These are the things of which a Canadian child dreams.
It is Hockey Day in Canada. Snow is lightly falling on the capital of the country that gave the world this marvelous game. Ten minutes ago, the national anthem was belted out by 19,978 happy fans and, thanks to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Canadians are watching from Cape Spear on the eastern tip of the Avalon Peninsula to Tofino on the western shore of Vancouver Island.
A puck is in the air, spinning high over the blue line, over the red line and lands at the feet of Rick Nash, a 29-year-old from Brampton, Ont., who was once the No. 1 pick overall in the National Hockey League entry draft.
Nash settles the puck down, moves his 6-foot-4 220-pound body into top gear and accelerates hard down along the right wing boards. He crosses the opposition blue line, looks up, sees a small space and, with a bullet-like drive rarely seen in NHL hockey since the days of Guy Lafleur and Mark Messier, he rips a long, hard shot over the blocker of the goaltender and into the roof of the net for the winning goal.
It is a true story, if not entirely happy – Nash’s winning goal sent his New York Rangers on to a decisive 4-1 victory over the Ottawa Senators who desperately needed the points if they plan to make a case for the playoffs.
Still, for the nearly 20,000 Canadians in the Canadian Tire Centre and the millions watching across the country, the goal was less about the New York Rangers jersey than it is about a jersey yet to be worn in action: the 2014 Team Canada Sochi Olympics jersey.
What Rick Nash showed is that he deserves to be there, though there was certainly some discussion right up until the team was named. It had not been a good fall for the 2010 gold medalist and member of the sorry squad sent to Turin four years earlier that had finished seventh. Nash had been injured earlier this season – missing 17 games in October and November – and been slow to round into form.
The day before the team was announced, however, he scored twice, and has now scored three more times since, somewhat quietning those who might have preferred San Jose Sharks’ Joe Thornton, Philadelphia Flyers’ Claude Giroux or, especially, Tampa Bay Lightning’s Martin St. Louis, who scored four times against Thornton’s Sharks the same afternoon Nash got his game-winner against Ottawa.
Nash, however, has most impressive credentials beyond the NHL, apart from his gold medal in Vancouver four years ago. In four World Championships (2005, 2007, 2008 and 2011) he has counted 23 goals and 44 points in 34 games while winning a gold and two silver medals. (In an endearing touch, while other NHLers would bring their wives and girlfriends along for the tournaments, Nash would bring his grandfather, John McClymont.)
Also, Nash spent his NHL lockout time playing for HC Davos in the Swiss league, leading the team to the Swiss championship and the Spengler Cup in 2004-05 returning for half the season in 2012.
The big winger likes the big ice.
Nash was delighted when he got the call from Kevin Lowe of Hockey Canada’s management group letting him know he had made the team. It was a bit of relief as there had been considerable debate and Nash had been considered one of several on the “bubble.” There had been some thought that if top goal scorer Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning could not play, then Nash might be added. Stamkos’s broken leg appears to be healing quickly, however, and Nash made the team even with the presumption that Stamkos will be in Sochi.
“It was an honour,” Nash says of the news. “I’ve played in two already, so I know what to expect.”
And that, of course, is also to expect the unexpected. Canada won in 2002, bombed out to 7th place in 2006 when Nash first made the team, and won again in 2010.
“I think about 2010 before 2006,” he says with a grin. “That’s why athletes have short-term memories – forget about those things.”
Nash was with the Columbus Blue Jackets when he was picked previously – their No. 1 draft pick, eventually their captain – but he has been a Ranger since he was part of a five-player, two-draft-pick deal in 2013.
“It’s a pretty lucky feeling to put on a Rangers jersey every night,” he says. “But when you’re playing for your country and where you grew up and where you were born, it’s a different feeling.
“All the patriotism kind of comes out of you, kind of spills out of you when you wear it.”
He has no idea with whom he may be playing in Sochi. He began the Vancouver games as Sidney Crosby’s linemate but ended up playing with Mike Richards and Jonathan Toews, who was named the top forward in the tournament.
“Last Olympics they seemed to shuffle lines around almost every game until the elimination round,” he recalls. “There are so many good players and it’s going to be good to get a chance to play with all different guys. There’s a lot of talent on that team.
“You feel like Canada could have two teams. When you think about all the players that have played over the years, there’s a huge talent pool that Canada has.”
Unlike many others in the NHL at both the playing and coaching level, Nash is not one who believes the NHL game and strategy merely transfer over to the Olympics. Not only is the international ice surface 15-feet wider, but the game being played is not the same.
“It’s a totally different game,” he says. “You have an extra half second. There’s more feet from the dots to the boards. You have different angles all over the ice. It’s just a different game. You can’t establish a fore-check as much as you want to on the NHL size. You can’t make as big hits.
“You get that extra second and sometimes you don’t know what to do with it. The guys not there yet and you’re already making your next play like you have to in the NHL, but there’s that extra half second. On the Olympic ice it’s easy to get caught on the outside. There’s so much room between the dots.”
And yet, he not only likes it, he looks forward to it, hugely.
“I’ve been lucky to play two lockouts on the international ice and have had some success at it at the world championships.
“It truly is a different game.”
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