So many stories about minor league hockey are of sad-sack franchises — the teams that can’t pay their players on time, have little support from the community, and end up folding or relocating in a few years. This is not one of those stories, because the Columbus Chill were not one of those teams. “Chill Factor: How a Minor-League Hockey Team Changed a City Forever” recounts the history of the Columbus Chill, one of the most successful minor-pro teams in hockey.
Just how successful was this team? The franchise got to go out on their own terms, turn a tidy profit and help build the city of Columbus into a serious contender for — and eventual winner of — an NHL franchise. Like any good story, there were setbacks along the way, but for once, the little guy comes out on top.
“Chill Factor” details the Columbus Chill’s seven-year run in the ECHL. The book is primarily written by David Paitson, the Chill’s president and general manager, and is co-authored by Craig Merz, a sportswriter for the “Columbus Dispatch” newspaper.. A hockey book written mainly by the team’s GM gives a unique perspective; however, that perspective might not suit everyone. Much of the book takes place away from the action on the ice, instead focusing on the action that takes place behind the scenes.
And really, you have no idea how much takes place behind the scenes in starting and operating a minor league hockey team. “Chill Factor” begins by explaining the team’s numerous challenges it faced before even taking to the ice: finding a suitable arena to play in, getting a town obsessed with college football to notice the new hockey team, and quelling critics in the media who were expecting the Chill to become another in a long-list of failed Columbus teams.
Patison discusses the Chill’s unconventional marketing campaign that appealed to a younger, hipper audience who weren’t necessarily hockey fans, but were seeking an alternative to Ohio State University sports. Reading about the team’s ludicrous in-game activities is certainly entertaining, such as contestants launching frozen chickens across the rink with homemade slingshots at the team’s first-ever home game and — soon after O.J. Simpson was arrested in 1994 — a police car chasing a white Ford Bronco onto the ice prior to player introductions. Somehow, year after year, the Chill managed to top themselves, further endearing the team to their fans while making new ones.
Like any good story worth telling, there were disasters too, including a walkout of the team’s most popular players and an arena manager whose actions could have ended the team in their second year. The latter problem led to a bit of league-sanctioned forgery to keep the Chill playing in Columbus. And while Paitson claims that he never broke any league rules while managing the Chill, he freely discusses of the less-than-honest tactics employed by other ECHL teams.
“Chill Factor” also meticulously explains the long road to the eventual construction of Nationwide Arena, the current home of the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets. Those who love hockey history will enjoy reading of this uphill battle. It is fascinating to learn the complex dynamics of trying to get a government and its citizens to approve the construction of a new arena, all while attempting to secure financial backers. Further complicating things were Ohio State University’s president and the owner of the Hartford Whalers, who both tried to derail the arena’s construction to further their own financial agendas.
Throughout the book, Paitson also discusses how the hockey team itself did during each of their seven seasons. Many times, former players or coaches are quoted. The last chapter has a quick rundown of the Chill’s history (in case you skipped the first 298 pages), team records and synopses of all the coaches and the team’s most popular players.
Quote that epitomizes “Chill Factor”: “Down to the last minute, the organization faced what could have been the biggest professional sports disaster that the city had ever seen. Instead, however, it became our finest hour. I could not have been more proud of our staff and our team. It was our own little miracle on ice.”
What I like about “Chill Factor”: The first-person view of establishing and marketing a hockey team makes for a unique book. The print ads shown in the opening chapters are laugh-out-loud funny. The book also gives some seedier details of wheeling and dealing in the ECHL. Color photos highlight many of the Chill’s most popular players, as well as some of the team’s off-the-wall marketing hijinks.
What I don’t like about “Chill Factor”: The latter half of the book focuses more on the push for the new arena and Columbus’ lobbying for an NHL team, which can get dull at times. But then again, how often will we ever be privy to the inner workings of such endeavors?