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Ovechkin. Iginla. Zetterberg. Annually, the same famous names always seem to emerge when the team at 2K Sports begins debating over which player will star on the cover of its latest NHL video game.

Rick Nash of the Columbus Blue Jackets has been on the short list of finalists for the last few years. Musicians still throw elbows at peers to get on the cover of Rolling Stone; for a generation of young NHL players like Nash, being featured on a hockey title for Xbox or PlayStation is attaining a similar level of validated celebrity. "My idols have all been on the covers of video games as I was growing up," Nash said.

Nash was announced this week as the cover athlete and spokesman for "NHL 2K9," the latest installment of the popular series due out in September. Yesterday, I spoke with Mike Rhinehart, senior product manager for 2K Sports, about the process of selecting a player for the cover and why it was the finally the right year to give it to Nash.

He said the case for Nash was a strong one: He's a young star with a strong personality, and he's a sports video game fanatic. But based on some of his exploits this season, it's almost as if Nash was lobbying for the honor -- including one famous goal that looked like it was straight out of a video game.

Rhinehart said Nash was always a strong candidate: "He won the 'Rocket' Richard Trophy at 19. He's now the second-youngest captain in the League." But there were two moments this season that may have catapulted Nash's name to the top of the short list. At the NHL All-Star Game, Nash netted a hat-trick, scoring just 12 seconds into the game to break a 58-year-old record set by Ted Lindsay. But what put him over the top was "The Goal": January 17, 2008 against the Phoenix Coyotes.

"He had probably the most incredible goal I've seen in the last 10 years," said Rhinehart. "We just thought, ‘Wow, this kid if the real deal.'"

Rhinehart and I talked more about how Nash made the cover of NHL 2K9:

Q. What sealed the deal for Nash?

I travel to All-Star [Weekend] pretty much for the last decade or so because of the video game thing. I've run into Rick a few times at All-Star now, and this past year in Atlanta we had a video game tournament taking place prior to the game. It was actually the same red carpet that the players walked down. Rick walks by the tournament, sees the contestants, and he was as amazed by the guys who won a trip to All-Stars by playing a video game as they were to be standing in front of Rick Nash. It made us do a double-take: Rick is as excited to talk to these gamers as they are to him. He's a gamer, too.

Q. Is that something you typically look for? You see some of these cover boys and you feel like the last game they played was Mario Kart back in '94.

We try to indentify with someone who has some gaming background. Marty Turco, if you look at "2K6," he came into the studio and worked with our guys on a feature in the game. Joe Thornton did the same thing last year with our developers. He sat down and worked on the face-offs in the game. He said, "It would be interesting to see face-offs in hockey games change." And our guys are like, "He's right, they haven't changed in 15 years." These little tidbits that players can bring make us excited to work with Rick. He's coming to our studio at the end of the month to work on some other things.

Q. Was there any concern about Nash playing in a market like Columbus, with a relatively new NHL team that has yet to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs?

He's one of those guys you want to jump on with because the younger sports fan is really looking at these players. Not necessarily what team they're on. Remember when you're a kid and there's one player that everyone loved regardless of what team they're on?

Q. Fedorov. Fedorov was the [poop] back in the day, even if you hated the Wings.

Exactly. And we look at Rick as one of those guys. We love the market he's in. It's enthusiastic, it's a growing sport in a new area.

Q. Everyone's seen the goal on YouTube. Has the online video revolution changed things for a guy like Nash, who's playing in Columbus rather than in New York or somewhere like that? Does his celebrity transcend where he plays?

Absolutely. We have to give the NHL credit for being the first to jump on the YouTube bandwagon. At the end of the day, that's how these things get passed around. It's broken down every market barrier.

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Rhinehart, incidentally, is a huge San Jose Sharks fan along with having one of the most pimp jobs we've come across. He said his two greatest All-Star Game memories were seeing Jeremy Roenick throw a rare body check during a game a few years back, and this season's goaltending clinic by Evgeni Nabokov. He and his brother were decked out in Sharks gear -- pretty much the only ones in Atlanta -- geeking out for Nabby in the stands. "We were screaming at the top of our lungs, to the point where SJ Sharkie ran across the arena to give us high-fives," he said.

FYI: His choice for the next Sharks coach? Assistant Tim Hunter "would be amazing."

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