McConnell, who helped bring NHL to Columbus, dies

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- John H. McConnell, a steel magnate who was the majority owner of the Columbus Blue Jackets, died Friday. He was 84.

McConnell, who had been diagnosed with cancer last year, died at a Columbus hospital, said Cathy Lyttle, a spokeswoman with Worthington Industries, a $3 billion-a-year steel processing company that McConnell started in 1955 with $600 he borrowed against his car.

He called the team his gift to the city.

"Columbus has been good for me. I think this is good for Columbus," McConnell said when Nationwide Arena opened in 2000.

"I just think Columbus is a good sports town. They need athletics."

He was also an early investor in Major League Soccer's Columbus Crew and a former minority owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates and arena football's Columbus Destroyers.

The Blue Jackets, now seven years in, are the only NHL franchise that has yet to make the playoffs. It was something McConnell had often said he couldn't wait to see.

"It's been a tough day for everybody here," Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson said.

McConnell wasn't around the team much toward the end of last season because of his health, but he did attend the Blue Jackets' last game on April 6, Howson said.

"The players liked him," he said. "I think they saw him more as a father figure and a friend rather than an owner. It was a privilege to work for him."

NHL Gary Bettman said McConnell will be remembered for his generosity and civic-mindedness.

"John was greatly respected and made a lasting contribution to the NHL," Bettman said in a statement. "The entire NHL grieves his passing."

McConnell was born May 10, 1923, in Pughtown, W.Va.

After serving three years with the Navy on the aircraft carrier Saratoga during World War II, he graduated with a degree in business administration from Michigan State in 1949.

In 1954, a steel company put McConnell in Columbus as a salesman. After realizing how much money he was making for his employers, he decided to put a phone in his basement and start his own company.

"My dad said, 'Don't do it,'" McConnell told The Columbus Dispatch for a story in 2000. "He said, 'What happens if you go broke?' I said, 'Well, I don't have anything to start with, so what am I going to lose?'"

McConnell started Worthington Industries in 1955 by borrowing the money against his 1952 Oldsmobile. The company now employs about 8,000 people, with 69 facilities in 11 countries.

McConnell's son, John P. McConnell, became chairman and chief executive in 1996. McConnell became chairman emeritus.

As the NHL looked to expand in the late 1990s, the original owner of the Blue Jackets was supposed to be the late Texas oil magnate Lamar Hunt, who owned the MLS's Crew. But Hunt blanched on funding an arena after voters turned down three ballot proposals that would have provided public financing.

McConnell stepped up with a new ownership group while Columbus-based Nationwide Insurance put together a plan to privately finance an arena.

An ugly court fight followed when Hunt alleged he was elbowed out of the ownership group. McConnell, who ended up winning the lawsuit, said he did it as a matter of civic pride. He ended up committing $120 million to building the franchise.

Nationwide Insurance stepped in to construct a 19,500-seat, glass-and-brick arena downtown, with spectacular views of the skyline and a rejuvenated business district.

Unlike many owners, "Mr. Mac" as he was called by his coaches and players, was idolized by fans who filled Nationwide Arena to capacity to watch the Blue Jackets.

On opening night, Oct. 9, 2000, McConnell received a standing ovation that lasted nearly a minute when he slowly moved to center ice on a blue carpet -- ever present cane in hand -- to drop the first puck along with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

The first Blue Jackets team was among the most successful NHL expansion teams in history, winning 28 games and collecting 71 points.

McConnell had made a friendly wager with Bettman that the Blue Jackets would be better than anyone thought -- and he won the bet.

"I used to tell them: 'You don't have to win all the games. We know that. As long as you do your best out there, why, we're happy with you.' And that's what they did," McConnell said.

The next year's team, beset by injuries, was a major disappointment. At the team's last home game, McConnell appeared in a video in which he thanked the fans for selling out the entire the season, apologized for the poor record and promised a brighter future.

"You did your job; I'm not sure we did ours," McConnell said. "I guarantee you next year we'll do better. That's a guarantee."

McConnell also was a noted philanthropist who founded the McConnell Heart Health Center at Riverside Methodist Hospital.