Winning, not limelight, drives Rick Nash
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Rick Nash is a superstar.
There, we said it.
The problem is, he doesn't get called that all too often anymore.
Nash remains a tremendously special player, regardless of whether his name doesn't get thrown around like other elite players in the league. And from a national point of view, the Columbus Blue Jackets' star winger and captain has seemingly slipped away from the hockey world's consciousness.
At 27, Nash is entering his prime. The 2002 first overall pick has put up really good numbers in his eight NHL seasons, averaging 36 goals and 70 points in the past four seasons without having a bona fide No. 1 center to feed him the puck. He's largely done it himself.
And yet, it's as if Nash has perhaps been the victim of his club's mostly mediocre existence (one playoff berth in a decade), at least when it comes to recognition within the hockey world.
"I think it's true," Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson recently told ESPN.com. "We're a bit of an anonymous team at times because we haven't had success and we're not a traditional hockey market. The fact we haven't had success means we've got to earn it. Rick's probably been harmed a little bit that way, publicly, in notoriety. Although he's not harmed in Canada because of the world championships and Olympics, where's he's been an absolutely stud. But yes, in the everyday life of the NHL, he's probably gotten less notoriety than he should."
If it bothers him, Nash won't ever let on. He had the opportunity to test the free-agent market in the summer of 2010, which meant a possible exit from Columbus. His hometown Toronto Maple Leafs had even been bandied about as a possible landing spot. But Nash ended all the anxiety far in advance by signing an eight-year, $62.4 million extension in 2009.
So, why did he do it?
"I believe in our ownership here," Nash told ESPN.com during a camp stop last month. "I believe in Scott's plan of what he wants to do. And I love this city. I think the city deserves a strong professional team. They obviously have that at the college level. Our fans are great, they're loyal. It's a great place to live. I just think, at the end of the day, it would have been easy to be an unrestricted free agent and go wherever I wanted to and take the most money.
"But I really believe in this organization. I have a great relationship with ownership and management and I really want to bring a championship here."
Of course, he signed the extension after the club made its one and only playoff appearance, a four-game foray against Detroit in 2009. If he thought that was going to be the norm moving forward, he was wrong; the Jackets missed the playoffs in the subsequent two seasons.
But Nash insists he has absolutely no regrets in signing the extension. It's just going to make it that much sweeter when he finally wins a championship with his one and only NHL club. And as for the lack of notoriety because of his work address, he couldn't care less.
"I don't mind it, and that was one of the main reasons I didn't sign in Toronto, either," Nash said. "I kind of like being under the radar here. I'm sure if we have a winning season and have a little run in the playoffs that it would change and that's fine. But it doesn't matter to me."
The way Nash sees it, players like Toews and Sidney Crosby, for example, deserve more recognition anyway.
"Those guys have accomplished pretty amazing things and I hope I get there one day," said Nash. "For them to take their team to a Stanley Cup, I haven't done that, so I don't deserve to be in those talks quite yet. But that's my plan, to do that here. As for all the limelight, I could have had that if I signed in Toronto, but I'm happy like this."
International hockey has given Nash the opportunity to remind the hockey world what a dynamic player he is. During two Olympic tournaments, four IIHF world championships and a world junior tourney, Nash has largely shone brightly for Team Canada. His standout performance at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics reminded us once again that the 6-foot-4, 219-pound power winger can really bring it no matter how big the stage is. He just hasn't been given the same stage in his NHL career.
Never again in his career will he face more pressure than he had along with his teammates trying to win Olympic gold in Vancouver for the country that is defined by the sport of hockey. You can stack up all the Stanley Cup finals you want; it's doubtful it would ever compare to what Team Canada's 23 NHL stars felt in Vancouver.
I believe in our ownership here ... and I love this city. I think the city deserves a strong professional team. They obviously have that at the college level. Our fans are great, they're loyal. It's a great place to live. I just think, at the end of the day, it would have been easy to be an unrestricted free agent and go wherever I wanted to and take the most money.” -- Columbus captain Rick Nash on why he stayed with the Blue Jackets
"It's funny how the guys played it off with the media, but it was a crazy amount of pressure," Nash said. "Nothing else would have been good enough. You finish seventh or get silver, it's the same thing. There was only one medal in mind and that was gold. To pull it off in your home country, that was definitely one of the best hockey experiences I'll ever have."
Team Canada coach Mike Babcock trusted Nash in key situations. Up a goal, down a goal, there was no hesitance in using Nash, who teamed up with Mike Richards and Toews on a line that shut down Russia's Alex Ovechkin in the quarterfinals. That kind of trust from Babcock is testimony to Nash's evolution as a player.
Former Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock deserves some credit for that. Just as he did with Mike Modano in Dallas, Hitchcock challenged Nash to become effective on both sides of the puck, and the forward responded well.
"Rick saw the real value of playing 200 feet," Hitchcock told ESPN.com. "He is really underrated as a complete player; he creates more turnovers than a lot of players of his skill set because of his tenacity on the puck."
"Before he got here, I was a goal-scorer, a power-play guy," Nash said of Hitchcock. "He made me understand that defense is one of the most important parts of the game, and you get all your offense from a strong defense, and it's definitely changed my career. The game has changed a bit since the lockout. It's certainly more high-scoring, but you're not going to make it in this league if you can't play defense."
It takes a certain work ethic to commit to that kind of game.
"I've been around some star players, played with star players. His work habits in practice, his work habits in the weight room, how he prepares for games, it was very refreshing," Jackets coach Scott Arniel said. "When you have a guy like that as captain, as your leader, it sure makes coaching a lot easier when you can use him as a good example."
Nash's leadership has evolved along with his game. He is team captain, after all. But you don't become a leader overnight. You have to earn it and grow into the role. Take last summer, for instance, when Nash was one of the first people to reach out to Jeff Carter after the star center was dealt to the Jackets. Carter was shell-shocked and didn't want to leave Philadelphia, but Nash believed a welcoming voice would help smooth things over.
"It was really important he did that because Rick carries so much credibility around the league," said Howson. "Rick is a really sincere guy, so when he does speak, it comes from the heart. He made a commitment here because he loves the city and loves the team and he's going to help us promote that."
Nash didn't take it the wrong way when Carter was slow to embrace the trade at first.
"I'm fortunate in my position that I've never known that feeling of getting traded," said Nash. "I think if I got traded from here, I'd be devastated and shocked; and I think that's exactly what [Jeff] was at first. I think it came off bad to the media that he wouldn't respond to anything, but he got back to me instantly and just said he needed a few days because he was in shock. It was understandable."
Now, as he enters his ninth NHL season, Nash finally has a bona fide No. 1 center with him. It didn't take too long, right? Nash doesn't worry about the past. He's pumped about this season and playing alongside Carter.
"To get Carter is huge," said Nash. "It's what [management] said they wanted to do and for them to do it is big."
When Nash signed his extension, management made him a promise that they would leave no stone unturned in trying to make the team more competitive.
"The thing with Scott is that when he signed me to a long-term deal, he showed me his plan and what he planned to do to the team over the [next] few years," said Nash. "He's owning up to it. It's what he told me he would do. It's just exciting to see the owner spending money and willing to bring top players in here to win."
Winning. It's the only thing Nash deeply craves. The limelight? Not so much.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.