“And here we go.” - Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight (2008)
If you've made it past the headline to actually read this article - congratulations! You are very appreciated. I hope you are rewarded.
The reality is, I tried to write this piece with great humility and respect.
Humility and respect, as a near 20-year fan for the Columbus Blue Jackets, who have been through a lot of crap as a franchise. Some self-induced, but some that is just plain unfair.
I watched an expansion draft where the Blue Jackets scrapped from the bottom of the barrel, near worse than the slim pickings that the 1980 USA Men's Olympic Hockey team had.
I sat through nearly a decade of sub-.500 record seasons where 12,000-attendance nights were common.
I witnessed the embarrassing sweep by the Detroit Red Wings in 2009, including a blown call late in Game 4 that would've at least given the Blue Jackets just one playoff win.
I saw the franchise player at the time in Rick Nash request a trade after the organization failed to surround him with any help.
I lived through the Scott Howson years.
I experienced the depression of taking the Pittsburgh Penguins to six games in the 2014 playoffs, only to miss the postseason the next two seasons and even start one of them losing the first eight games of the campaign.
Finally, I nervously refreshed my phone the night of June 30th, hoping by some miracle Artemi Panarin would choose to stay in Columbus, only to see him turn down something in the neighborhood of $100 million and sign with the New York Rangers the following morning.
I get it, folks. I get it.
So, here we are. On Thursday night, Artemi Panarin makes his first return to Nationwide Arena since he was a member of the Blue Jackets. As far as we know, Panarin hasn't touched the ice in Columbus since a Game 6 defeat to the Boston Bruins in this past year’s Eastern Conference semifinals.
There will be lots of cheers. There will be lots of boos. There will be some indifference.
I’m here to say Artemi Panarin deserves a warm welcome on Thursday night. But: the caveat remains that you can "fan how you wish to fan." Everyone's money is green, right? This is merely my take.
He didn’t ask to be traded here
On June 23, 2017, Panarin was traded from the Chicago Blackhawks to the Blue Jackets along with Tyler Motte for Brandon Saad and goaltender Anton Forsberg.
Panarin had spent his first two seasons in the NHL in Chicago and was an undrafted signee from the KHL. He found immediate success in a historic franchise, putting up 77 and then 74 points in his Blackhawks tenure.
Then, to the surprise of many and disappointment of several of his Blackhawk teammates, he was dealt to the small-market Blue Jackets. Not exactly a reassignment that he was looking for, or asked for.
Panarin did not choose to come to Columbus. He was not a free agent. He was a player entering the prime of his career, in a big market, for a strong franchise (at the time).
Do you know what he did with his new circumstances? Being a part of the least successful franchise in NHL history, as one of the best up and coming wingers in the game?
He balled out.
He gave us all he had
Panarin absolutely dominated for two years, folks. There’s no way around it. And he didn’t have to do it.
Yes, he didn't have to. Remember Jeff Carter? Another superstar who was traded to Columbus against his will? He forced himself out of the city after just 39 games with the club, and then won the Stanley Cup the following year with his new team.
Panarin didn’t do this. He saw a team who despite earning their best record in franchise history the season prior, get pummeled in five games in the first round of the 2017 playoffs. He saw a club that had three total playoff appearances. He saw an organization that had no proven stars outside their goaltender.
He didn't say a peep. He went to work.
Panarin is the Blue Jackets record holder for most assists in a single season and most points in a single season. It took him one season to do that. Then, he broke his own records in his second year.
He never said he’d stay
Remember how LeBron James (whom I love) never really gave the Cleveland Cavaliers (twice) or the Miami Heat a heads up that he was bolting in free agency? Panarin gave that heads up.
When rumors started to swirl in the summer of 2018 whether Panarin would bolt in free agency, he had every opportunity to say he wanted out immediately - or lead the club on to think he was definitely staying. He didn't lead us on even a little bit (cough cough, Matt Duchene).
Panarin made it clear (even though this sounds like an oxymoron) that he didn't know what his future plans were, and that they could trade him if they felt like they needed to. He gave them a chance to get assets back if they felt like it was the wise move for the club.
When the front office decided to hang onto him, he didn't kick up his feet and relax.
Instead, he dug deep and put himself in the conversation as the best Columbus Blue Jacket ever.
It's his life
I think if you want to be upset at the way someone left (i.e. Jeff Carter, LeBron James) you're more than welcome to. But to have a hard negative opinion on someone making a life choice that really is what is best for them? Can we agree to settle here?
Artemi Panarin doesn't like Columbus as much as you like Columbus. And that's okay - in fact, that's life. People will like different things than you for different reasons.
I'm as big of a Columbus advocate as there is - but friends, if you knew the way Artemi Panarin grew up (told wonderfully by The Athletic's Aaron Portzline) you may have a bit more sympathy towards the Russian star. He's a person, too. He grew up with nothing; can we blame the guy for wanting the bright lights?
As Thursday night approaches and some may be preparing torches and pitchforks, I have one question. Why boo, if that's what you choose to do?
You're likely booing because you're hurt. You, like me, wanted Panarin to not just like Columbus - but love Columbus. To love taking walks on the Scioto Mile, love walking around on campus during an Ohio State gameday, love being inside Nationwide Arena on a Friday night.
The reality is Panarin probably did love those things. But it's his life, and he came from a much different background than you and I. He's allowed to want something else, yeah?
if you boo Artemi Panarin because you believe you have the right, then you certainly can because you absolutely have that right.
But I will challenge you with this:
I think you’re missing out on the love of the game. You can enjoy players from opposing teams. The number of years that I spent hating Alexander Ovechkin, Patrick Kane or Sidney Crosby, was such a waste in hindsight. Appreciating their games, and still cheering for them to lose, has been a refreshing stance to take.
On Thursday night, boo if you'd like, cheer if you'd like, heck, don't make any noise. But I challenge you, dear reader, as I did myself, to appreciate the greatest talent we have ever seen grace a Blue Jacket jersey because he gave it all for us when he didn't have to.
We don't know when we will get another one like the Bread Man.
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