Long after the ice has melted, Chris Sprague still talks hockey. He's the man behind the Columbus Blue Jackets Breakaway Tour, a "hockey carnival" of inflatable goal posts and makeshift rinks that hits the road between April and September to let fans know that, yes, the NHL's youngest team is alive and well and playing in Cowtown. And the 34-city tour brings him and mascot Stinger ("the bug with an attitude") to Elyria's Family Fun Fest this weekend. "Even though we're two-plus hours from Cleveland, a lot of fans know about the Blue Jackets and come to see us," says Sprague, the team's advertising-and-promotions manager.
Sure, the four-year-old "baby of the NHL" has had its growing pains. Last season, the team posted an abysmal 25-45-8 record and placed fourth out of five teams in the Western Conference's Central Division. But there was at least one ray of hope: The squad's 19-year-old left wing, Rick Nash, scored 41 goals and became the league's youngest-ever leading scorer.
Though no Blue Jackets join the Breakaway Tour, the intent is to promote the team and the sport. For six hours, Stinger will cheer on participants in the Slap-Shot Skills Challenge -- a fast-paced competition in which contestants try to knock as many pucks as they can between the posts. "We try to keep it fairly safe," Sprague says. "If they want to see how hard they can whack it, they can try the slap shot."
There's also a makeshift rink for an afternoon of street-hockey games, with the Blue Jackets' play-by-play announcer, Steve Konroyd, calling the action ("We have him on a microphone running the games as a part-referee, part-MC," Sprague explains). A lucky player will take home a pair of street-hockey sticks.
"Part of the reason for this tour is to get kids excited about hockey in the first place," Sprague says. "You don't have to wait until winter to play it."