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Columbus Blue Jackets’ Rick Nash is one of Ohio’s top pro sports stars … and he’s loyal, too

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Rick Nash is arguably the most accomplished athlete playing for an Ohio pro sports franchise. Among the state’s best, he might also be its most anonymous. Such is reality for the Blue Jackets’ 27-year-old captain: a player regarded as elite in NHL circles and obscure in the minds of Cleveland and Cincinnati fans with little hockey intellect and enough losing teams. Never mind that Nash has made more All-Star appearances than Reds slugger Joey Votto and has graced as many video-game covers as Browns running back Peyton Hillis. Or, that he exhibits the modesty and loyalty that fans say they still desire in their heroes. The combination of his sport’s 60-watt appeal in the United States and his team’s inability to win with regularity has stunted the popularity of the six-time 30-goal scorer. “To the average sports fan, Nash might be the best player in the world that nobody knows about,” ESPN hockey analyst Barry Melrose said. “The kid has got everything — size, speed, skill, strength, courage, the ability to shine on the world stage. But when you don’t win, it’s hard to gain recognition.” Nash and the retooled Blue Jackets will try broadening their base starting Friday night as they open the season at home against the Nashville Predators. Rick Nash file Position: Right wing Age: 27 Ht/Wt: 6-4, 219 Hometown: Brampton, Ontario Nash skinny: Top pick in the 2002 NHL Draft . . . Co-recipient of 2004 Rocket Richard Trophy for most goals (41) in a season . . . Winner of NHL Foundation Player Award in 2009 for community work . . . Leads Blue Jackets in almost every major statistical category including: games played (592), goals (259), assists (229), points (488) andpower play goals (77). — Tom Reed The club has increased its payroll to a franchise-high $63.1 million — less than $1.5 million under the salary cap — after a summer makeover that included the free-agent signings of defensemen James Wisniewski and Radek Martinek and winger Vinny Prospal. The biggest splash, however, involved a trade for All-Star Jeff Carter, ending a decade-long search for a legitimate top line center for Nash. General manager Scott Howson admits the occasion of Nash’s 27th birthday on June 16 helped inspire the club’s brain trust as it plotted roster changes. Blue Jackets management did not want him becoming hockey’s equivalent to Archie Manning or Pete Maravich, great players consigned to bad teams. Since entering the league in 2000, the Blue Jackets have accrued the league’s worst points percentage (.450), managing just 738 of a possible 1,640 points, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. They have made one playoff appearance, failing to win a game or hold a lead against the Detroit Red Wings in 2009. The puck drops here The NHL season begins tonight. Here’s a quick look at some teams and items of interest: Columbus Blue Jackets The Blue Jackets made major roster changes to upgrade their offense, but their fate could be determined by their fourth-year goaltender. Steve Mason followed a rookie-of-the-year season with two shaky seasons that saw the Jackets post back-to-back 13th-place finishes in the Western Conference. The additions of Jeff Carter, Vinny Prospal and James Wisniewski should vastly improve their power play. But the club remains in one of the league’s most competitive divisions (Central) with Chicago, Detroit, Nashville and St. Louis. Detroit Red Wings The Wings remain a playoff lock, but the veteran group made few changes to the club bounced by San Jose in the second round for a second straight season. Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk are still one of the best 1-2 forward combinations in the league. Ageless defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom is coming off another Norris Trophy season, but the loss of Brian Rafalski hurts. Pittsburgh Penguins The health of Sidney Crosby (concussion) remains one of the NHL’s biggest stories. The Penguins superstar hasn’t played since early January and will not play in the club’s opener. Pittsburgh, however is getting back center Evgeni Malkin, who missed the second half of last season due to knee surgery. The Penguins are a playoff lock, but not Stanley Cup contenders unless Crosby is in top form in April. Buffalo Sabres The biggest news here is in the owner’s box, where billionaire and Sabres fan Terry Pegula purchased the team during last season and started pouring money into the roster. They signed defenseman Christian Ehrhoff to a 10-year, $40 million deal and forward Ville Leino to a six-year, $27 million contract. Goaltender Ryan Miller gives the Sabres a chance to win every game. Colorado Avalanche The parent club of the Lake Erie Monsters should field a fast-skating, offensive-minded group of forwards. The big question is whether their goaltending will be improved. The Avs paid a steep price in acquiring talented, but oft-injured Semyon Varlamov from Washington. They also are hoping to get more offense from their blue line. Erik Johnson should help in that area, but the Avs remain a long shot for the playoffs. Around the league • The NHL has returned to Winnipeg after a 15-year absence as the Atlanta Thrashers relocated in the off-season. The Jets play their first game Sunday against Montreal. • One of the league’s biggest developing stories is realignment. The Blue Jackets and Red Wings are two teams with a desire to join the Eastern Conference. • Center Brad Richards was the off-season’s biggest free-agency signing as he joined the offensively challenged New York Rangers. • Brendan Shanahan, the new czar of discipline, suspended eight players in the preseason as the league tries to eliminate unnecessary head shots. Wisniewski must sit out the first eight games for his high hit on Minnesota’s Cal Clutterbuck. — Tom Reed As the team’s longest-tenured player, Nash has endured his share of criticism. A small segment of fans has questioned his leadership and wondered if rebuilding the franchise wouldn’t be more easily achieved by trading the one player sure to yield a sizeable return. Howson has chosen the more conventional path. “We just thought to ourselves, ‘What can we do to help, Rick?’ ” Howson said. “Otherwise, we are just going to waste his prime years if we don’t get moving. “The conversations I’ve had with him [after] every year he’s always said, ‘Get us two more All-Stars.’ ” In analyzing his career arc, there are LeBron James parallels. Each is a former No. 1 overall draft pick. Each is a two-time Olympian and gold-medallist. Each spent years without strong supporting casts. And in the summer of 2010, each had opportunities to become an unrestricted free agent. You think Spike Lee and other New York Knicks fans were galvanized by visions of James in the Big Apple? Folks in hockey-mad Toronto would have uprooted the CN Tower and driven it to Columbus for the right to negotiate with Nash, who grew up in Brampton, Ontario. “It was appetizing thinking about playing for the Maple Leafs,” Nash said. “But I still felt there was a job to do here. I didn’t want to take the easy way around it. “I felt as though I owed it to the city and organization to try and bring a winning team and a championship here.” On July, 3, 2009, Nash signed an eight-year, $62.4 million contract extension. He rejected the Jackets’ largest offer because he thought it hindered the club’s chances of signing others. “He told me, ‘It’s too much of the pie,’ ” agent Joe Resnick said. “Rick wanted me to go back and renegotiate for less.” The agent restructured the contract, adding an eighth season to lessen the Blue Jackets’ salary cap hit. Nash could have enhanced his brand by playing in bigger markets. But heightened exposure doesn’t motivate the five-time All-Star, who represents Under Armour and served as the cover boy for NHL 2K9 video game. The laidback winger with the scruffy beard admits he would rather spend his free time with friends than in a studio shooting commercials. Nash was vacationing at his cottage in Northern Ontario on July 8, 2010, the night James told a nation of his intentions to the join the Miami Heat. “The Cavs seemed so close,” Nash said. “LeBron had done so much for the franchise and the city, you would think he would have wanted to finish the job. But I can see it from his standpoint as well. When you don’t win, you want to go to a winning team so, as an athlete, I can understand that part.” James has made two trips to the NBA Finals. Meanwhile, Nash’s postseasons have consisted mostly of world-championship appearances, tournaments stocked with NHL players whose teams miss the Stanley Cup playoffs. Nash said it would be a “huge disappointment” if his career ended without a serious run at a title. The arrival of Carter from Philadelphia helps in his quest. The Blue Jackets begin the season with the NHL’s fifth- and sixth-leading goal scorers over the past four seasons in Carter (144) and Nash (143). No longer can defensive coverage overload Nash’s side of the ice with Carter as a linemate. If the franchise can get fourth-year goaltender Steve Mason to return to his rookie form, the Blue Jackets will contend for the playoffs. Nash hopes to reward Columbus fans for their patience and understands why not many from Cleveland and Cincinnati make the two-hour commute to Nationwide Arena. “You have to win to earn respect as a team, to earn a buzz,” Nash said. “We can reach out to those markets, but I don’t think people will start coming down until we are playing in Game 7s or in a position to clinch a playoff spot.” Perhaps only then will the state’s most obscure pro star be fully appreciated. To reach this Plain Dealer reporter: , 216-999-4370

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