With Or Without The 2013 NHL All-Star Game, Columbus Is Our Kind Of Town

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Maybe it’s just as well that the National Hockey League, its season partially saved, couldn’t even fractionally unscuttle its All-Star Game.

Columbus simply isn’t anyone’s idea of a hockey town. Though natural ice has been known to occur in Ohio, as a center of hockey passion this just… well, it just isn’t.

When the NHL long ago decided to plop its annual All-Star Game here this winter, it’s as if they knew what was coming. Like, no All-Star Game. Chicago hockey fans should have known, too. Yet Columbus being less than a six-hour drive from the United Center, it’s a safe bet several of you planned to be here Jan. 27 for what is, behind only the NFL’s Pro Bowl, North America’s second-worst professional all-star exhibition.

The good news is, even if you booked a nonrefundable room in the brand spanking newish Hilton Columbus Downtown for that weekend, all is not lost.

Columbus, even in the dead of a Central Ohio winter, is better than you probably think it is. Let us count the ways.

But first, a little Columbus hockey talk.

Last season, which seems so long ago, the Columbus Blue Jackets ranked 27th in NHL home attendance, ahead only of traditional hockey hotbed (not) Dallas, the Islanders (New York’s No. 3 team; the Devils, No. 2, actually play in New Jersey, of course, but that’s close enough) and the Phoenix Coyotes, who can’t draw sand. Numbers for the Jackets (14,660 average in 18,500-seat Nationwide Arena, a decent venue) in 2011-2012 were up slightly from a year earlier, but never mind that. Dismal is dismal.

“They’re waiting for a more competitive product on the ice,” Bruce Wimbish, director of marketing and communications for the Greater Columbus Sports Commission, explains of the fans’ tepid interest in paying their way in. “We’ve struggled.”

Struggled? Since their inaugural 2000-2001 season (first game, a memorable 5-3 loss at home to the Blackhawks in which they blew a 3-0 lead), the Blue Jackets have made the Stanley Cup playoffs only once, which—in a league where just about every team makes it into the Stanley Cup playoffs—is almost impossible. That was in 2009. They got swept in Round One by the hated Red Wings.

There’s more bad hockey news.

The Ohio State University is, of course, in Columbus. Of the five Big Ten teams that play intercollegiate ice hockey, the Buckeye puckeyes ranked fifth out of five (that’s last, if, unlike non-power TOSU, you’re scoring at home) in attendance last season, drawing an average of 3,799 to 17,500-seat Value City Arena. Pucks deflected into the seats last year are probably still resting in those seats.

And that’s the men’s team. The women’s team—we won’t go there. No one else did….

So, what was the National Hockey League thinking? What they evidently were thinking is this:

“The NHL uses the All-Star Game strategically to bolster the market,” says Wimbish. “We’ve been bidding on it since the inception of the Blue Jackets.”

Columbus, thanks to the owners’ prolonged lockout, remains unbolstered—the Sports Commission told Columbus Monthly the cancellation cost the town $12 million in visitor spending—and there’s no word on whether the NHL will again schedule an All-Star Game here before Patrick Kane hangs up his mouthguard forever. But enough about hockey. Let’s talk a little Columbus.

Here’s what locals, legislators, lobbyists, insurance company actuaries and college football fans (the ones who dare venture beyond the shadow of The Horseshoe) already know:

Columbus isn’t… well, it isn’t a podunk nothing like some Big Ten towns we know and avoid. On the other hand, most people think it’s not even Cleveland or Cincinnati, which really bugs people in Columbus, since in terms of actual population it’s nearly as big as the other two combined.

Wimbish understands.

“We have a chip on our shoulders,” he says. “Being a hometown native, I have it.

“I’ve lived in both other cities—I went to the University of Cincinnati undergrad, and I was in Cleveland for seven years with the [NBA] Cavs. I’ve heard people in both cities give their own remarks about Columbus.”

Not so much lately.

“People in Cleveland, as I was leaving, were telling me, ‘If I were younger, I’d be living in Columbus.’ ”

The Columbus Zoo is excellent and open all year. One “travel guide” calls it the USA’s best, which is ridiculous unless San Diego was secretly annexed by Tijuana. Except for the “Polar Frontier” Arctic exhibit, it’s not quite so excellent in January, when the water park, rides and shows are in seasonal hibernation. It’s also home to a 56-year-old gorilla named Colo (get it?), the first of its species born in any zoo and notoriously surly.

The better news, especially if you’re hauling kids with you for the phantom All-Star Weekend that isn’t: COSI, the mostly indoor science center, a nice option if the weather turns a little too seasonal.

The downtown State Capitol is tourable. If you like plants, the Franklin Park Conservatory features multiple habitats, trickling water, orchids, macaws named Mick and Max, and warmth. Notes Tracy Barnes, volunteer coordinator: “If it’s real cold, it’s a place to pretend you’re in a tropical rainforest instead of Columbus, Ohio.”

What may be the best bookstore in all Ohio (and you can throw in Indiana, too, if that means anything) is a 32-room maze called The Book Loft. It’s in the heart of the German Village neighborhood, which isn’t all that German anymore but is quite wonderful. Each of the store’s rooms has themed music (showbiz tunes in a Showbiz Room) or sounds (chirping birds in the Garden Room). Kids are known to get lost there for days. “I get a lot of adults who ask me how to get out of here,” says a clerk.

Within a Rory McIlroy niblick of the TOSU campus, TOSU grad Jack Nicklaus has most of his golf hardware on display in his museum.

The city is loaded with good restaurants—and that’s not tourism-bureau hype. Lindey’s, in German Village, is power-lunch slick, and terrific. Not far is Barcelona Restaurant (yes, still German Village), where the main challenge is getting a weekend reservation. A remnant of the old burgher-brewery days, Schmidt’s Restaurant und Sausage Haus (since 1886) is just what it sounds like.

Short North, not long ago a dicey district emphatically separating downtown from The OSU, has emerged as a gallery-nightlife-dining magnet with Basi Italia and Rigsby’s Kitchen just two of the many first-rate dining options. Another restaurant, M at Miranova, is Manhattan-trendy slick and has no business being in Columbus, but there it is.

North Market, convenient both to downtown and Short North, is a fine place to grab lunch (pick an ethnic, any ethnic) and an ice cream at locally iconic Jeni’s (pick a flavor, any flavor) and some local cheese for the ride home.

You can even find a good Chicago dog here, at Dirty Frank’s Hot Dog Palace, which is neither dirty nor (certainly not) a palace on the southern edge of downtown but does, unlike our own typical emporia, serve beer with its sport-peppers .

And speaking of sports and beer: If you need a sports bar and a beer, the Arena District—anchored by Nationwide Arena and what figured to be Rowdy Fun Central for All-Star Weekend—has what you’re looking for, in particular a saloon called R Bar: flat-screens, burgers, brews, women in hockey duds, a poster of Maurice “Rocket” Richard, urinals featuring rival teams’ logos for your aiming pleasure, everything

…except, of course, for the hockey.

But fear not: The Ohio State men’s team plays at home Friday, January 25, at home against Lake Superior State; that afternoon, the women host Minnesota-Duluth. Same schedule the next day.

Best news of all: The Blue Jackets play the Blackhawks in Nationwide Arena that Saturday night.

Tickets will be available. Trust me.

This is Columbus.

STORY ART: Main image made in-house with photo by jpmueller99/cc.

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