COLUMBUS, Ohio – On the surface, it’s like any other pre-game skate for Rick Nash and the Columbus Blue Jackets.
When Nash barrels in on the net and scores during a drill, his teammates give him a cheer. The mood appears upbeat.
But as the NHL trade deadline approaches, rumours that Nash could soon be skating with a new team continue to swirl.
The Blue Jackets captain has been the face of the franchise for nearly a decade and he’s made an impression on Ohio’s capital city. The thought of him leaving before Monday’s deadline is unsettling to everyone involved.
“You try to be professional and handle it the best you can but we’re also human,” centre Derek MacKenzie said Tuesday ahead of a game against San Jose. “You play with these guys for months, sometimes years at a time, it’s really scary, especially when you start hearing names like Rick Nash. To possibly lose a guy like him, I think it weighs on us.”
While the last-place Blue Jackets have played better hockey of late, a horrible start to the season took them out of playoff contention. As the season dragged on, changes were expected.
“When you’re not winning, you need to expect that, for teammates to leave or yourself to leave,” said Blue Jackets forward Derick Brassard. “If it happens, it happens, it’s the business of the game.”
While Nash is the highest-profile Blue Jacket to be mentioned in the rumours, Brassard and Jeff Carter have also been has also been included in trade talk.
Nash has remained quiet about the rumour mill and didn’t speak to the media Tuesday.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s tough hearing these rumours,” said left-winger R.J. Umberger. “Obviously, we’re not in the spot we want to be, for another year. We’re all upset about it here and we know a lot of changes are going to happen. The mood with that is uneasy.”
Jared Boll, whose stall is near Nash’s in the Columbus dressing room, said that the players are being professional despite the talk around them. The group is still close-knit but Boll admits the outside noise has taken a toll.
“I’ve been here five years now and Columbus is a pretty special place to me and I would never want to see myself in a different jersey,” he said.“And obviously, I don’t want to see the guys on my team go somewhere else. I’ve been around these guys and the organization and I want to see us win here.”
The waiting is the hardest part, says Brassard.
“Guys wish it was Monday (deadline day) tomorrow,” he said.
The uncertain environment goes beyond the dressing room.
“You want to know what could happen with your team,” said interim head coach Todd Richards. “The lines of communication (with management) are there. But for the most part, 90 per cent of what I do is focusing on the games.”
In the team’s official store in Nationwide Arena, Nash merchandise dominates the walls and two relatively new Blue Jackets fans are doing some shopping. Jeff and Brian Bunka are in town from Port Moody, B.C. Ryan Johansen, a rookie on the Jackets, grew up on the same street as the Bunkas and they have made the trip to Columbus to take in a couple games.
The Nash rumours are disheartening to them.
“It’s hard because he’s been the team captain for so long,” said 53-year-old Jeff. “It would be sad to see him go. But that’s hockey.”
“I try not to pay attention to it,” added 21-year-old Brian.
For retail store manager Mark Karr, the approaching trade deadline involves extra preparation. If players leave, existing items need to be put on sale, while merchandise for any new players has to be planned.
“When we get the word from the front office as to who is coming and when, we’ll make decisions,” said Karr. “When it comes to jerseys, we would have the (new player) jersey that night. We would do them here in the building and get a dozen or two ready.”
Across the street from Nationwide Arena is Boston’s, a restaurant where fans gather to watch games. Bartender Jessica Foust said the mood during games is generally positive early on, though it can deteriorate over the course of the night. She’s overheard discussions about Nash’s future.
“Obviously, Rick Nash is the key player for Columbus,” Foust said. “It’s a little sad to see that they’re going to trade the key player when they keep getting good draft picks and trading them away.
“I think people are frustrated that we can’t keep good players around.”
That frustration is also evident in the Columbus dressing room.
“You look at the guys next to you and you wonder if in a few days from now, you’re going to be playing against him,” said MacKenzie.
“Trade deadline is the same for everybody,”added Umberger. “You never know and for this team, this year, it’s the most uncertainty I’ve ever seen.”