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NHL.com: Arnott has evolved into true leader

Thursday, 04.9.2009 / 10:42 AM CT / Features
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NHL.com: Arnott has evolved into true leader
It was scant days before Jason Arnott was to play in his 1,000th NHL game, and he had a lot to remember.

He was the seventh pick in the first round of the 1993 Entry Draft and skated right into the big time with 33 goals for the Edmonton Oilers as a rookie. After a trade to the New Jersey Devils in January 1998, Jason became part of the famous "A-Line" with Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora that put up tons of points. Arnott will forever be remembered for scoring the Stanley Cup-clinching goal in the second overtime of Game 6 to beat Dallas in 2000.

He added a career-high 76 points and his 10th season of 20 or more goals in 2005-06 with Dallas coming out of the lockout season. But in his third season with the Nashville Predators, the last two as captain of the team, Arnott lists the invitation by Preds GM David Poile as one of the high points of his 15-year NHL career.

It was no secret that everyone figured Nashville mainly wanted the 6-foot-4, 225-pound power forward because of his size and skill, especially if the Predators ever wound up in another playoff series against San Jose's big center tandem of Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. But Arnott remembered every word of Poile's speech trying to recruit him to come to Nashville and the big message wasn't muscle.

"When David Poile told me they really wanted me because of the leadership I could bring to the team, I felt flattered that a team would want me because of my character and leadership ... not just my size or the goals and assists I have accumulated over the years. I’ve won a Stanley Cup and played on a great line or two. But I was honestly looking for a team where I could be considered a leader at this stage in my career."
It's no coincidence that the Collingwood, Ontario, native was named the fourth captain in Predators history after the team lost key contributors Paul Kariya, Kimmo Timonen, Scott Hartnell and Tomas Vokoun while the ownership was in flux following the 2006-07 season ... and still made the playoffs in 2007-08.

With Arnott, it hasn't always been about fond heroics. More like glimpses of greatness for an athlete with so much physical talent.

"You look at Jason and say, 'Wow! He's the complete package. Big. Strong. Has a great shot. Strong skater," Stars coach Dave Tippett once told me. "The next thought you have is, 'Why? Why hasn’t he achieved greatness?

"And what is it that I can do to extract that all that skill and talent.' Sometimes you have to find the right button and push it."

The determination in Arnott's voice to step up and be a leader came with a giant smile from Jason.

I remember him telling me one night when he was in Dallas in a moment of complete candor, "I know," he said, shaking his head after I asked him to tell me which was the real Jason Arnott. "Sometimes I'm a hard person to figure out. One year in New Jersey they even had me work with a hypnotherapist."

Maybe it was because of Poile's sales pitch and the Predators trust in him to make him captain. You can certainly sense that he feels more appreciated than questioned with the Preds.

And those hulking shoulders help keep an often-times outmanned, but not outfought, Nashville lineup in contention for the playoffs.

"When I think of what it means to be captain, I think of Scott Stevens when I was in New Jersey, Mark Messier, Steve Yzerman, Joe Sakic and all of the rest of the great captains we've had in hockey and look at this as perhaps the best honor you could get as a player," Arnott explained. "I've learned a lot from watching guys like Craig MacTavish in Edmonton, Scott Stevens in New Jersey and Mike Modano and Derian Hatcher in Dallas."

"He's grown into the role," Predators coach Barry Trotz told me. "A captain has to take ownership of that role. He has to want the 'C' to be more than just a symbol -- and Jason's used that title to step up in the extra special moments our team has had the past couple of seasons.

"Because we're a very young team, he's stepped up and established the work ethic we want from all of our guys and his used that ownership mentality of his role to help bring along the next group of young players with him. Arnie's got a lot of pride ... and it comes a cross each and every day on the ice and in our locker room."

Said St. Louis Blues goaltender Chris Mason, a former teammate of Arnott's in Nashville, "Simply put, he gets it. He's a presence on the ice and in the room -- and not because he a big, strong player with skill and talent. He's obviously had a lot of experience on successful teams and he brings that voice of reason to the team. What's most important, I think, is he understands the right time to stand up and speak to the whole team or to take a guy to the side and set him straight ... and he doesn't sugarcoat the message he wants to send. You want a straight shooter as your leader."

Today's Jason Arnott isn't grumpy or hard to talk to. He's upbeat and positive and wants to make his mark with the younger players and role players who make up the energy of any team.

"When I was a younger player and the older guys came to check on you, answer questions, see what they could do for you, it made me feel great -- more a part of the team," Arnott observed.

I reminded Arnott of Tippett's words and the fact that he had his hands in the air in a mock pulling-his-hair-out moment when talking about what Jason could be as a total package if he wanted to be a leader.

"Coach Tippett and I finally got on the same page," Arnott said with a smile. "He showed me tapes of myself in good times .... and bad. He wanted me to take a good look at myself and then asked me, ‘What kind of player do I want to be?’ I guess that’s how I learned that I have to give more if I want to be better. Sounds simple when I say it now, doesn’t it?

"Unless your team is winning the Stanley Cup on a regular basis, I think every player has to think that way."

There's little doubt that when Jason is determined to get from Point A to Point B, it's hard to stop him. He can be a handful. He's a big man ... with big skills. He can beat you 1-on-1 or pull you toward him to try to limit his time and space and then dish the puck off to his linemates at just the right time.

Now he plays a much stronger positional game. For the most part, he reads and reacts, lets the game come to him. But when he asserts himself, look out. He's that dominant.

Said Predators defenseman Shea Weber, "Jason's simply a great all-round player, a good guy and an amazing leader."

Some players can lead, others are good followers. Jason Arnott can be both. Especially when he plays with the kind of heart he's displayed since Day 1 in Nashville.

Author: Larry Wigge | NHL.com Columnist

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