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Nash buys in, Blue Jackets benefit

by Phil Coffey

Columbus forward Rick Nash (battling San Jose's Patrick Marleau) believes he is ready to be the franchise player the Blue Jackets envisioned when they selected him first overall in the 2002 Draft.
An interesting story in the Edmonton Journal by John MacKinnon pointed out how important it is for a coach to have the support of his top player or players.

In this case, the coach was Ken Hitchcock and the team the Columbus Blue Jackets.

The Blue Jackets’ top player, obviously, is Rick Nash, the strapping power forward who has been known to find the back of the net on a frequent basis. But Hitchcock is a defense-first coach, so the seeds of discontent could have been sown early.

But Nash bought into the plan Hitchcock was selling, and as a result, Columbus has been one of the NHL’s surprise teams this season.

“You can get your workers to buy in every night,” Hitchcock said. “But if you can get your skill guys to buy into that (defensive plan), that’s how you win.”

Hitchcock pointed to the Detroit Red Wings as a team that readily has accepted the system of coach Mike Babcock.

“They’re the gold standard,” Hitchcock said of the Wings. “(Pavel) Datsyuk and (Henrik) Zetterberg, they all check.”

The Blue Jackets are 11-10-4 after 25 games, which isn’t going to challenge the Montreal Canadiens’ dynasty teams, but it’s a nice building block for the Blue Jackets.

Looking at Nash, Hitchcock had visions of Calgary’s Jarome Iginla and Tampa’s Vinny Lecavalier, two big-time offensive talents who steadily added other elements to their game.

“I think all the coaches (he’s had) wanted me to be like that,” Nash told MacKinnon. “Maybe they didn’t think I was ready. Hitch came in and told me, ‘If you’re not ready now, you’re never going to be ready.’”

“Number one, a guy with that much talent should be killing penalties,” teammate Adam Foote said. “Sakic does it, (Dallas Stars centre Mike) Modano does it. (Nash) has the ability to be an all-around player, also.”

“Teams are taking us for real this season,” Nash said. “They’re not looking at us as an easy two points, now they know we mean business.”

In large part because Nash has bought into the system.

Farewell, Tom Johnson -- Hockey Hall of Famer Tom Johnson was a great friend to over the years, always willing and able to help us out with an opinion or a story. So we were greatly saddened at his passing at age 79 on Wednesday.

Our John McGourty actually was talking to Johnson last Tuesday and Johnson was giving him the business, as per usual when the two talked. At one point, John called over to me: “Tom Johnson said you need to give me a new assignment.” I shot back, “OK, go get me a cup of coffee.” You could hear Tom laughing over the phone.

That’s the kind of guy Tom was. Perhaps the best illustration came from Kevin Dupont in the Boston Globe about the kind of person Johnson was.

Dupont’s story centered on Kevin Sullivan, the budget director for the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care. Here is what Dupont wrote.

Sullivan recalled being in his late teens, caddying in a golf tournament at Concord Country Club, where Johnson was a member for years. Between rounds on a hot day, Sullivan and fellow caddies took a breather next to the clubhouse.

“Probably a violation at the time,” recalled Sullivan. “Of course, the waitress would not serve us. We were hot, thirsty, hungry, and just wanted to rest a while until the second round.”

Along came Johnson, who sat at a table next to the resting caddies. The waitress immediately came over for his order.

“He said, ‘Before you take my order, see if those boys want anything,’” recalled Sullivan. “She then asked us. We were too embarrassed to ask for anything, but I have no doubt Tom Johnson would have paid for whatever we wanted.

“I’ll always appreciate that gesture, above all his accomplishments on the ice and behind the bench.”

Don’t forget Downey -- On a team as packed with star players as the Detroit Red Wings, it’s easy to overlook the “plumbers,” guys who do the dirty work in order for the team to succeed.

So when you talk to the Wings’ top players, as Ted Kulfan of the Detroit News did recently, you come away with a very positive impression of a player like Aaron Downey, mainly because the Wings’ top players hold him in such high regard.

Downey won’t allow the opposition to take shots at his teammates and that protection is more than a little appreciated.

“Guys can’t be hitting Nicklas Lidstrom and the skill guys we have,” Downey told Kulfan after getting into two fights last Saturday in Columbus. “Bottom line, an example has to be set.”

“He’s done a great job for this hockey team,” Kris Draper said. “He’s one of those guys; he’ll do anything to pick up his teammates. Just a great guy. He never has a bad day; he’s glad every day he’s a Red Wing, and just a great guy to have in this dressing room.”

“He never hurts you on the ice,” coach Mike Babcock said. “He doesn’t take penalties and he stands up for the team. He’s a good team guy and meticulous in his preparation, and that keeps you in the League.”

Brotherly love -- As our Dan Rosen pointed out in a story on Thursday, the Stars’ Joel Lundqvist has had a much harder time establishing himself in the NHL than his twin brother Henrik, who rules the goal crease for the New York Rangers.

Through his struggles, Joel said Henrik always has been there to offer advice and just listen.

“He keeps saying just keep working hard and you’ll be back soon,” Joel said. “It’s nice that we are close and can talk.”

The Lundqvists are the third set of twins to play against one another in NHL history. Patrick and Peter Sundstrom played against each other 18 times. Rich and Ron Sutter played against each other 17 times. The Lundqvists have faced each other twice.

Two peas in a pod in Columbus -- Any time a new GM inherits a coach, there is speculation the two won’t get along and friction will be the inevitable result.

Doesn’t look like that’s the case in Columbus, where GM Scott Howson and coach Ken Hitchcock have meshed quite nicely.

“His strengths really balance with me,” Hitchcock said. “He’s a really patient, big-picture guy who sees things in months and years and I fight the daily fight, like all coaches do. Because he was a player at all levels, his ability to understand the team mindset at the end of competition is calming for me. You’re able to move past the emotion of the game and that’s important for me.

“I really appreciate his evaluation of every situation we’re in. We talk about players. Scott watches 95 percent of our practices, which is helpful to me. Scott spent time in the AHL and he understands development, even better than (coaches) do. He has a clear understanding of where a player is going to go. He’s able to see a player’s overall hockey sense.”

Sabres' defenseman Teppo Numminen is
still recovering from open-heart surgery.

Numminen on the mend – The future from a hockey standpoint remains uncertain for Buffalo Sabres defenseman Teppo Numminen, who still is recovering from open-heart surgery. The affable Numminen, one of the class guys in the NHL, said his primary concern is returning to a normal life.

“My intentions are getting healthy and getting in shape,” he said. “Every day is different mentally still and it’s been that way. I’m not 100 percent yet. I want to be as healthy as I was before this whole thing happened.”

Bittersweet night for Iginla -- Thursday night, Jarome Iginla played in his 804th game for the Calgary Flames, moving him past Hall of Famer Al MacInnis for the most games played as a Flame. It won’t be long before Iginla holds all the franchise marks. Right now, he is second in goals (337), third in points (698) and fourth in assists (361).

But the always team-oriented Iginla wasn’t in the mood to talk about personal achievements after the Flames lost to Anaheim, 4-1.

"It's a critical time for us, we're three games under .500, we're playing teams that we have to catch to make the playoffs," Iginla said. "We have to find ways to win and we have to do it now and get ourselves back in this playoff hunt. It's time."

Getting to know you --The road to Hell is said to be paved with good intentions and I admit to having added my share over the years. In this particular case, I always plan on going through the 30 media guides issued by NHL teams and offer up a fun column of tasty tidbits and fun facts. And every year, I get sidetracked. But the Canadian Press doesn’t. Their Neil Stevens hasn’t helped pave the road to Hell in this case, so he gets all the credit for these fun facts from the 2007-08 team media guides.

* Chicago defenseman Brent Seabrook loves yogurt-covered peanuts.

* Carolina captain Rod Brind'Amour can't get enough Red Vines licorice.

* Los Angeles defenseman Tom Preissing says his favorite food is bacon, making him a man after my own heart.

* Flyers goalie Martin Biron has horses named Mel and Mad Dog, teammate Mike Knuble has a leopard gecko named Flames and San Jose centre Joe Thornton owns cats named Lenny and Indy. Ice Age has dogs named Bear, Tiki, Rosie and our newest addition, an English Mastif named Moe who many NHL coaches would love to see on their backline.

* Toronto’s Mats Sundin would like to meet Nelson Mandela. Teammate Mark Bell wants to chat with the Dalai Lama and perhaps gain total enlightenment as Carl Spackler did in Caddyshack.

* As far as music goes, Metallica is the favorite band of quite a few players, including Nashville forward Jordan Tootoo, Minnesota goalie Niklas Backstrom, Phoenix defenseman Derek Morris, St. Louis forward Brad Boyes, Nashville right-winger Alexander Radulov, Kings goalie Jason LaBarbera and Wild forward Pavol Demitra.

* Entourage is a highly popular TV show among NHL players. Sorry. I’ve never watched it.

* If not a hockey player, the Leafs’ Kyle Wellwood would like to be a writer. Give me a call, Kyle, and we’ll work something out.

Material from personal interviews, wire services, newspaper, and league and team sources was used in this report.


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