The Stanley Cup holds a special place in the heart of Jason Arnott. Just ask Dina, his wife of three years.
After Jason won the National Hockey League championship in 2000 with the New Jersey Devils, he brought the celebrated silver trophy to bed one night. "She was like, 'You're not bringing that in here?' " Jason recalls. "I said, 'Yeah, it's going in the bed so move over.' "
That's the kind of passion Predators general manager David Poile was looking to add to his hockey club this July when he signed Arnott, a coveted free-agent center, to a five-year contract. Of course, the 31-year-old's offensive skill and commanding 6'4", 220-pound frame were contributing factors too.
"Obviously the one dimension that he has that nobody on our team up front has in those top lines is size," says Predators assistant coach Peter Horachek. Arnott, who will step into the No. 1 center position in Nashville, is coming off the best season of his 12-year NHL career. He has accumulated 276 goals and 368 assists in 824 career games with Edmonton, New Jersey and Dallas and his experience and versatility make him a valuable new weapon in the Predators' arsenal.
"He can play on the power play on the point," Horachek adds. "He can play in the slot. He can go to the front of the net. He can really shoot the puck. He's got good instincts.... He's still in the prime of his game right now. He's bringing that with leadership as well."
Still, the one aspect of Arnott's arrival that seems to be getting the most attention is his striking physical presence on the ice. And for good reason, given the fact that the Predators have openly acknowledged a need to supersize themselves after last season's playoff loss to the San Jose Sharks.
"The size of Jason Arnott is a big advantage," head coach Barry Trotz explains. "I mean, you line up against a guy like [Sharks center] Joe Thornton or some of the bigger centermen and it gives you an opportunity to match up physically. There's nothing more frustrating than when you don't match up physically and you get a skilled player who is more physical and you can't really separate him from the puck."
Augmenting Arnott's arrival was Nashville's July acquisition of 6'4", 210-pound center Josef Vasicek via trade. Trotz likes the idea of having two big centers--one right-handed, one left-handed--to send out against opposing teams. "It really gives us a lot of strength down the middle," Trotz says. "One of our smallest centermen now is David Legwand, who has been our biggest centerman for a number of years. So it is quite different. I think it's an advantage offensively and it's obviously an advantage defensively, just because of the fact that you have those big bodies that can get in the way and distribute the puck and break up plays."
Predators defenseman Kimmo Timonen, who stands at 5'10", 194-pounds, knows the frustration of trying to stop Arnott on the offensive end of the ice. "You can't run into him," Timonen says. "You just have to play good position, and stay between him and the goal. That's the only key to stop him because he's so big."
Surprisingly, Arnott was a bit of a late bloomer on the ice. Growing up in Wasaga Beach, Ont., his parents--both of whom played hockey--put him into skates at around age 3 or 4. "At first I couldn't skate at all," Arnott says. "All the kids around me that were my age were just wizzing around me, and I couldn't skate. I wasn't too happy with that. Then I just kept at it, kept at it and just kept getting better. I just loved the game. I played it down in my basement, played on roller skates. Twenty-four hours a day we were playing it because we loved it so much."
Located on Georgian Bay, Wasaga Beach is a small town that was home to around 4,500 when Arnott was growing up. He was born in a nearby town, Collingwood, because Wasaga Beach didn't have a hospital. "We played a lot of road hockey, a lot of dirt biking, snowmobiling, hunting, fishing, that type of thing," Arnott said of his childhood days. "Lots of outdoor stuff. It was great. It's a great town, and in the summertime we live on a beach so you get all the tourists and you get the water there, so we did a lot of watersports and stuff like that too."
These days, Arnott, who entered the league as a first-round pick by Edmonton in the 1993 NHL Entry Draft, lists bow hunting as a favorite off-ice activity. "I started bow hunting in Edmonton with a few of the guys when I was young, and then in New Jersey I got to hunt deer as well," he says. "Texas has some of the best hunting in the world. Then I came here, and I didn't even really think about the hunting aspect of the whole thing. After everything sunk in when I signed, I was like, 'Tennessee--they've got some good hunting there.' "
Arnott and his wife have a son, Chase, who at age 2 isn't on skates yet but is already getting into hockey. "I didn't give him a stick because I didn't want him to be hockey, hockey, hockey, but my nanny bought him a stick from one of our games," Arnott says. "He wouldn't let it go. He had to have it all the time. Now he's kind of off and on, but he loves to play it. He can shoot the ball and run around and pass. It's funny. He's a little devil."
Arnott paid homage to his hockey roots following the 2000 Cup win, returning to Wasaga Beach for a proper celebration. Instead of getting the customary "day with the Cup" that is afforded to each member of a winning team, Arnott learned the Cup had some down time before its next stop and received permission to keep it for two days. "They organized a big parade for me in Wasaga," he recalls about the first day. "I figured there'd be a couple hundred people or something like that, but it was <i>ridiculous</i>. I mean, there were people from everywhere there.
"The next day I had a huge party at my house," he says. "There were probably about 600 people there. I invited old teachers and old coaches and pretty much everybody that I could possibly think of that either helped me or was around me during my times of playing. Everybody showed up. It was awesome. We just took photos and drank [from the Cup] and had fun. I actually rented a couple houseboats and I took my dad and 12 of my closest friends and all their fathers--all the guys that I played minor hockey with and then all the dads, because usually at one time or another they all coached me.
"They put the life jacket on the Cup in case it went over."
What made the championship victory that much sweeter for Arnott was the fact that he won the finals in storybook fashion with a dramatic double-overtime goal in Game Six. "The game-winner, I still watch it today," he says. "It still gives me goose bumps watching it. It just seems so surreal. It seems sometimes like it never happened."
Now in Nashville, Arnott believes he can recreate some of the magic that existed on New Jersey's dangerous "A" line, which matched him with skilled and speedy wingers Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora. Arnott recalls clicking with Kariya on Team Canada's 1994 World Championship gold-medal-winning club in similar fashion. "We're pretty much like opposite players," Arnott says of himself and Kariya. "He uses his speed and his skill and all that. I use my size and aggressiveness to open up lanes for guys like that. It worked out well with myself and Elias and Sykora in New Jersey, so I don't see any reason why it should be any different.
"When I got [to New Jersey], I knew 'Patty' and 'Sykie' were just breaking into the league. They were kind of finding their own spot on the team. We all kind of just took off together. I could see the talent in those two. You see Patrik Elias now, he's one of the best players in the world. You could just see it. Playing against some of these guys, like Paul and young Marty Erat--I see similarities between Erat and Patty when Patty first started out. You never know how they're going to end up, but it'd be fun to play with those types of players again. It'd be a lot of fun."