COLUMBUS, Ohio – It's three hours until the puck drops for the game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Columbus Blue Jackets.
And there, all by himself in the massive arena, is Nathan Horton in a dark T-shirt, shorts and black cross-training shoes, sliding around on the ice and slapping pucks back and forth off the side boards.
"I enjoy coming to the rink," he explained later.
When the game finally rolled around, Horton, still striving for peak conditioning after missing the first half of the season due to shoulder surgery, enjoyed it even more. He tied it with a power-play goal three minutes into the third period, and then was on the ice when Mark Letestu redirected Jack Johnson's shot for the game-winner in the final minutes.
"I'm just having fun," Horton said. "When you wake up, it makes you want to come to the rink."
These are sweet days for Horton, who signed a seven-year, $37.1-million free-agent contract with the Blue Jackets last summer to leave the Boston Bruins, where a playoff spot is almost a lock. With Horton playing a central role — he scored the series-clinching goals in the first round against Montreal and the third round against Tampa Bay — the Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2011.
Some thought he was crazy, or maybe just greedy, when he left the Bruins to come to Columbus, an NHL outpost which has made only one, brief playoff appearance in its 12 seasons.
Instead, he believes he was just in on the ground floor of a fabulous building project.
"We've got more skill than I ever thought. We have great players on this team that are just ready to be stars, you know?" he said. "When you go through the playoffs year after year and you get a taste of it, that's what you wait for. That's the funnest time in hockey. When you don't have experience, the only way to get it is to go there and do that. We're right there. Once we get there, we're never going to want to leave."
Then he smiled. It's not an uncommon sight, though he's known around the league to be a tough guy who plays with an edge. Cross him and he might just deck you.
No wonder his teammates weren't so certain — even if he was an elite goal-scorer and team leader — if they really wanted him to join the club last summer.
"The funny thing is, if he gives you a mean look, he's a scary-looking guy," said defenseman James Wisniewski. "But if you know him, he's like the biggest teddy bear ever."
Forward Nick Foligno had the same preconceived notion.
"You think he's a killer when you play against him," he said. "And then he's the nicest guy in the world."
Horton realizes that he has an imposing countenance on the ice. But, he adds, he can't keep from smiling when he's at home with his wife and two boys, romping around a dream house set on two acres in a leafy, upscale area a 20-minute drive from the downtown arena. Or when he's surrounded by a bunch of good guys in the dressing room.
"I'm a pretty happy person," he said. "I just try to be positive. I guess that positive outlook goes with my smile."
It probably isn't a coincidence that since Horton joined the lineup after missing the first 40 games the Blue Jackets are 5-1-0. They've won their last four games to climb into playoff contention in their first year in the Eastern Conference.
The Blue Jackets are one of the youngest teams in the NHL. Leading goal-scorer Ryan Johansen is 21. Top defenseman Ryan Murray is just 20.
They watch players like Horton to know how to process winning and losing, how to prepare and how to become a consistent playoff challenger.
"It's not only players, it's coaches looking at him, too — how he handles himself," coach Todd Richards said. "You can learn a lot from asking him questions: What was Boston's approach? What did they do?"
Far from crazy or greedy, Horton believes he's in a perfect place at a perfect time.
"We've got all the right people running this team and the right people in the room. It's going to break out," he said. "That's the fun part. It's a great place to live, a great place to play hockey. Lots of fans, the college football is crazy here. When we start winning it's going to be crazy for hockey."
And then he smiled.
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