History is made as Rick Nash’s No. 61 goes to the rafters

Those are the gifts Rick Nash received Saturday night at Nationwide Arena when he was bestowed the honor of becoming the first Blue Jackets player to have his number retired.

But No. 61 also earned the honor with the way he excelled on the ice and inspired off of it during his nine-year CBJ career, helping build one of the nation’s emerging hockey markets along the way.

Whether those in attendance played with Nash or coached him, simply enjoyed watching hockey or picked up the sport because of his enthralling gifts, all came together to honor an unmatched Blue Jackets legend Saturday night before the game against the Boston Bruins.

Video: Rick Nash addresses the 5th Line

In a speech honoring all of those who played a major part in his career, from his family to honored guests in former CBJ general manager Doug MacLean and coach Ken Hitchcock to his current bosses in John Davidson and Jarmo Kekalainen, Nash ended with an ode to all of those who supported him over the years.

“That brings me to the most important people in the building tonight – the Fifth Line,” Nash said near the end of his speech before No. 61 was lifted to the east end of the arena. “You watched an 18-year-old kid grow up right in front of your eyes. You guys were very patient with me. There were a lot of ups and downs, but I’ll tell you one thing, you guys made it easy to compete and work hard in a Blue Jackets jersey.

“This banner doesn’t represent what I did. It represents what we did. My family and I are proud to be Columbus Blue Jackets and we’re proud to live in Columbus, Ohio.”

Nash’s career has come full circle. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 draft, he made the team as an 18-year-old that fall and started the third season of Blue Jackets hockey off right when he scored in his first-ever NHL game.

He’d go on to a lengthy list of accomplishments in his CBJ career, including eight straight seasons of leading the team in goals, five All-Star seasons, franchise records in every major statistical category that still remain, and the captaincy for four- plus seasons, including 2009 when he pushed the team to the first-ever Staney Cup Playoffs berth in team history.

To hear Hitchcock tell it, what was then a monumental accomplishment for a franchise that had so long searched for it happened largely because of Nash. As such a prolific scorer early in his career, Nash had felt pressure to put the puck in the net every night, but when Hitchcock was hired in 2006, he pushed the franchise player to play a 200-foot game and others followed. Soon, success was in the cards.

Video: BOS @ CBJ: Columbus honors Nash in jersey retirement

“It was an incredibly hard working group and a group that really fought and played for each other,” Hitchcock told the crowd. “You led the charge so others could follow, and they followed very quickly.”

MacLean, who also served as coach in Nash’s tenure, returned to Columbus for the ceremony, and it was fitting considering how drafting might have been his crowning moment running the team.

Columbus went into the 2002 draft holding the No. 3 overall pick, but MacLean wanted Nash and left no stone unturned to get him. In a stunning draft-day deal, MacLean was able to trade up to the No. 1 spot and selected Nash with what remains the only top overall pick in franchise history.

“I think of it so often because we were lucky to get Rick Nash the player, but we were even more lucky to get Rick Nash the person,” MacLean said. “We knew he was a talented hockey player, but we sure didn’t know how good a person he was. He was a better person than he was a hockey player, and that’s saying a lot.”

Indeed, as much history as Nash made on the ice, he was just as appreciated for his work off the ice. The 2009 winner of the NHL Foundation Player Award given annually to one player in the league “in recognition of his commitment and service to charities in his community,” Nash became an integral part of the Columbus fabric.

“John H. McConnell brought this team to this community because it had been so good for him and his family,” master of ceremonies Jeff Rimer said. “Mr. Mac wanted a team that gave 110 percent on the ice and was committed to improving the lives of those in need. He lived his life and he built his business on The Golden Rule – treat others as you would like to be treated .

“That was the expectation that he had for every member of the Blue Jackets organization, and Rick Nash, ladies and gentlemen, certainly has lived up to it.”

John H. McConnell II, the grandson of the CBJ founder and majority owner, agreed, pointing to a relationship that was so special between the elder McConnell and Nash that the player delivered a eulogy at McConnell’s funeral in 2008.

Video: Rick receives his “Blue Jacket”

“He is one of the best hockey players in the world, but you would never know it by how he carried himself,” McConnell II said. “He showed class in everything he did.”

While Nash would finish his career playing with the New York Rangers and the Bruins, he made the ultimate decision to return to Columbus after his retirement in 2019. After first shadowing general manager Kekalainen, he spent two years learning the ropes of the front-office world and then this summer was named the team’s director of player development.

Davidson, a former broadcaster and the current Blue Jackets president of hockey operations, put the entire journey into context when he spoke to the crowd.

“It’s moments like this that will be a part of the Columbus Blue Jackets story forever,” Davidson said. “Our organization is one of the youngest in the NHL, and building history takes time. Tonight, we take a significant step in our journey as a franchise.

Video: Rick made CBUS a hockey town

“We are extremely lucky to have him. Rick is a Blue Jacket. He may have left for a little bit – and that does happen – but he found his way home.”

Nearly 20 years after he debuted with the Blue Jackets and almost 10 since he played his last game in Columbus, Nash was once again the center of attention in Nationwide Arena. History, after all, must be recognized.

“It’s been 19 years, four months and 23 days since I stepped on this ice for the first time in front of you,” Nash said. “That night, I scored my first goal and I heard that road that I just heard, and I missed it so much. Thank you.”

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