The true sign of respect is what others say about a particular person. Ask anyone familiar with Rick Nash about the kind of person he is and you quickly see why he is universally respected.
Saturday night at Nationwide Arena, Nash’s number 61 will take its rightful place in the rafters. He has done countless things for the Blue Jackets’ organization on and off the ice.
But one thing stands out above all as to why this will be a special moment not only for Nash but for the Blue Jackets’ organization. In Nash’s mind, his successes were never just about him. He always had the best interest of others at heart. That’s the stuff of legends. His play on the ice elevated him to Blue Jackets’ great. His humility off the ice elevated him to Blue Jackets’ legend.
Nash’s number 61 will become the first number retired by the Blue Jackets. Saturday night is truly a celebration of not only Nash’s hockey career, but the lasting impact he has had and will continue to have on the Blue Jackets.
As you’ll see throughout this piece, his number 61 should be the first number retired for the Blue Jackets. He helped put hockey on the map in Columbus and will be remembered forever.
They Gave the Kid From Brampton a Chance
Flashback to 2002. The Blue Jackets held the third overall pick of the NHL Draft. But they needed to make a move. Enter then GM Doug MacLean.
MacLean made a trade with the Florida Panthers to move up in the draft from third to first, an almost unheard of thing in this day and age in hockey. The other piece of this trade was the Panthers being given the option to switch first-round picks in the 2003 NHL Draft.
That never happened because the Panthers held the first overall pick in 2003, until they made a trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins selected Marc-Andre Fleury as a result. At third, the Panthers drafted Nathan Horton. The Blue Jackets owned the fourth pick and selected Nikolay Zherdev.
MacLean pulled some magic and was able to get the first pick. With that pick, the Blue Jackets selected Nash, who was the consensus number-one pick according to the draft experts.
It didn’t take long for Nash to make an impact. Actually it took just three days after signing his first contract. It was Oct 10, 2002. The Chicago Blackhawks were in town. Nash scored in his Blue Jackets’ debut, becoming the first player taken first overall since Eric Lindros to score in his NHL debut. He was setup by Mike Sillinger, who is Cole Sillinger’s father.
The Blue Jackets went on to win the game by a 2-1 score. That marked their first win to open their season and in their home opener. You knew right away though that this player was going to be special. The only question was how special.
Nash went on to become a finalist for the Calder trophy, given to the NHL’s Rookie of the Year. Although he finished third to eventual winner Barrett Jackman, Nash was named to the NHL’s All-Rookie Team. For the next 15 seasons, he wouldn’t finish a season with less than 15 goals.
The Blue Jackets didn’t wait to give the kid a Brampton a chance. He immediately paid dividends and started his ascent towards being one of the premier goal scorers of his time.
Rick Nash: Face of the Blue Jackets
Ask anyone who they think of when they think of the Blue Jackets in the 2000’s. At least 90% of people would say Nash. He quickly became everything and then some for a new franchise looking for an identity. The pressure was not too big. He rose to the occasion and became the face of the franchise despite the team enduring struggles on the ice.
In his sophomore season, Nash continued to re-write the record book. He scored 41 goals to win a share of the Rocket Richard trophy for most goals in the NHL. He became the youngest player since 1986 to play in the All-Star Game. He also became the youngest player in NHL history to lead the league in goals.
Then came the NHL lockout of 2004-05. It would have been fascinating to see what Nash would have done for an encore coming off his 41 goal season. Instead, he played the season in Switzerland where he collected 27 goals in 44 games and added nine goals in 15 playoff games.
Once the lockout was over, it was finally time to get back to business in the NHL. The Blue Jackets signed Nash to a five-year deal in the summer of 2005. It seemed time for them to take the next step as a franchise. But under Gerard Gallant, the Blue Jackets could never find their footing, through no fault of his own. Those were some underwhelming teams at that time. 15 games into the 2006 season, Gallant was fired by MacLean. Gary Agnew coached the next five games and then Ken Hitchcock came on board despite MacLean not being on board with the move.
We know what happened next. MacLean was fired. It was the start of the Blue Jackets’ rise to their first playoff appearance. As you would expect, Nash was at the center of this rise.
Nash went on to five consecutive 30-goal seasons once Hitchcock took over including his second 40-goal campaign in 2008-09, the year the Blue Jackets crashed the Stanley Cup party for the first time ever.
No matter what trouble was happening on or off the ice, Nash continued to proudly lead the Blue Jackets with his play and the way he carried himself off the ice. Who could ever forget this goal in Phoenix, one of the most iconic goals in NHL history?
Things were going well as a team. So as a leadership group in 2008-09, they knew the playoffs were in close order. They wanted to finally break through. They said to each other let’s do this not only for us, but for Mr. Mac (owner John H. McConnell.)
They did just that. It was Apr 8, 2009. The Blue Jackets needed at least overtime to secure their first-ever trip to the playoffs. Down 3-2 with under six minutes to play, who do you think rises up to the occasion to score? Yep, it’s Nash, the face of the Blue Jackets.
The goal sent a fanbase into a frenzy as they knew for the first time ever, there would be playoff hockey in Columbus. The Blue Jackets got swept by the Detroit Red Wings, but for the first time, it seemed better days were ahead for the franchise.
The Beginning of the End
Instead of better days ahead, it was more troubling times. The Blue Jackets could not amass more than 35 wins the next three seasons. Hitchcock was gone. Claude Noel finished the 2009-10 season before Scott Arniel came in. The dark days were back again.
Nash did his part in scoring 33, 32 and 30 goals respectively. However thanks to a lot of bad decisions and poor drafting, the Blue Jackets were in a tail spin that seemed to have no easy answer. Speculation started to creep in that Nash since February 2012 wanted out. He eventually got his wish when then GM Scott Howson dealt Nash to the New York Rangers.
What was once a promising future for the Blue Jackets faded to black. Their star captain and face of the franchise had had enough. But for the time he was there, Nash gave everything he had to the team. It was the end of an era, one in which that had so much to look forward to. Fans could only wonder what could have been.
Even in dark times, Nash still valued the Blue Jackets. He knew the team was destined for a rebuild. He told Howson that he could be the centerpiece in a trade that could help with a rebuild. He said if the circumstances were right, he’d waive his no-trade clause and help them rebuild. So even though the Nash era was ending, his heart was always with Columbus and still is to this day.
Nash went on to play for the Rangers for six seasons before ultimately finishing his career with the Boston Bruins. Injuries caught up with him. He could not continue his career. Had that not gotten in the way, there could have been a reunion of sorts with Nash possibly re-joining the Blue Jackets.
In all, Nash played in 1060 games scoring 437 goals. He is the greatest Blue Jacket to date and occupies the record book in several places. While the on-ice product speaks for itself, it was the work he has done off the ice that is just as special if not more special.
Nash Continues to Impact Many
Nash’s work in the community is the stuff of legends. Here is a small list of some of the things he’s done in his career per cbj61.com.
- Nash started the 61 club, which encouraged students to make healthy choices. Those that made 61 healthy choices won tickets to a Blue Jackets game.
- Nash made a $100,000 donation to the Ohio State University to endow a scholarship for a student athlete.
- Nash donated $5,000 to a Quebec Pee Wee Team that represented Columbus to pay for travel expenses so that families would be able to attend with their children.
- Nash donated $15,000 to Santa’s Silent Helpers which assisted children, single mothers and the elderly with financial hardships.
- Nash created the “Rick Bands” program to help promote leadership and character with proceeds benefiting the Columbus Blue Jackets Foundation.
- Nash helped out with education programs, Jackets for Jackets and the Time Warner Adult Literacy Program.
Nash was a giant in the community. But where he leaves his indelible mark is with personal interactions. There are countless stories from fans who will always remember their interactions with Nash because of the humility and respect he shows. Even if you thought he didn’t know you, he would not only say thank you, but would include your name. He took the time to honor everyone he encountered. He lives out what it means to be a Blue Jacket even to this day.
Nash Continues to Impact the Blue Jackets
In June 2019 after his playing career was over, the Blue Jackets hired Rick Nash as a special advisor to GM Jarmo Kekalainen. Nash wanted to be part of a front office and the team that drafted him first overall gave him that opportunity.
In less than two years, Nash has already been promoted to Director of Player Development. One of his most important jobs is to work with the players and to be an advocate for Columbus and what it means to be a Blue Jacket. Given the recent events of some high-profile players leaving, this was an important role to fill. Having Nash in this role is low-key one of the most important decisions the team has made in recent years.
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As you can see, no matter what was going on, Nash put Columbus and the Blue Jackets first, even when he wanted out, he still recognized a way for the Blue Jackets to benefit. He impacted the Blue Jackets at first when they drafted him. He impacted the Blue Jackets for 10 amazing seasons as one of the league’s premier goal scorers. He impacted the Blue Jackets by helping them rebuild towards their most successful run as a franchise when they finally made the second round.
Nash continues to impact the Blue Jackets now in his current role in the front office putting the team first and inspiring the next wave of Blue Jackets to represent what wearing the logo truly means.
So on this Saturday night, the Blue Jackets honor the greatest player to ever put on their sweater. It is a celebration of what Nash has done to help transform the Blue Jackets into what they are today.
At a time when the Blue Jackets needed a star, they got one in Nash. Now, his legacy will live forever in the rafters at Nationwide Arena.
And through it all, it was never just about Nash. It was always about the team. This is why he will always be remembered as a legend for Blue Jackets’ fans then, now and in the future. He is and will always be Mr. Blue Jacket.
I am a fully credentialed writer who covers the Columbus Blue Jackets, Cleveland Monsters and Erie Otters as well as the Ontario Hockey League and NHL Draft. The 2021-22 season will mark eight seasons with the Hockey Writers. I am also the site’s Credentials Manager.