LONDON, Ont. – Blue Jackets captain Rick Nash has never been the type to wear his heart on his sleeve, but he could feel tears welling in his eyes when his finest childhood memories were relived on Friday night.
The London Knights, the organization with which Nash spent his two years of junior hockey, held a special ceremony before their game against the Owen Sound Attack to reflect on Nash’s time in London and permanently retire his No. 61 jersey to the rafters of John Labatt Centre.
Joined by his family and close friends, Nash watched the arena video board as the Knights played a first-class tribute to his hockey career. His highlight-reel goals came one after the other, including Memorial Cup goals with the Knights, Olympic and international competition scores with the Canadian national team - and last but not least, his “goal of the year” against the Phoenix Coyotes in 2008.
Nash repeatedly used the word “honored” to describe the feeling as he stood at center ice and addressed the sold-out crowd of 9,046.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve heard you cheer for me,” Nash told the crowd. “It sounds great.”
Current Knights head coach and general manager Mark Hunter spoke about the frail, 150-pound teenager that he and brother Dale (now the coach of the Washington Capitals) drafted fourth overall in the 2000 Ontario Hockey League priority draft. The Hunter brothers had assumed control of the team not too long prior to the draft, and they knew right away Nash was going to be a cornerstone player for an organization that needed a jolt.
|A Memorable Knight - Rick Nash's Jersey was retired Friday, Jan. 20, 2012 at the John Labatt Centre in London, Ont. (Dave Maetzold) |
“Rick is one of the game’s best snipers and it was clear early on in his career that he was something special,” Dale Hunter said. “It’s a great honor and one that he has certainly earned.”
The scene just before the ceremony was special: current Knights players took to the ice wearing jerseys representing the various stops throughout Nash’s hockey career. There were old Knights jerseys, Canadian national team jerseys and a home and away Blue Jackets sweater among those at center ice.
The Knights raised a commemorative banner high above the ice surface, where Nash’s name and jersey joined the likes of Dino Ciccarelli, Rob Ramage, Corey Perry, Darryl Sittler and Brendan Shanahan. Now 27 years old, Nash spoke highly of the organization that gave him an opportunity to play at the highest level of junior hockey and develop his talent as a teenager.
“It really is special for me,” Nash said. “I was excited and got real emotional watching those videos that we were all a part of. I’m happy I held it together and got through.
“If you look at it, it’s been 11 years since I got drafted here. In saying that, it’s a nice gesture from the London Knights and it’s an honor to be up there with all of those names. London will always have a soft spot in my heart and I’m happy the jersey can hang here forever.”
Though he spent just two seasons in a Knights jersey, Nash quickly became one of the most successful players in their history. He scored 66 points in 58 games as a 16-year-old rookie in 2000-01, and won the Emms Family Award as the OHL’s top rookie. A year later, he came back and scored 72 points in 54 games – a season that helped propel him to the top of the NHL Entry Draft board, where he was selected first overall by the Blue Jackets.
“You really couldn’t (replace the memories),” Nash said. “I said that on the ice and told the guys in the locker room before the game that they better remember what they’re doing here and the relationships they’re building because as you go on, these are the most fun years of your life."