Rick Nash on Blue Jackets retiring his number: 'It’s the perfect end to the chapter'

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·7 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

There was a time when Rick Nash couldn’t have envisioned the Blue Jackets retiring his famed No. 61, let alone hanging it inside Nationwide Arena next to the banner honoring original team owner John H. McConnell.

Nash, the Jackets’ former captain and current director of player development, had a contentious exit following a 2013 trade to the New York Rangers, a move he requested after playing in just one postseason with the Blue Jackets in nine years. Fans voiced their disapproval, loudly, during his returns to play his former team, which stung Nash and his wife, Jessica, who maintained their permanent residence in the area.

Nash even fought former teammate Matt Calvert during his first return to Nationwide Arena, which really brought out the boo birds. It wasn’t pretty, but in a prime example of time and circumstances changing everything, Nash will be honored March 5 before a game against the Boston Bruins, becoming the first player in franchise history to have his number retired and raised to the rafters.

“To be honest, I just don’t feel like I had proper closure on my career, especially my time in Columbus,” Nash said Friday. “Coming back and getting a job here helped a lot with that, getting the fans and the people of the city’s acceptance, but this truly feels like the closure I think I needed on my career, (that) my family needed. That’s the biggest thing that came to mind. It’s the perfect end to the chapter.”

Blue Jackets fans, Rick Nash have turned the page

Rick Nash, shown here in 2009, represented the Blue Jackets in five NHL All-Star Games.
Rick Nash, shown here in 2009, represented the Blue Jackets in five NHL All-Star Games.

Blue Jackets fans agree, judging by their reactions to the news on social media and the warm reception Nash and his family were given Jan. 13, 2019, at Nationwide Arena when they were honored with a ceremonial puck drop following Nash's announcement that his 15-year playing career was over.

Five months later, Nash started on the executive track as a special assistant to Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen and he's since risen to his current position heading up the team's development wing. The decision to retire his number and place it next to McConnell’s was kept a secret until Monday, when Nash found out inside the locker room during a recorded message by majority owner John P. McConnell.

The stunned look on Nash’s face during the announcement said it all.

“It was definitely one of the greatest moments of my hockey career,” said Nash, the only No. 1 overall pick (2002) in franchise history and still the team’s all-time leader in games played (674), goals (289), assists (258) and points (547). “I was totally surprised. I had no idea what was going on. I never really like to be the center of attention, so it was full of mixed emotions, and shock was probably the first one.”

After a week of reflection, it’s beginning to sink in now.

“Of all the emotions I felt, humbled was first,” Nash said. “I’m so humbled to think that my number will be up in the rafters forever beside Mr. McConnell. It’s incredible. It’s tough for me to put into words what that means.”

Rick Nash and his family pose with Columbus Blue Jackets left wing Nick Foligno (71) and New York Rangers defenseman Marc Staal (18) for the puck drop before a Jan. 13, 2019 game in Columbus.
Rick Nash and his family pose with Columbus Blue Jackets left wing Nick Foligno (71) and New York Rangers defenseman Marc Staal (18) for the puck drop before a Jan. 13, 2019 game in Columbus.

Rick Nash helped the Blue Jackets grow hockey in Columbus

It also means a lot to those who grew up watching Nash.

Local interest in hockey has grown immensely among youth in the Columbus area since the Blue Jackets’ inaugural season of 2001-02, and a huge portion of the growth took place with Nash wearing No. 61 as one of the NHL’s top stars.

The team had lean years, but Nash always produced.

He won the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy for most goals in a season (41) in 2003-04, only 19 at the time and in his second NHL season, and represented the Blue Jackets at the NHL All-Star Game five times — compiling seven goals, five assists and 12 points in those games.

New York Rangers left wing Rick Nash (61) and Columbus Blue Jackets left wing Matt Calvert (11) fight during a March 19, 2014 game.
New York Rangers left wing Rick Nash (61) and Columbus Blue Jackets left wing Matt Calvert (11) fight during a March 19, 2014 game.

Nash was also presented with the NHL’s Foundation Player Award in 2008-09 for his many charitable efforts in central Ohio and helped the Blue Jackets make it to the playoffs for the first time in 2008-09, scoring a game-tying goal in Chicago to clinch their spot the year after John H. McConnell died.

It was fitting for McConnell’s son to deliver the news about his number retirement.

“Rick Nash was the face of our franchise and our best player for a decade, and represented our club on and off the ice with excellence, class and humility,” McConnell said in a statement. “No one is more deserving of this honor than he and we are looking forward to celebrating Rick and his family in what will be a historic and memorable night for all of us on March 5.”

'Nasher' had lasting impact on two current Blue Jackets

It will be especially memorable for a couple of current Blue Jackets.

Sean Kuraly and Jack Roslovic are from the Columbus area, grew up playing hockey as Blue Jackets fans and idolized the team's star, known simply as "Nasher."

Kuraly, 28, became a teammate of Nash’s with the Boston Bruins in 2018, after a deadline deal, and sat next to the legendary power forward in the locker room.

“I remember when I got traded to Boston and that was one of the first things Sean told me, is he couldn’t believe he was sitting beside me,” Nash recalled. “He had a poster of me on his wall.”

Rich Nash will have his No. 61 retired by the Blue Jackets on March 5, becoming the first player in franchise history to have his number raised to the rafters.
Rich Nash will have his No. 61 retired by the Blue Jackets on March 5, becoming the first player in franchise history to have his number raised to the rafters.

Roslovic, 24, gave Nash another fun memory this season.

“During training camp this year, I think Jack was cleaning out his parents’ house and he came to me with one of those (Rick Nash) McFarlane figurines,” Nash said. “It was (inscribed): ‘To Jack, Happy Birthday,’ and he said it was for his 10th or 11th birthday or something. It’s just little things like that … (that show) how much this city means to me. And what I tried to do was grow the game of hockey in Columbus.”

Soon there will be a permanent reminder of his efforts hanging in Nationwide Arena.

“If future generations look up at the 61, I hope they can learn the story of what I tried to do to grow the game in Columbus, and what I tried to do on the ice each night was bring a good effort and excitement for our fans,” Nash said. “Those early years, I remember ‘Mr. Mac’ always used to say, ‘The winning will take care of itself as long as you guys give 110 percent for our fans.’ And that’s how I tried to play here.”

As for the way his playing days ended in Columbus?

There are no hard feelings that remain.

“People got mad at him for asking for a trade,” said forward Jakub Voracek, a former linemate of Nash’s who has returned to Columbus after a 10-year stint with the Philadelphia Flyers. “I’m sure he did that because he just wanted to, in some kind of way, help the Blue Jackets. And I think he did. They got a lot for him … a lot of players, a lot of prospects, a lot of draft picks. He set up the franchise for years with success and playoff runs. That says what kind of guy he is.”

Nash’s banner will too, despite going through a time when it felt like the bridge back to Columbus was torched. He’s grateful for six years with the Rangers, but his affection for central Ohio and the Jackets never left him.

“I feel like me and my family invested so much in this city and the Blue Jackets, and the McConnell family invested so much in me, that it always felt like I was a Blue Jacket,” Nash said. “This is where I signed all my contracts. I never signed with another team. So, did I envision the number going up? Probably not, but the way everything worked out, I think it was pretty amazing. I feel pretty lucky to have it.”

Contact Brian Hedger at bhedger@dispatch.com; Follow him on Twitter @BrianHedger.

This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Columbus Blue Jackets' Rick Nash number retirement 'perfect end'