Nash finding stability in return to Checkers

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📝 by Patrick Williams

Riley Nash just wanted some stability and a job last summer.

Last season the veteran forward played 49 National Hockey League games, going from Winnipeg to Tampa Bay to Arizona and then back to Tampa Bay. He was claimed on waivers twice. Then came a trade to the Lightning, along with a brief AHL stint with the Syracuse Crunch. His 13th pro season wrapped up with eight NHL playoff games, including four in the Stanley Cup Final against Colorado.

A chaotic 2021-22 campaign quickly segued into a stressful summer. The phone did not ring nearly enough for the 33-year-old Nash, the former first-round draft pick (21st overall in 2007) with 627 NHL games to his name.

Finally, on Sept. 15, Nash got the chance to go back to where his pro career started, signing a two-year AHL contract with the Charlotte Checkers — his home from 2010 to 2013 as a Carolina Hurricanes prospect.

Nash has delivered for the Checkers, leading the team with 20 goals and 46 points — both career highs — and representing Charlotte at last month’s AHL All-Star Classic. A decade after his last stint with the Checkers, Nash now plays the veteran mentorship role, passing along his experiences to young Florida Panthers prospects.

Here are his thoughts:

“We (Nash and his wife, Clare) had a young one. Now we have two. It was just a really hectic year.

“It’s honestly not too bad on me. It’s everyone else involved. [When I got] picked up by Tampa, my wife has to pack up our house and move, and then I’m living in a hotel. [Her] not knowing where we’re going to be in a week is difficult.

“You’re living week-to-week. It’s almost day-to-day. Sometimes you can feel it, sense it, the writing on the wall, numbers, all that. It’s ultra-challenging when you’ve got a little one and a wife. Fortunately, she’s able to work from wherever, and it worked out last year.”

Photo: Vitor Munhoz / Arena du Rocket Inc.

“There are some guys that can do it, and socially it’s seamless for them. I’m definitely not as comfortable. It takes me a little time, so that was extremely hard personally. But that’s the world of pro sports. You’ve got to suck it up and just try to do it.

“Each team you step in [with], you want to make some good friendships between. There are a lot of good people on a lot of teams, but it’s hard to really get to know them on a personal level when you’re just kind of popping in for a little bit.”

“They were awesome to me. Very welcoming from the top to the bottom. It was an awesome experience, one of the best. You get to play [for] the Stanley Cup, it’s a pretty cool experience that ranks up there with the best of them.”

“Things were pretty lean as far as offers and deals. So I kind of reached out to some old connections that I have, and it all happened really fast, to be honest. It was at the end of the summer, a couple of weeks away from camp. I didn’t really have anything.”

“Good people. Great organization. Really love the city. It’s just been a really nice change-up from last year, so we’ve really enjoyed those experiences. A little bit of stability was definitely high up on our list, especially with no teams showing real interest in having a plan for me. I was going to try and take it into my own hands as much as possible and find the best situation for not just myself but everybody involved.”

“I’ve really enjoyed it this year. You always want to play in the NHL, but sometimes there are other things that are really important in life, too. We just found a really good balance. I still like going to the rink every day. I like watching hockey and enjoy the process of trying to get a little bit better every day. I love playing the game still, so I think as long as that’s intact, everything else will kind of fall into place.”

Nash was teammates with Zac Dalpe, Bobby Sanguinetti and Jared Staal during his first stint with the Checkers. Now Sanguinetti and Staal are assistant coaches with the club, and Dalpe is in his second season as the team’s captain.

“It’s funny… We’re all 10, 12 years older. We all have kids now. We’re not young like we used to be. It’s been great. Those guys are world-class individuals, good people. Bobby is in his first year coaching, so he’s kind of learning that, too, but he’s done a tremendous job here.

“We lived together back in the day. I feel like he’s really settled into coaching and that side of things. It’s always funny the first time to see him in that different role from a player.

“Zac is a big reason I ended up back [in Charlotte]. He’s got three kids now. Kids definitely change things. It gives you a little bit more perspective. He’s been through the ups and downs, been through the wringer a little bit, getting called up, sent down. It’s a whirlwind at times, but I think now he rides that pretty well.

“He’s done a tremendous job. He’s a great leader in the room and is a great player still. He brings a lot to the table.”

“Some time off is always nice, but there’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that you don’t want to pass up.

“Those opportunities don’t come along too often. I had never been to Switzerland. My parents were able to come. Brought the kids, which was a big haul. But we decided once we were doing it that we may as well do it right. We had a great time.”