Until the end of time, Ohio will always be a football-first state. Whether you’re an alumnus or not but if you don’t at least have a pulse about the Ohio State Buckeyes during the fall, you’re either new here or a Michigan fan. It’s only amplified in Cleveland where the Browns have been breaking the hearts of fans for over two decades since the team returned to the NFL in 1999. Ohio being so football-centric impacts our local communities as well with plenty of kids hoping to be the ones to make their dads proud on Saturdays and finally happy on Sundays. But, when it comes to hockey on the shores of Lake Erie and all throughout Ohio, there’s a bit of a grassroots movement forming.
The Cleveland Monsters, who have called Cleveland home via Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse since 2007, have been one of the movement’s most prominent proponents. Ditto for the Columbus Blue Jackets, the NHL club that the Monsters are affiliated with, who have been in action since 1997. Despite the fact that both clubs are struggling at times record-wise this season (the Monsters are 16-19 and the Blue Jackets are 15-32) Ohio hockey fans still come out to show their support. The Monsters currently lead the AHL in attendance while the Blue Jackets are in the middle of the pack. For teams like Cleveland, the support, where a lot of it comes from younger fans, isn’t lost on them either. It’s a huge part of what gets them up in the morning and competing on the ice every night.
“It’s awesome,” said Monsters goalie Jet Greaves to Right Down Euclid. “I think we all talk about it. We love playing at home here and we love our fans we’re playing in front of, it’s really a lot of good energy here. Having younger fans here makes it an even more electric environment so it’s always more fun to win with them here.”
As of today, there are 129 high school hockey players in the state of Ohio. Interestingly enough, some of the top teams in the state are local schools like St Ignatius, University School, St. Edward, Gilmour Academy and Padua Franciscan. Furthermore, some of those programs produced top junior league prospects like Joe Schubert (Shaker Heights) and Tanyon Bajzer (St. Edward, Gilmour Academy) are on their way to becoming eventual NHL-level talent. There’s growth coming in waves off the shores of Lake Erie to the hockey scene and more often than not a lot of these players can and will attribute their passion to play professionally to both the Blue Jackets as well as the Monsters.
Not only that but, the Monsters are spearheading future talent for the Blue Jackets as well. While they might not be born here, elite prospects like Greaves (Canada) as well as Trey Fix-Wolansky (Canada) and David Jiricek (Czech Republic) who have settled into Cleveland and happily call it their home. A source shared with Right Down Euclid that numerous Monsters players have embraced Cleveland with open arms and spend their free time within the community, further planting their roots along the way.
On the ice, meanwhile, Fix-Wolansky is Cleveland’s top scoring threat and is currently tied for ninth in the AHL with 42 points scored. Jiricek, who the Blue Jackets selected sixth-overall in 2022, is having a truly historic season. Despite only turning 19 in November, Jiricek’s 0.81 points per game is the best in the AHL for rookie defensemen. Players at his age don’t just go into one of the best leagues in the world and impose their will like he is. But, in Jiricek’s mind, it’s not about the numbers. It’s not even about the Blue Jackets right this second. To him, helping the Monsters matters the most and that’s why, despite the turbulent record, he’s helping lead the Monsters to a possible playoff spot.
That’s the interesting spot that both the Blue Jackets and the Monsters are in. Both organizations are working together to support the vision of fueling the future of hockey all throughout Ohio. But, in the case of the Monsters, there’s also a chance to play for even more at the end of the day. It’s an interesting and somewhat difficult balancing act between focusing on player development all while fighting for an opportunity to win.
Sometimes, it leads to youth and inexperience rearing their ugly head like when the Monsters were drubbed by the Charlotte Checkers 9-0. But, there are other nights where you can see signs of growth that, in turn, leads to winning as well. On Friday evening, the Monsters battled with divisional rival Laval Rocket, the AHL affiliate of the Montreal Canadiens, and the game eventually led to overtime. Cleveland battled against Laval and, in the end, were able to win in the extra frame of play. In the eyes of Monsters head coach Trent Vogelhuber, it’s a sign of growth for his young squad that they were able to battle and eventually win.
“You gotta be able to stay even keel and keep rolling,” said Vogelhuber to Right Down Euclid. “I thought we did a pretty good job of responding, especially in the third. … Definitely resilient. We’re going to need that because you’re gonna give up goals and it’s a part of a hockey game since mistakes happen. You have to get back to work, keep your head down and respond.”
The Monsters are going to take time to grow and reach their final form overall. But, the delicate balance of development while trying to win is hitting a point of convergence and showing results. At the end of the day, it’s also testament to the future of hockey all throughout the state of Ohio as well. The future on the ice is bright for Cleveland, whether it’s within the confines of Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse or elsewhere. It’s going to special when it reaches the next level.
Evan Dammarell is a sports journalist covering all things Cleveland right off the shores of Lake Erie. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. You can also email him at [email protected] He can also be found three to five times weekly on Locked On Cavs, a part of the Locked On Podcast Network.
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