© St. Louis Post-Dispatch
February 6, 2001
Players fall into categories in the NHL, where there is a label to fit most every one. You have power forwards, honest hockey players and stay-at-home defensemen. You have snipers and plumbers, grinders and enforcers.
Then you have Tyson Nash, a creature unto himself.
In idle moments, Blues coach Joel Quenneville sometimes thinks about Nash and tries to compare him to others he has come across in his 18-plus seasons of NHL work. An astute stock market analyst, Quenneville is stumped to find a match.
"I thought about it all summer," Quenneville said, "and I couldn't come up with anyone."
Nash is a unique wonder, a contradiction in terms and talent, a captivating contrast of personalities and characteristics. The name alone - Tyson Nash - could belong to a street punk or a Southern gentleman. With a flowing shock of black hair and impish grin, Nash looks a little like Tom Cruise, a little like Oliver Twist.
If the NHL had its various participants vote on the most despised player in the league, Nash would win in a landslide, no recount necessary.
"I played in John LeClair's golf tournament over the summer in Vermont," Blues teammate Craig Conroy said. "And that's all guys wanted to talk about. It was unbelievable, he was the topic of conversation all day. He makes guys so crazy, he makes them want to kill him."
If you polled NHL general managers at the All-Star Game over the weekend about Nash, most would answer the question with a question: "Where can I get someone just like him?"
As the Blues embark on the remainder of the schedule, Nash has emerged as one of their more important players and one of the favorites at the Savvis Center. Last year, when the Blueliners organization held a fund-raising banquet and auction, "Lunch with Tyson Nash" was among the items drawing the highest bids.
With no culinary credentials whatsoever, Nash has become the food critic for the Blues Web site. ESPN recently filmed a segment with Nash taking Blues broadcaster Kelly Chase and ESPN analyst Barry Melrose to lunch.
The well-established Tony's tops Nash's list of best restaurants, but in the same breath, he mentions Carl's Drive-In as a prime spot and readily admits: "I'm more of the Carl's kind of guy."
As a hockey player, Nash is a curiosity. Most NHL players his size - 5 feet 10 and 180 pounds - are "skill guys." And most NHL players as physical as Nash are large-body intimidators. But Nash is neither a skill guy nor a battleship. He's a run-about, slamming into freighters, causing havoc in the harbor, driving the authorities nuts. Nash is the Eveready Bunny with an attitude. No one is more energetic, no one more annoying.
"I enjoy it," Nash said with a devilish grin. "I've always been that way as far as getting under people's skin. It's just part of my personality, I guess. Ask my brother, he'll tell you I've been that way all my life. Ask my wife."
Keep in mind, Nash spent six full seasons infuriating people in the minor leagues. His exasperation skills, both verbal and physical, have been processed and refined. Conroy played with "Nasher" for a season in the minors and takes note of the dramatic upgrade in his grating abilities.
"I don't think he ran around as much in the minors as he does now," Conroy said. "He was always yapping, but you can see he's been working on his one-liners. He's got some pretty good ones now. I mean, this is the NHL and he's taken his game to the next level."
Outside of games, it's all in good fun. Nash can be self-effacing, even whimsical about who he is and how he plays. But life as an undersized cold sore comes with a price. There is a sinister dynamic that must be dealt with on game day, an awareness that several people will be on the ice hoping to harm you. The self-preservation mechanisms must be disengaged and replaced with daring resolve.
"You can never relax," said Nash, 25. "It can be hard. It's always kind of something you have one your mind, especially as the year goes on. When we get ready to play a team, I always have to think about, 'OK, who did I tick off last time and who's going to be looking for me?' You like to know when you're going to have to take a puck at the head.
"But I don't ever fear it. It's a job, similar to what Reed Low has to do. It's the same feeling a fighter has to go through. He knows before the game that there's this guy or that guy that he's probably going to have to fight. And that's not an easy thing, but it's something you realize you have to do."
The difference is that a fighter will throw a few punches, possibly get the better of the exchange. Nash rarely comes out on top in physical confrontations. He is a tackling dummy, a speed bag, a pinata. He's a cornerback taking on a pulling guard, a Volkswagen Beetle in a Monster Truck pull. Few opposing players will pass up a chance to slash, stab, punch, bite or somehow inflict discomfort on diminutive No. 9.
So why not label Nash a "pest," an energy guy, a penalty magnet? Because Nash has adjusted the knobs on the screen this season.
He has continued to play a physical game but a much less foolish one. He still is obnoxious, but now less obviously. During this season in which the NHL has vowed to make life tough on the chippy, Nash has gone legitimate without losing his effectiveness.
"Last year, I got labeled as a little bit of a diver, and I don't want that," he said. "I don't want to disrespect the referees or have them thinking I'm trying to do that. This year, it's been harder to draw penalties, but I've tried to do it through hard work."
As a result, he has become a significant player offensively and defensively. In his typical understated style, Quenneville sums it up best: "He was aware of the bodies last year. Now he's aware of the puck."
Nash has 102 minutes in penalties this season. That's second on the team to Low, whose 133 minutes are predominantly "major" in nature. But Nash also has eight goals, twice his booty of last season.
He also plays on the penalty-kill unit, takes an occasional spin on the second power-play unit, carries a plus 7 in the plus-minus ratings, averages nearly 12 1/2 minutes a game and owns the "fastest skater" title from the Blues skills competition. The human bone spur has become a bona fide entry on the statistics sheet.
"Instead of just running around like a chicken with my head cut off, I've tried to be more of a complete player," said Nash, who had as many as 34 goals and 75 points for Kamloops during the 1994-95 Western Hockey League season.
"The penalty-killing has helped me a lot. It's a big part of winning hockey games. It's a lot of fun to be getting more ice time. Everyone wants more responsibility. But you have to continue to do what got you in the league."
The formula he used to reach the NHL is difficult to identify. But some significant modifications have been made this season, obvious even to the untrained eye. Don't try to label Tyson Nash. Just accept him as one of a kind.