Blue Jackets Sunday Gathering: What Rick Nash’s Team Canada gig means (and doesn’t mean)

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A collection of notes, insights, ruminations and did-you-knows gathered throughout the week that was for the Columbus Blue Jackets:

Item No. 1: GM Rick Nash

Rick Nash, still only 39 years old, has been named Team Canada’s general manager for the upcoming IIHF World Championship in Czechia. It speaks to Nash’s growing presence within one of the world’s most powerful hockey federations, and it also got some locals wondering.

The Blue Jackets are looking for a GM after firing Jarmo Kekäläinen in mid-February. Nash has made it known, ever since he started working in Kekäläinen’s front office in 2019, that he aspires to be a high-level, front-office executive in the NHL, preferably with the Blue Jackets.

“This is my goal,” Nash told The Athletic this week. “I don’t think I’ve ever made people wonder about that. I want to rise to the top within the Blue Jackets organization. I feel like I’m a true Blue Jacket.”

So … is now too soon?

Blue Jackets president of hockey operations John Davidson, who is currently serving as interim GM, indicated on the day of Kekäläinen’s dismissal that he had two criteria for the next GM. First, he wants a person with experience, either as an NHL GM or with a front-row seat to the job. And, second, he was planning to look outside Nationwide Arena for the next hire.

That would seem to eliminate Nash as a candidate; it would also eliminate other highly regarded Blue Jackets hockey operations staffers, including current assistant GMs Basil McRae and Josh Flynn and director of player personnel Chris Clark.

“That’s a tough one for me to comment on,” said Nash, currently the Blue Jackets director of player development. “We have some great candidates inside the organization, but obviously it seems like they want to go a different route.

“So … it’s one of those things. You move on. I hate to say it, but we all put our heads down and do our jobs when things like this come up. I’ve always had a relationship with Hockey Canada. They like what they’ve seen and now they have trust in me to build a team, so that feels awesome.”

In an interview with The Athletic on Saturday, Davidson reiterated his criteria. He has told Nash and others in the front office that they won’t get interviews for Kekäläinen’s old job because it’s not the right time — or fit — for the organization at this point.

“It’s an experience thing,” Davidson said. “You know what can happen? If a young person rushes into becoming a GM, and you’re not really ready … do you ever get a second chance?

“When I look at Nash, this (job with Team Canada) is a great stepping stone for him. And Chris Clark has been doing a lot of the same kind of stuff (with Team USA). Those are great experiences for them. Along the way, they’ll be ready if that’s what their intention is. And when you’re ready, you’ve got a better chance of succeeding.”

It’s worth noting that none of the Blue Jackets’ previous GMs — Doug MacLean (1998 – 2007), Scott Howson (2007-2013) and Kekäläinen (2013-24) — had experience as an NHL GM before landing the job in Columbus. That might be different with the next hire.

“With us looking for someone with experience,” Davidson said, “it’s going to be interesting to get a set of eyes and a new way of thinking coming in from the outside. That’s good. That’s going to be a really good thing for our organization.

“Hopefully, everything falls in place with our people (Nash, Clark, others) and they’re able to continue their road to becoming what they want to become.”

Nash’s resume is filling out nicely. For Team Canada, he’s played in one World Junior Championship, four World Championships and three Olympics, winning two gold medals. He was assistant GM on the 2022 World Championship entry that won a silver medal.

Now, with the 4 Nations Face-Off and another Olympics back on the NHL schedule, Nash has a chance to play a big role on some very big stages.

“When I was AGM two years ago (at the World Championship), I told the players that these are some of the best experiences you’re going to have as a player,” Nash said. “You’re with a group of guys for four weeks. You’re going to go through some great battles and jell together as a team.

“For me, the friendships and memories I made at the Worlds will last a lifetime.”

Nash said Team Canada hopes to have a coach in place within the next week. As more and more NHL teams fall out of playoff contention — his own Blue Jackets are just days away from being eliminated — the process of building a roster will start.

Item No. 2: Rimer’s retirement

With a new GM on the way, the Blue Jackets will undoubtedly have a different look when next season starts. They’ll sound different, too.

The Blue Jackets will announce plans this week to honor the career of Jeff Rimer, who is retiring at the end of the season after 20 seasons as the Blue Jackets’ TV play-by-play voice. Rimer, who turns 73 this summer, spent 48 years as an NHL broadcaster and more than 54 years in television.

Rimer was raised in Toronto but moved to Calgary when he was 14 years old.

“It was grade 10 at Henry Wise Wood High School,” Rimer said. “The first person I met was John Davidson, and we became good friends.

“I wanted to be a hockey player. But I was the first person to ever be cut by a midget triple-A team before the first practice. I couldn’t skate well enough. They tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘House league starts next week.’ I made the decision then to be a broadcaster.”

Rimer showed chops from an early age. By 19, while a student at Mount Royal College in Calgary, he was hosting his own half-hour show on a local cable channel. When Muhammad Ali came to Calgary for a press conference before a fight, Rimer landed an interview with the champ.

“I put on my best shirt and tie,” Rimer said. “Ali had been stripped of his title for refusing to serve in Vietnam, and it was a huge, international story. ABC, CBS and NBC were there, along with the BBC, CTV … all the heavy-hitters. I started a conversation with his trainer, Angelo Dundee, and told him I’d like to talk to the champ.

“The press conference is over and Ali has done his one-on-ones. Dundee tells Ali, this young man wants to interview you. Ali gives me a once-over, looks me up and down. ‘OK, kid. Where’s your camera?’ I said, ‘I don’t have a camera, but my studio is a mile and a half up the road. Everybody laughed!

“Ali looked around at everybody laughing, turned to his limo driver and said ‘You know where the studio is?’”

Rimer said his co-workers were in utter disbelief when Ali and his entourage showed up at the station.

“We did the interview and Ali looks at me and says, ‘What was your name again?’” Rimer said. “Then Ali looked in the camera and said ‘I predict in five years, Jeff Rimer will be the greatest, the most outstanding, the most popular sportscaster in the world!’”

Jeff Rimer, left, in the early days of his NHL broadcasting career with Washington Capitals colleague Craig Laughlin. (Courtesy of Josh Rimer)

Rimer went on to cover the 1976 Olympics in Montreal for the CBC before narrowing his focus to baseball and hockey. He’s worked for the Washington Capitals, Florida Panthers and the Blue Jackets, who hired him during the lockout of 2004-05.

“Coming to Columbus was the best decision I ever made,” Rimer said. “There are no better fans than fans in the Midwest. They are passionate, loyal, knowledgeable … everything you could possibly want. It’s been an incredible 20 years.”

The last few months have been emotional for Rimer. Every time the Blue Jackets play in a rink for the final time, his longtime cronies and friends have made a point of honoring him.

On Friday, during the Blue Jackets’ morning skate in Denver, Colorado Avalanche general manager Chris MacFarland, a former assistant GM in Columbus, presented Rimer with a signed hockey stick by Avalanche players and a signed Joe Sakic sweater.

He has been feted in almost every road rink.

The Athletic had a rapid-fire back and forth with Rimer:

Favorite city to work in? “Besides Columbus?”

Favorite athlete you’ve covered: “I’ve got so many. I’ll give you the top five: Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Guy Lafleur, Pavel Bure and Artemi Panarin.”

Favorite moment you’ve experienced live: “The (Nick) Foligno and (Brandon) Dubinsky goals vs. Pittsburgh (in the 2014 playoffs). The roof almost came off at Nationwide. Second on the list is probably the gymnastics at the 1976 Olympics (when Nadia Comaneci had a perfect score).”

“It’s been an incredible career,” Rimer said. “I’ve witnessed so many great moments, great games and met so many incredible people. The hockey community is really tight-knit, and I’m witnessing that as we come down through the end of this season.

“A part of me has enjoyed this so much that I want to do it forever. I’ve been told I should write a book. But it’s time for me now to spend some time with my family, and I’m looking forward to that, too.”

Item No. 3: Snacks

Blue Jackets prospect defenseman David Jiricek had a lost weekend, one that involved a flight from Cleveland to Denver and back again with no games at the NHL or AHL levels. Jiricek was an emergency recall by the Blue Jackets on Thursday in case Zach Werenski, who was hurt blocking a shot late in the previous game, was unable to play on Friday vs. the Colorado Avalanche. Werenski was able to play, which meant Jiricek had to return to AHL Cleveland. So while the Blue Jackets flew from Denver to Las Vegas late Friday, Jiricek was left behind in Denver. On Saturday, his flight from Denver back to Cleveland was delayed, Davidson said, forcing him to arrive back in Cleveland too late to play that night for Monsters in a 5-0 loss to Hershey.

Adam Fantilli, out since Jan. 28 with a lacerated calf, may resume skating within the next seven to 10 days, Davidson said. When he first had surgery, the Blue Jackets gave him an eight-week timeline, meaning his return was likely mid-to-late March. That’s obviously not going to happen now. Fantilli will not play unless he is 100 percent healed, Davidson said, so the best hope now is that he returns for the final days of the season.

The 4-3 overtime loss in Detroit on Tuesday was only the latest example of a third-period lead that turned into a loss for the Blue Jackets this season. They gave up the tying goal with 12.6 seconds remaining in regulation and lost 48 seconds into OT, the 13th time this season they’ve had a third-period lead turn into a loss. It has been suggested by some that the Blue Jackets could’ve been challenging for a playoff spot if they had only closed out games this season. Not so fast. The Jackets have earned 11 points in those 13 “blown” games, a product of OT and shootout losses. The most they could’ve expected is probably six or seven points in those games, as even the best clubs suffer late losses in the course of an 82-game season. So add six to nine points to the Blue Jackets’ ledger and they’re only two spots higher in the standings.

Just when you think you’ve seen it all regarding the Blue Jackets’ ineptitude … the top line of Johnny Gaudreau, Boone Jenner and Alex Nylander had zero shots on goal and, most notably, zero shot attempts vs. the Vegas Golden Knights in Saturday’s 4-2 loss. The Jackets were thoroughly dominated. Don’t let the final score fool you: Of the 20 shots on goal by the Jackets, 14 came from defensemen or fourth-line forwards. Erik Gudbranson led the way with four shots on goal. He and fourth-liner Carson Meyer scored the only goals.

The Jackets were outshot 47-20 by Vegas. The shot attempts were just as bad: 88-41. That’s what happens when you never have the puck. If Elvis Merzlikins (45 saves in a 6-1 loss to Colorado on Friday) and Daniil Tarasov (43 saves on Saturday) weren’t the best players on the Columbus side, there’s no telling how much uglier those games could have been. The Jackets allowed 98 shots on goal in the back-to-back, tying the franchise record for most shots on goal allowed in a two-game span. The last time they did it was Jan. 26-27, 2022, when they split back-to-back home games vs. Calgary (62 shots on goal allowed in a 6-0 loss) and the New York Rangers (36 allowed in a 5-3 win).

Here’s your Sunday Gathering trivia question: Saturday’s game in Vegas was the Blue Jackets’ 900th all-time road game. They’ve won only 323 of those games, part of a .422 points percentage that is the worst in the NHL since they joined as an expansion franchise in 2000-01. But in which road arena have the Blue Jackets won the most games?

Werenski assisted on Gudbranson’s goal early in Saturday’s game, the 205th assist of his career. That allowed him to pass David Vyborny (204 assists) and move into second on the franchise’s all-time list. He’s now 53 behind Rick Nash (258) for the franchise mark. Werenski has a career-high 39 assists this season, the third most in franchise history. James Wisniewski (44 assists in 2013-14) and Seth Jones (41 in 2017-18) are the only Blue Jackets blueliners to exceed 40 assists in a season.

Give fourth-liner Mathieu Olivier props for speaking the truth in a second intermission interview with Bally Sports Ohio’s Dave Maetzold on Saturday. The Jackets had been outshot 23-3 by Vegas, going 16:03 without a shot on goal at one point in the period. Here’s Olivier: “That was not it, at all. That’s two second periods in a row that, to be honest … it’s embarrassing. I don’t know what the hell we’re doing out there as a team, everyone included, myself first. Not good enough.”

Here’s Jenner, also to Maetzold, postgame Saturday: “I don’t know what to tell you. We had a good first, and we all stopped playing after that, except for (Tarasov). The rest of us stopped playing from the second (period) on.”

Davidson said there have been no interviews yet for the Blue Jackets’ vacant general manager position. It’s quite obvious now the move will happen in the offseason. As stated, Davidson wants somebody with experience. That doesn’t necessarily mean somebody who is currently working in an NHL front office, but the Blue Jackets will certainly want to talk with some candidates who fit that description. Davidson said it would be “disrespectful” to interview candidates who are currently part of NHL front offices before their seasons are complete. This could go well into May or even June.

Vegas goaltender Adin Hill left Saturday’s game four minutes into the third period. At that point, he’d seen only three shots on goal in the previous 23-plus minutes, prompting one press box wag to wonder: “Is Adin Hill injured or bored?”

Blue Jackets prospect winger James Malatesta had his first NHL recall on Saturday. It was on an emergency basis, as the Jackets were unsure if Nylander (illness) would be able to dress against the Golden Knights. Nylander did play, sending Malatesta back to Cleveland without making his NHL debut.

The Blue Jackets have three of their four post-trade deadline AHL recalls. The first was used on Trey Fix-Wolansky to take Jack Roslovic’s roster spot a few hours after Roslovic was traded to the Rangers. In eight games since the call-up, Fix-Wolansky has no goals, one assist and a minus-2 rating, playing just 11:19 per game.

• Trivia answer: The Blue Jackets have won 19 games in Chicago’s United Center, their most wins in an NHL road venue. Calgary’s Saddledome and Anaheim’s Honda Center are tied for second with 15 wins each.

(Top photo of Rick Nash speaking during his jersey retirement night in March 2022: Ben Jackson / NHLI via Getty Images)



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