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Nash enjoying playoffs as part of Blue Jackets management team

Retired forward working with GM Kekalainen, hockey operations staff

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

COLUMBUS -- Rick Nash got a call from Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen shortly after he made his NHL retirement official Jan. 11.

It wasn't just a call to congratulate Nash on a great playing career. This was a business call.

"He said, 'What are you planning on doing next?'" Nash said prior to Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Second Round between the Blue Jackets and Boston Bruins at Nationwide Arena. "I told him I'm not sure yet, and he told me I could come into his office and chat. He offered me to come in, sit down and talk."

A few weeks later, Nash, who is Columbus' all-time leader in goals (289), assists (258), points (547) and games played (674), was taking the first strides into a new career with the Blue Jackets' hockey operations department.

Nash has no official title with the Blue Jackets, who are tied 2-2 with the Bruins in the best-of-7 series heading into Game 5 at TD Garden on Saturday (7:15 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS). He calls himself "a fly on the wall," a student learning the ropes of management from Kekalainen, president of hockey operations John Davidson, assistant general manager Bill Zito and director of hockey operations Josh Flynn.

But it's obvious to Nash already, just a few months into his pseudo-internship, that he wants to forge a second career in hockey on the management side and starting with the Blue Jackets is the perfect scenario because he lives full-time in Columbus.

Columbus drafted Nash with the No. 1 pick in the 2002 NHL Draft and he spent nine seasons with the Blue Jackets before getting traded to the New York Rangers on July 23, 2012.

"Columbus has always been home," Nash said. "I felt along with [former Columbus GM] Doug MacLean and a few others that we really grew this game in this city. I don't want to say we put it on the map because we didn't really have much success, but we had some exciting times.

"This organization, it's always been a huge part of my life and it's kind of nice that it came back full circle."

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Nash was clinging to hope that he would be able to resume his playing career through the fall and early winter. The Blue Jackets were clinging to hope that he would play for them if he did.

But unresolved symptoms from a concussion he sustained while playing for the Boston Bruins in March 2018 were keeping Nash off the ice and at home in Columbus with his wife, Jessica, and their three children.

"I was traveling, hanging out with the kids, taking the kids to school every day," Nash said. "It was great. I needed that break. I needed that four- or five-month break just to clear my mind."

There was a void though. Nash felt it.

"Big time," he said. "It's an issue that I think the NHLPA has done a great job with in terms of holding seminars and different things for retired players, but it's tough. You commit to hockey at, what, 13 or 14 years old, then it's all hockey. So you get done and it's just, 'What now?'"

Nash thought about getting into coaching, but he kept coming back to a long-held interest.

"I've just always been in love with how teams are built, how teams have success," he said. "You look at the Detroit teams, Pittsburgh, Chicago. I've always been interested to know how they're built."

He's also always looked up to Steve Yzerman, Joe Sakic and Rob Blake, who are GMs with the teams they were most associated with during their NHL careers: Yzerman with the Detroit Red Wings, Sakic with the Colorado Avalanche and Blake with the Los Angeles Kings.

Nash recognized the opportunity to kickstart his second career with the Blue Jackets when Kekalainen called. That they didn't know each other didn't matter.

Kekalainen said he sought Nash because he heard enough and saw enough to think he was ripe for a career in hockey operations. He said he did the same with former NHL forward Jarkko Ruutu, who is Columbus' European player development coach.

"What I do is I try to always identify people that during their hockey careers that I feel could have great input after their career is over," Kekalainen said. "I always try to look at guys and say, 'I think that guy is going to be a great worker when he's done playing.' Rick Nash came across as very intelligent, well-spoken, humble despite the great career that he's had. He has all the traits that I try to look for in guys who work for us.

"I'm convinced that if he wants to put his commitment and time into it he's got a full-time career ahead of him in hockey for sure. Sometimes when you've had a career like his it's not as easy to be a team player and start on the fourth line or the third line of the management staff, where he would have to start. Nobody climbs right to the top right away. But he's been great with all the boys that way. We've been really impressed."

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Nash's first dip into the management waters was a big one. He was with the Blue Jackets before the 2019 NHL Trade Deadline, when they acquired forwards Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel, defenseman Adam McQuaid and goalie Keith Kinkaid.

Columbus also kept forward Artemi Panarin and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, each of whom can become unrestricted free agents July 1. Those two along with Duchene have been among the Blue Jackets' most important players in the playoffs so far.

"A few of the guys in the room said a few times that, 'This isn't what every deadline is like, don't get used to this excitement,'" Nash said, laughing. "It was awesome to sit back and see how everything goes down. You don't get to see that when you're on the ice."

Nash downplayed his input in the deadline craziness, but Kekalainen said he was a great resource because he played with Duchene in international tournaments with Canada and with McQuaid in Boston for a few months last season.

"One of the things I believe in is the best scouting you'll ever do is when you know the guys from being on the ice with them," Kekalainen said. "I don't think you can ever do better scouting than when you've looked guys in the eyes on the ice in the battles, playing against and playing with the players. That's when you know them the best. So Rick had good insight in a lot of different things at the deadline because he had just finished playing and had played with some guys that we were talking about. There was a lot of positive input right there and we're just going along with that process now, to get to know him and he gets to know us, observing, and we'll see where it leads to."

Nash sits with Kekalainen, Davidson, Zito and Flynn in their booth in the press box at every game and in the stands at every morning skate. He sits in on meetings they have together and with coach John Tortorella. He travels with the team and goes out to dinner with the hockey operations staff. He generally steers clear of the Blue Jackets players unless he sees them in passing in the hotel or at the rink.

He asks questions, picks brains, seeks insight. He said he's learning about prospects, about contracts and analytics, and discovering how a hockey operations staff balances thinking about the present and the depth chart for three, four, even five seasons down the road.

"I was quite clear with Jarmo when I told him I want to work, I want to work," Nash said. "I don't want to be a figurehead and just pop in for the good times."

The hope is that he will be with the Blue Jackets at the 2019 NHL Draft in Vancouver from June 21-22, on July 1 for the start of free agency, at their prospect development camp in early July, with them at the Traverse City Prospects Camp in September and at the main training camp.

Maybe by then he'll be full-time on the Blue Jackets payroll again. All signs are pointing in that direction.

"Hopefully it turns into something," Nash said. "I've always been interested in this side of the game. It's been fun and it has re-ignited my love for watching the game."

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