Forward Nick Spaling was acquired from Nashville this past summer along with Patric Hornqvist in exchange for James Neal. The Penguins may have taken the man out of the Music City, but they couldn’t take the Music City out of the man.
“I need a guitar teacher,” Spaling said.
“It’s on the to do list. I’m into country, so (I want to) learn to play country songs.”
Spaling cites Sam Hunt, Eric Church, Brett Eldredge and Garth Brooks as some of his favorite artists of the moment. He was in attendance for one of Brooks’ concerts at CONSOL Energy Center in February.
“One of the best concerts I’ve seen,” Spaling said.
In addition to leaving America’s country music capital, Spaling has also had to temporarily part ways with his dog, a Golden Doodle named Henry.
“He’s been back and forth. He hasn’t been here the whole time,” Spaling said. “He’s still hanging out with my parents a lot right now.”
Other than being without man’s best friend, it’s been an easy transition to Pittsburgh for Spaling.
“It was easier to come during the summer,” he said. It wasn’t a rush; it was a little easier to get adjusted and do it on my own time.”
“Right when the trade happened, I had a lot of excitement just to come in and see a lot of the players that I’ve been watching and I haven’t seen a lot being in the west.”
He was seen as a good fit for the Penguins right off the bat.
“Character, good dressing room guy,” general manager Jim Rutherford said shortly after the trade. “It gives us more balance in our forwards.”
Brandon Sutter, who’s currently centering Spaling on the third line, finds the winger easy to work with.
“We have similar mentalities on the ice,” Sutter said. “I think we both want to be two-way players and I think we’re both pretty responsible defensively. Our challenge is always to create more offense so playing with him has been great.”
It was easy for Spaling to find his place among his new teammates, especially since he already knew a few of them. Familiar faces were Hornqvist because of their time together in Nashville, as well as Robert Bortuzzo and Steve Downie, whom he played with in juniors.
Spaling teamed with Bortuzzo to win the Ontario Hockey League championship with Kitchener in 2008. Spaling had 14 goals and 30 points in 20 playoff games during the Rangers’ run.
“Sometimes you get caught talking about the olden days, but we knew each other pretty well,” Spaling said. “I played with ‘Bort’ for three years in juniors so I knew him pretty well. It was an easy adjustment and you kind of pick up where you left off.”
One player in particular latched onto Spaling, or maybe Spaling latched onto him.
“He gets lonely and he calls me over,” joked Zach Sill, who lives four blocks away from Spaling.
“He’s one of those guys that when you first meet him, you feel like you’ve known him for a while.”
The tandem commutes to the rink and the airport together, and they hang out outside of the workplace as well. They go out to eat together nearly every night and frequent the nearby movie theater, most recently to see “Hot Tub Time Machine 2.”
“We don’t do a whole lot, but we have a lot of down time,” Sill said. “We don’t do a whole lot of crazy things, but it’s just somebody to spend the down time with.”
Another old teammate of Spaling’s from juniors is his own brother, Nathan. But his brother wasn’t just a teammate; he was the reason a three-year-old Nick took an interest in hockey.
“It made it a lot more fun for me being able to watch him,” Spaling said. “He was always so much better so I got to learn a lot from him and I think develop a little quicker being able to play with him at home.
“We just fooled around a lot playing hockey growing up.”
In addition to an older brother, Spaling also has two sisters – one older and one younger.
“Everybody had something going on,” Spaling said. “We’re a pretty close group of siblings, which made it pretty fun growing up, being able to go watch my brother play hockey, watch my sisters play volleyball or whatever they were doing.”
Being one of four kids in one household can give someone a grounded attitude and sense of responsibility, which might explain Spaling’s willingness to jump into any forward position when called upon.
Throughout an injury-plagued season, Spaling is one of just two Penguins – along with Rob Scuderi – to play in every one of the team’s first 60 games, giving him the chance to slot into a few different spots throughout the lineup.
“He’s a player that can play all three forward positions,” Rutherford said. “So if one of our centers gets hurt he can just slide in there, very versatile player.”
“That’s huge,” Sill said. “You stay in the lineup the whole year, you can be a part of the team the entire season and chip in throughout the whole season. That’s something to be proud of and not everyone can say that.”
Spaling has taken advantage of his opportunities, as he’s already potted nine goals – leaving him just four shy of his career high, set last season, with 22 games left to play.
“It’s been one of those years where the injuries piled up fast,” Spaling said. “One of the biggest things was guys coming in and young guys being able to play big roles and they did a good job. That’s a great thing for the depth of our team.”
Spaling’s nose has a crescent-shaped scar, thanks to a run-in with Simon Despres’ stick at a practice. The Penguins have clearly left a mark on him, but his dexterous attitude has helped him make a mark of his own on the team.