A shot at fame awaits him, and while Rick Nash, an 18-year-old left wing and likely top three pick in Saturday's NHL entry draft, is not unaware, he appears blissfully unaffected. How else to explain the fact that Nash, who plays for the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), can hobnob with NHL general managers and coaches as easily as he pulls pranks at the London mall, giggling at shoppers who bend to pick up the loonies (Canadian one-dollar coins) he and his buddies have glued to the floor? "You see these coaches and G.M.'s on TV, and all of a sudden you're sitting down to lunch with them," says Nash, whose baby face is framed by blond-frosted, spiky hair. "Pretty intense. Most kids my age are bagging groceries, so I must be doing something right."
Raised in a middle-class family in Brampton, Ont. (his father, Jamie, owns a furniture business; his mother, Liz, is a homemaker), Nash began skating as a toddler, stumbling around a pond across the street from his house. Rick excelled on Brampton and Toronto-area youth teams and was taken fourth in the 2000 OHL draft. Says Dale Hunter, the Knights' owner and coach who was a 19-year NHL veteran, "We knew his skill level—he had two goals in the first five minutes we saw him [at a prospects tournament]—but at the end of the game he had an empty-net breakaway, and he unselfishly passed the puck."
Nash was the OHL rookie of the year in 2000-01 (a team-high 31 goals, plus 35 assists) and had similar numbers (32 goals, 40 assists) this season. Last fall he was ranked second among North American skaters by the NHL's Central Scouting, behind defenseman Jay Bouwmeester of the Western Hockey League's Medicine Hat Tigers. Nash, who is 6'3" and 195 pounds, has a versatile game; he is a deft puckhandler with a wicked snap shot who also exhibits finesse around the net. As Nash's body matures—he has gained 25 pounds over the past two years—the grind side of his game will improve. "He'll take the body," Hunter says. "He'll take a good run at somebody if he sees the team needs it. Obviously he wants to score, but if I tell him, 'Rick, we need you to play defense,' he'll do it, and he'll go down and block shots too."
Nash was the youngest member of the Canadian national team that took the silver medal at the World Junior Championships in Pardubice, Czech Republic, in January, turning heads while skating on the third or fourth lines. He added to his r�sum� when he engineered eighth-seeded London's upset of the Plymouth Whalers, the league's best regular-season team, in the OHL playoffs that began in March. In six games against Plymouth, Nash led his club with six goals and 10 points.
"He really matured in the postseason," says Detroit Red Wings assistant CM. Jim Nill. "He became a leader. Everybody knows his skill level—he has a good feel for the ice, he sees the goal and the seams so well—but put that together with his leadership, and that's why he's going to be a top pick."
Nash's growing profile, however, has not changed him. "He's so humble," says Knights winger Logan Hunter, the coach's nephew who has shared a billet in London with Nash for two seasons. "With all the attention he gets, you'd think his head would get big like some other guys', but he's not like that."
Off the ice Nash spends time playing video games and pool, bowling, driving his 2002 Monte Carlo and pulling pranks on his teammates. "Rick does a pretty good impression of our assistant coach, Jacques Beaulieu, so right at the trade deadline he was calling kids and telling them they'd been traded," Logan Hunter says. "Had some of them going pretty good."
Nash, who is probably a couple of years away from being an impact NHL player, can't wait for the draft in nearby Toronto, to which he's bringing a contingent of 50 family members and friends. "You always dream of playing in the NHL, but I didn't realize it was a possibility until this year," Nash says. "Then I started thinking, I could do this for a living?"