneering sportswriter Diana K. Shah’s new memoir A Farewell to Arms, Legs and Jockstraps!