Rick Nash gets it.
The face of the Blue Jackets' franchise has evolved from a superstar being a captain to a captain being a captain. Now in his second year with the "C" on his sweater, Nash is comfortable, so he takes advantage of Hitchcock's open-door policy, openly speaking his mind and acting as the voice of the dressing room.
His teammates love how much Nash has got their backs and the affect the leadership role has had on his play has only been positive, too.
Nash entered Monday tied for sixth in the NHL with 14 goals and tied for ninth with 25 points. He had a career-high 79 points last season in leading the Jackets to their first playoff berth, but Nash was only a shell of the captain that he is today.
"Rick started off as a quiet guy who knew right from wrong but didn't say very much, and now he speaks up," Hitchcock said Monday morning from Madison Square Garden, where his team will play the New York Rangers later in the evening. "If he doesn't like what is happening, he'll more than speak up. He has made for a very good captain. He is really emerging as a strong leader in the NHL community."
Hitchcock nodded his head in agreement when asked if Nash seems way more comfortable this year than last. Nash didn't stumble on his words when describing the difference, which he believes is massive.
"At first it was just tough to walk down to the room and say something, but as the time goes on you start feeling more comfortable and you get a better relationship with each other," Nash told NHL.com. "If I need anything relayed from the players I can go down there no problem. He's a pretty easy guy to talk to and he's pretty open with me, too. He lets me know what's going on in the coach's room and what he's thinking for game plans and upcoming events, things like that."
With two large personalities like Hitchcock and Nash, you'd expect the relationship to get rocky with some contentious arguments or, at the very least, public disagreements.
Neither the coach nor the captain say there's a problem because their strong coach-captain relationship allows them to listen to one another with respect and understanding.
Sure they might not like what the other is saying, but they never scoff or brush it off without consideration. It would be counterproductive.
"We're both trying to achieve the same goal so anything that he's doing or saying, even though at the time you might bite your tongue, you know at the end of the day that he's just sending a message of what needs to be done to win games," Nash said. "Once you buy into something like that and you understand that whatever he's saying is for the best of the team it's easy to sit back, take it in and go do what he's saying."
Hitchcock said their "partnership" fosters more direct communication. There is no need to sugarcoat the message because Nash would get what's at the heart of the meaning anyway.
"If I need more from Rick, I'll just tell him, 'Hey, we need more,' and he always turns it up," Hitchcock said. "If there are issues on the team he just comes and tells me. If he doesn't like something going on with travel, accommodations or something going on with the team he just knocks on my door and comes and tells me and we get it fixed."
Nash will knock on Hitchcock's door to discuss anything from travel, team meals, times for meetings, systems and even to tell the coach the team needs a day off.
A year ago, he didn't have the moxie to do much of any of that.
"I have never been the captain anywhere else, but I don't know if everyone has that kind of relationship with their coach," Nash said. "We're always on the same page and understand each other. I let him know where the guys stand and he lets me know where he's at. It's good to be on the same page and not guessing what the other guy is thinking."
"If I need more from Rick, I'll just tell him, 'Hey, we need more,' and he always turns it up." -- Ken Hitchcock
"He's the voice of our team, the guy who sticks up for us," Jackets defenseman Kris Russell told NHL.com. "He gets guys to follow him. He brings guys into the fight. We're pretty lucky to have a leader and a player like that. He's the guy who sets the tone."
Hitchcock doesn't need to be told all that. The knock-knocks serve as the reminder of how far Nash has come as the leader of the Jackets' dressing room.
"It's interesting watching stages; Rick has gone from a player that was just trying to find his own way, to a captain that knew what was right but didn't have the confidence to say it, to now he says it," Hitchcock said. "He knows what it feels like when things are going right and if it's not going right he's the first one to speak up.
"One time this year we screwed up the time for meetings and didn't give the group enough time to stretch," Hitchcock added, "and the knock-knock came on my door."
At this time last year it wouldn't have.
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