Thursday, November 15, 2007 4:02 AM
By Michael Arace
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
The Blue Jackets, 0-3-1 in the past four games, put a 4-2 lashing on the Chicago Blackhawks last night in Nationwide Arena. The building was alive all night and, in the end, it bellowed with a primal yaw.
As the clock wound down in the third period, Jackets fans were seen throwing haymakers at Blackhawks fans in section 102.
As the civilian pugilists were being dragged from the stands by police officers, the final cannon sounded, and Rick Nash dropped the gloves with Jim Vandermeer, and the two engaged in an epic fight.
First things first.
Nobody condones fighting in the stands. That must be established. For the sake of public record, here's the way an officer on the scene described the altercation in 102:
"A female supporter of the Blackhawks, a woman with bluish-green hair, was the one who touched off the altercation, according to both Chicago and Columbus fans. Apparently, she did it not just with words, but with physical action. It escalated. A Chicago man jumped up and started throwing punches. Five people were removed from the stands. I don't know this for sure, but it was said the Columbus contingent won the fight."
The players on the Jackets' bench were vaguely aware this was going on. They heard shouts from the stands, but they did not look over their right shoulders, because their mates were putting the finishing touches on a win. As the final seconds ticked off, Nash became engaged with Vandermeer in front of the Blackhawks' bench.
What was Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock thinking when he saw his best player dropping the gloves with a notorious knucklehead?
"I hope he doesn't hurt his hand," Hitchcock said.
And what was Nash thinking?
"It's part of the game," Nash said. "He (Vandermeer) threw a couple of cheap shots during the game, a couple of cross-checks. We fought. No big deal. Boller (Jared Boll) and Shell (Jody Shelley) fight all the time."
What was Shelley thinking as he watched from the bench?
"The other guy's a fighter, and an experienced one at that, and he plays dirty and gritty," Shelley said. "Rick Nash is a goal scorer, a first overall pick and a Rocket Richard Trophy winner, and he stands up and gives it to the other guy. That just goes above and beyond. That's character I can't even begin to describe."
In Shelley's style, Nash drew the fight out, extended it and gave as well as he got. Vandermeer scored early, Nash late. Neither fighter came away with any serious facial damage. Vandermeer cut his hand on Nash's shield before he got Nash's helmet off.
"It's nice to get punched in the face every once in a while," Nash said. "It felt good. It's not going to kill you. It's just a punch."
As the fight went on, Vandermeer smiled. Then, Nash smiled. On the Jackets' bench, the general feeling was that if Vandermeer wanted to fight, why not Shelley, and why not in the second period? But Nash picked the fight, and he didn't run from it. In the end, everyone on the Jackets' bench was smiling.
"Nasher sure picked a tough one, but he's a big boy," captain Adam Foote said. "I thought he did pretty well."
No matter what happens in the next game, the sight of Nash, the best player in blue, squaring off with Vandermeer, one of the league's toughest customers, will remain indelible. Norman Mailer, RIP, would have loved it. With his stick, and with his fists, Nash showed once again that he is the heart of the team, and he is thumping.
He finished with one goal, one assist, one fight. It was the second Gordie Howe hat trick of his career.
No other Jacket has one, not anyone, not ever.