Locking back to when an upstart franchise turned its lonely eyes to an 18-year-old phenom from Brampton, Ontario
Editor's note: Rick Nash, the face of the Columbus Blue Jackets for a decade, has returned to the organization as a special assistant to GM Jarmo Kekalainen. In 2002, Columbus Monthly profiled Nash when he arrived in Columbus as an 18-year-old No. 1 overall draft pick with huge expectations.
After meeting Rick Nash, something Bruce Springsteen once said about himself keeps coming to mind.
"There I was one night just a normal guy. And then, there I was the next night...I was still just a normal guy."
Nash is only 18, yet because of his size and exceptional ability to shoot a hockey puck into a goal, he became—overnight—a big star. Big: the NHL's No. 1 overall draft pick. Big: appearances on ESPN and photos in newspapers across America and Canada. Big: a multimillion-dollar contract
He doesn't seem like just another arrogant athlete, however. He says all the right stuff. The money and the fame don't mean a thing; it's the hockey, the team, the city that counts. He plays hard. He respects his teammates and the game.
Yeah, we've heard that before. But this Nash kid seems, well, still normal. He melts your cynicism; it all sounds so good coming out of his mouth, especially since he's so damn polite. You start to believe that this teenager will someday hoist the Stanley Cup in Columbus and do so with sincerity, integrity and modesty. So you ask him: “Are you the future of the Columbus Blue Jackets and this city?"
At the moment he's asked this question—albeit an unfair one—Nash is in jeans and a ball cap, settled in a booth at O'Shaughnessy's Public House, a slap shot away from Nationwide Arena. He's working on a chicken sandwich and fries. Nash is intrigued about being interviewed, but at times looks as if he'd rather be, say, putting on his skates. Although he remains cordial, never ducks a question, he has mastered at a young age the art of feeding the media barely enough. His answers are short and short on detail.
But he perks up when he's asked about his future in Columbus, if he has any interest in owning this town, becoming The Man. He says firmly, “I want to be that guy."
Then just as quickly, the assertiveness disappears, replaced by the respectful young man. “But it's going to take some time; I'm only 18 years old," he says. “To be a franchise player, I have to get to know the league. But it's exciting and would be great to be known as the face of the Blue Jackets at some point in my career."
As the interview continues, you can't shake that Springsteen quote. Still just a normal guy.
Hope he stays that way.
It's Oct. 10, the season opener for the Blue Jackets, and a packed Nationwide Arena is rocking. It's time for player introductions; goalie Marc Denis, left winger Geoff Sanderson and team bruiser Jody Shelley all get hearty welcomes. The public-address announcer then gets to No. 61, Rick Nash. The place erupts with the loudest ovation of the night.
Nash's mother, father and brother are here and, like Nash, are both nervous and excited. "About 10 minutes before the game, they started flashing those pictures [on the scoreboard] of the players posing in a mean manner," says Nash's father, Jamie. “The emotion caught up with me when I saw him, and I said, 'Holy shit, this kid made it.’ It really caught up with me."
But if Rick Nash is similarly caught up, he isn't showing it. With the Blue Jackets down 1-0 in the second period, Nash, in the right place at the right time, gathers a rebound off a stopped shot and fires the puck past Chicago Blackhawk goaltender Jocelyn Thibault for the team's first goal of the season. The fans erupt again. Talk about a storybook start for the would-be superstar, “I'll never forget that night," said Nash days afterward, still awed by the experience. “It was such an adrenaline rush and something I'd always dreamed about. The fans were great. It was unbelievable."
Later in the game, Nash causes an opposite reaction inside Nationwide: silence. Chasing after a puck behind the net, he collides with Blackhawk Phil Housley and goes down hard. Real hard. And he's not getting up. Thousands share the same thought: season-ending injury, or, worse, the kid's career (and the Blue Jackets' future) is over before it even gets started.
"I don't want to describe how I felt when he fell,” says his agent, Gordon Kirke. “I've seen a lot of hockey and the way he went down I was sure he had broken his leg."
“I thought he snapped his leg," says Jamie Nash. “I felt anger that he made it this far only to break his leg. Then I was concerned about the rehab and the fact he wouldn't play for weeks. All those thoughts crossed my mind in about point three seconds."
Turns out Nash, who didn't play again that night, suffered a severe cramp. “I wasn't nervous at all," he says. “I knew exactly what was wrong."
"After he went down, I went to the locker room to check on his status" for the media, says Blue Jackets spokesman Todd Sharrock. “When I learned it was a cramp, I went back upstairs and told [radio broadcaster] George Matthews. And he high-fived me. I have never received a high five in the press box."
It’s 3 p.m. on Oct. 8, two days before opening night. Time is officially up. If Nash hasn't signed a contract by now, he won't play for the Blue Jackets this season.
Deep inside Nationwide Arena, the room used to stage press conferences is filled with television, print and radio reporters. As people continue to file in, Blue Jackets staffers insist they don't know if Nash has signed. No one in the room believes them for one simple reason: The team can't afford not to sign him.
A few minutes later, Nash enters the room with Kirke and Blue Jackets general manager Doug MacLean. The deal's done; Nash is now a Columbus Blue Jacket. He is dressed in a snappy dark suit with a baby blue tie. His hair is stylish. He looks prime time. He isn't smiling. He isn't frowning. He answers a few questions, but mostiy defers to the agent and his boss.
You also notice he seems nervous and not nervous at the same time. He appears uncomfortable with all the attention, but confident in being the No. 1 pick and worthy of the spoils that accompany the distinction. The only time he shows emotion is when he's asked about his paycheck. "The money isn't as big a deal as all you think," he says, almost begging someone to challenge him. “It's the chance to play in the NHL that's exciting."
Jamie Nash would later say the same thing: “At the draft, we ended up in a back room and a guy came up to us and said, ‘Congratulations, you're millionaires. How does it feel?' It made me mad. The fact is Rick's goal was to play in the NHL; he'd do it for 500 dollars a week. I know it's difficult to understand, but it's his dream. Rick grew up with nothing. It was never about the money and it will never be about the money. I tell him just to invest it so when he's 40 he won't have to worry about anything."
While it may not be about the cash, money is still money. Rick Nash, after all, didn't sign for $500 a week. When most 18-year-olds were preparing to head to college or enter the workforce, he signed a contract for $3.55 million for the next three years ($1.185 million per year). Guaranteed. If he reaches certain performance standards—20 goals, 35 assists, among others—his take could rise to a little more than $12 million.
Compare that to the $200 to $300 a month he would have received playing for his old junior league team had he not signed by the NHL-mandated Oct. 8 deadline. You can't help but think—no matter how sincere Nash may be—that MacLean isn't the only one who wanted to get the deal done.
The man who had the final sign-off was team owner John H. McConnell, founder of Worthington Industries. McConnell is a no-nonsense businessman from blue collar West Virginia who built his hugely successful steel company through a small amount of startup cash and lots of hard work.
He's someone who had to produce results before reaping his riches. Did he have a difficult time agreeing to pay so much for a rookie? “I don't think the young guys should get the millions," says McConnell. “I feel the big money should go to the older guys. But I've been involved in baseball [McConnell once was a minority owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates] and I understand television has changed professional sports. I went to the older players on the team and asked them, ‘What do you think about me paying him?' They told me to pay him and that they would not be upset if I did. He's a very nice young guy, and I really think he's going to be a superstar."
"I cannot say enough about how that kid handled himself [before he signed] both on and off the ice," says Tyler Wright, one of the team's leaders. “He led the team in goals during the preseason ... and he doesn't take anything for granted. And then as soon as he signed, he was back to being the same guy he was before Tuesday."
There was no hazing of Nash by the veterans before he signed, says Wright. But he adds, “Oh, we will. We typically make the rookies buy dinner for all the veterans, and I think with Rick I'll definitely be ordering a little more expensive bottle of wine than I'm accustomed to."
Nash doesn't like to talk about himself. He does acknowledge a little about his personal life. There's no girlfriend. He enjoys golf; he's played New Albany Country Club and Double Eagle, the superexclusive club owned by McConnell. He admits to listening to Britney Spears—also Creed. He likes Max & Erma's, and when his brother visits they go to Easton, sometimes spending time at Barnes & Noble. Other than that, it's hockey and working out.
Nash spent one month in Columbus living Downtown at the Crowne Plaza Hotel because of the unsettled contract situation. (He has since moved into an apartment near Easton.) “There are a lot of challenges of playing in the league that people don't realize," says head coach Dave King. "The men he's playing with are much more mature than him both physically and chronologically. Throw into that the status that comes with being the number-one pick and his contract and you have the potential for problems. But he made such a great first impression that everyone was willing to help him out with the day-to-day stuff."
For instance, there's fellow Blue Jacket Andrew Cassels. Aside from sharing the same Canadian hometown, they are both newcomers to Columbus. (Cassels played for the Vancouver Canucks last season.) He stayed at the same hotel as Nash and often took him to and from practice since Nash at the time didn't have transportation. “This is a big step for anyone, let alone an 18-year-old," says Cassels, 33. “Living without any family is extremely tough. But Rick is definitely a kid who listens and wants to learn, which makes it easy to help him. His parents have done a real good job of raising him. I just want him to know the offer is always there and he can always say no. But the guys try to be there for golf or movies or to go out for dinner."
Kevin Dineen, the elder statesman of the Blue Jackets at 39 before retiring in early November, knows a thing or two about highly touted rookies. As a member of the Hartford Whalers, Dineen had as a roommate Jeff O'Neill, then a rookie and now a star with the Carolina Hurricanes, last season's Eastern Conference champion. Like Nash, the young O'Neill was counted on to be the franchise player and faced a great deal of pressure at a very early age. However, that's where the similarity ends.
O'Neill is more famous in Hartford for turning off fans, teammates and the media with his arrogant and childish behavior, though he matured when the Whalers moved to Carolina. “Let's just say he didn't lack confidence," says Dineen. “I don't mind a little arrogance, but his maturation process took a long time. With Rick, it's just the opposite. He went through a tough contract negotiation, the instability of living in a hotel for four weeks and the pressure of being number one. It's like being an incoming college freshman, only jack up the pressure about 10 notches. He handled it all like a champ. You see there's something special about him."
Speaking of special, perhaps no hockey player outside of Wayne Gretzky is quite as special as Pittsburgh Penguin legend Mario Lemieux. Dave King points to Lemieux as an example for Nash to follow. "I'm certainly not saying he's the next Lemieux," King says, “but their situation is similar." In 1984, the horrible Penguins drafted Lemieux as the No. 1 overall pick. Lemieux was far from his home in Montreal, a teenager with huge expectations and no family.
King says Lemieux became Super Mario by constantly working on his weaknesses. “People evolve," he says. “He became more comfortable with the media and the public and I think you know how he did on the ice. Rick is a very good player who's going to have his ups and downs. The NHL is mostly mental, and I think he's taking the right steps by playing hard and always working to improve."
While the coach is careful about comparing Nash to Lemieux, teammates aren't reluctant to praise the gifted left winger. They all agree things get exciting when Nash is on the ice. At 6 foot 4 and 195 pounds, he's rather tall and skinny for a scorer in the NHL, though his long arms allow for greater reach. There's hope he can bulk up over the next few years to better combat the bruisers of professional hockey. “He's big and he's still going to grow," says Cassels. “He has great hands for a big guy, great moves and deceptive speed. He loves to shoot the puck. Every day in practice he tries to score."
Dineen said before his retirement, “I consider myself a hockey fan as well as a player. One of the reasons I'm playing this year is because I have a young son, and 10 years from now, when he's older, I'm going to be able to tell him that I played with Rick Nash."
To understand Nash, you have to understand hockey in Canada. More specifically, hockey in Brampton, Ontario, a suburb 20 minutes northwest of Toronto and Rick Nash's childhood home. Think Columbus and Ohio State football. Then multiply by a lot. "He spent his whole life for that moment," says Kirke about opening night against the Chicago Blackhawks. “You see that with Canadian youngsters. Forget about being president or prime minister; they want to play hockey."
In fact, Nash, who learned to skate at 2 and began playing hockey at 6, is an avid Toronto Maple Leafs fan; he grew up rooting for current Maple Leaf superstar Mats Sundin. Toronto and the Montreal Canadiens are the equivalent of Notre Dame and the New York Yankees. But more so. Unlike the United States, where kids have a wide variety of professional leagues to dream about, Canadians watch and play hockey.
Nash wanted to play hockey so badly he spent parts of the last two years of his childhood away from home. He moved away from his hometown, lived with a different family and attended a new school so he could make a name for himself playing for the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League, part of Canada's prestigious junior leagues.
London is an hour and a half from Brampton, which allowed Nash's parents to see nearly every game he played. “I guess you don't have anything like that here," says Nash, agreeing that his high school years might seem odd to someone from Ohio. “That's just what we do."
At 16, he was named OHL Rookie of. the Year. Playing on the national team (with 17- and 18-year-olds), he and his Canadian teammates received the gold medal at the 2001 Six Nations Tournament in the Czech Republic. During the following season, 2001-'02, he scored 32 goals in 54 games for London.
Surprisingly, Nash didn't lead his team in scoring in either of his two seasons, yet became the NHL's No. 1 overall pick. “My second year of juniors I scored 19 points in 12 games during the playoffs," says Nash, in a rare display of talking up his abilities. "We beat the second-rated team in six games and then lost in six games to the eventual champion. No one else took them six games. As a result, a lot of the guys on the team got tryouts and signed."
Well, sort of. Don Boyd, director of amateur scouting for the Blue Jackets, says Nash isn't offering full disclosure. “He didn't come out of nowhere, and if he said that he's just being humble," says Boyd. “We know kids when they're 14. He was one of the top picks of the junior league draft and the expectations on him to progress were as high then as they are now." (Yes, they draft 16-year-old kids to play hockey in Canada.)
Clichéd as it sounds, Nash's formula is a simple one: Work hard, keep your mouth shut and your feet on the ground. He learned those rules growing up with his parents (now divorced) and older brother James, who plays hockey for Humber College in Toronto.
“He's grounded and I keep him grounded," says Jamie, who owns his own sign company. “I talk to him every day and I will be in Columbus once every two weeks on nongame days to spend quality time with him. I told him he wouldn't see me at any games this year, but he'll see me once every two weeks so we can make sure the little things—laundry, banking, balancing a checkbook, eating—are being taken care of. I've always told him not to buy into the hype. He knows he's not bigger than the game."
For a family growing up in Canada, the elder Nash says Columbus is the perfect fit. "Me and the older boy visited Columbus during the rookie camp, and we both said, "This looks like a Canadian city,' " he says. "We're a lot closer to Buffalo and spent time in Detroit for tournaments, but Columbus is great. Rick got the whole package—the team, the city, the fans and the arena."
After a disastrous second season in which the Blue Jackets had the second worst record in the league, MacLean was intent on bringing some excitement back to Nationwide Arena. He did just that in June when he swapped his team's No. 3 overall pick with the Florida Panthers for the No. 1 pick to get Nash. “Our chief scout [Boyd] lived in London and watched him play a lot," says MacLean. "He's the guy and he told us Rick was the guy.”
As the top pick, Nash became front page news all across Canada, but merely a curiosity in Columbus. Since the majority of Columbus residents are new to the NHL, Nash triggered far less immediate interest than Justin Zwick and Maurice Clarett when they signed to play football with Ohio State.
“During the developmental camp in July, we took part in the Red, White & Boom! parade," says Sharrock. “As part of the media tour, we were heading to a radio station when we stopped at Bob Evans for coffee. A man there saw I had a Blue Jackets lapel [pin] or shirt on and asked if I worked for them. When I told him I did he got excited and was talking about the upcoming season. He said we should be better because we got Rick Nash. He told me to tell him good luck when I saw him, and I said, "Tell him yourself, he's standing right next to me.’ ”
Back at O'Shaughnessy's, Nash is asked about becoming a celebrity as in Columbus—something he says hasn't happened yet. “Not too many people stop me," he says.
But you get the sense his anonymity will be fleeting. It won't be long before walks to lunch are routinely interrupted.
And then suddenly the restaurant’s hostess is at his elbow. Holding a glossy picture of No. 61, she leans over and politely asks, “I'm sorry to interrupt you, but can I get your autograph?”
The nice young man from Brampton smiles, takes her pen and carefully scribbles his name on his likeness.
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