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Saad ready, excited to soak up first All-Star experience

by Rob Mixer / Columbus Blue Jackets

Brandon Saad knows a few things about Nashville.

The Predators. Country music. The city’s “Music City” moniker.

One thing he’s never heard of: traditional Nashville hot chicken, that pepper paste-infused fried poultry deliciousness always served with a trademark toothpick of pickles.

“That’s a thing? It sounds awesome,” Saad said. “I’ll see if I can find some.”

Good call.

But that’s not the real reason the Blue Jackets’ 23-year-old budding star is heading to Tennessee to spend a few days in the state’s second-largest city.

Memphis is No. 1, in case you’re wondering.

Saad, acquired by the Blue Jackets from Chicago only weeks after he won his second Stanley Cup title with the Blackhawks this spring, has taken on more responsibility, more ice time and more pressure – all while delivering at a career-best pace. He leads the Blue Jackets in goals and points, and in early January, was named an All-Star for the first time in his young career.

Let’s run down the list: a two-time Stanley Cup champion, an NHL All-Star and on pace for 30-plus goals all at the age of 23. That’s pretty good.

So far, his acquisition has represented everything the Blue Jackets thought they were getting (and more), and despite the team’s lackluster results on the ice in 2015-16, they know they have a building block in Saad for both now and in the years ahead.

Yes, it has been a challenging season for both Saad and his teammates. They had high expectations both internally and externally, and right from the start, things went south.

They’re on their second head coach in 40 games and their postseason odds look slim at best, but they continue to work – and Saad has been one of their drivers. The Blue Jackets entered the break with impressive back-to-back wins over the Montreal Canadiens, and Saad was a big part of the sweep: he scored three goals in the two games and boosted his season total to 19, two clear atop the team lead.

In his mind, this opportunity to represent his new team and new city couldn’t come at a better time.

“It’s an honor to represent the Blue Jackets, absolutely,” Saad told earlier this week. “I’m really excited to get to Nashville and have the opportunity to spend time around some of the best players in the world. It’s going to be fun - a lot of fun - and I’m looking forward to it.”

Saad will have his parents, George and Sandra, and a few other family members with him for the long weekend in Music City. They arrived early Thursday and will have some down time to hang out, go for dinner and relax, but the All-Star festivities start to ramp up on Friday.

That night, Saad is slated to be part of “NHL All-Star Friday Night,” a music and entertainment event hosted by Kathryn Tappen and members of The Band Perry.

What’s he looking forward to most? That’s easy: soaking in his first All-Star experience with the people who have supported him along the way as he climbed the ladder from his youth in suburban Pittsburgh, to his draft year and development with the Blackhawks, and now, the latest stage in his promising career.

“It’s going to be pretty low-key and quality time for me to enjoy (the All-Star Weekend), especially with my family in town, we can get dinner and stuff like that,” Saad said. “I think that’s the best part, being able to spend time with them.”

The game itself is no more, as you’ve heard by now, instead replaced by a 3-on-3 tournament on Sunday afternoon at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena. It’s a building Saad knows well from his days with the Blackhawks and it’s also a building he’s fond of, calling it one of the NHL’s more fun in-game atmospheres and one that’s uninviting (in a good way) for the opposition.

He’s not worried about the skating, either. There will be plenty of adrenaline to carry him through and he’s hoping captain John Tavares can get him the puck if they happen to play together.

And after Nashville, it’s right back to work as the Blue Jackets embark on a three-game swing through western Canada next week. But not before this.

“It should be a lot of fun, a lot of skating, and a lot of skill,” Saad said of the new format. “With all the excitement going on, it’ll be easy to find energy. I’m really looking forward to it.”

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