Naslund having fun in New York

Former captain faces old team for the first time on Wednesday

Ben Kuzma, Canwest News Service  Published: Tuesday, November 18, 2008

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Markus Naslund is happy to be with the New York Rangers after leaving Vancouver in the off-season, where he was the Canucks' captain. He faces his old team on Wednesday.Vladimir Rys/Bongarts/Getty ImagesMarkus Naslund is happy to be with the New York Rangers after leaving Vancouver in the off-season, where he was the Canucks' captain. He faces his old team on Wednesday.

NEW YORK -- His son is playing minor hockey and his daughters are into hip-hop music in major way.

Markus Naslund and family have made a seamless transition from a fishbowl existence in Vancouver to the lost-in-the-crowd comfort of New York.

"No one really recognizes you here," said the former Vancouver Canucks captain, who resides a 15-minute ride from the team's practice facility in Tarrytown, N.Y. "Some people at the school and Alex's hockey would know who you are, but you can be pretty anonymous here and it's different - that's for sure.

"I didn't have a problem with the whole social part in Vancouver, but I'm happy here. It's a fresh start and a lot of new experiences. It's easy to come to the rink when you feel you're enjoying the game and everything around it."

It wasn't always that way in Vancouver.

Naslund knew his days in Vancouver were numbered when a season of so much hope came crashing down with a failed pursuit of a playoff spot last spring, so it's not surprising he leaped at a two-year, US$8-million offer from the New York Rangers on July 3. He faces his old teammates at home for the first time on Wednesday night.

"I think it was a mutual thing," said Naslund. "I had a gut feeling that I wasn't coming back and that they wanted to go in a different direction after the season ended. I got that right from the get-go.

"I had to take some time to figure if I would play or not and after that. And I had to start thinking about where I would play.

When Naslund's agent, Mike Gillis, replaced Dave Nonis as Canucks general manager on April 23, it only complicated matters. As much as Gillis wanted to accommodate his former client, he knew a change of scenery would be easier than finding the right fit for Naslund.

"It's weird," said Naslund. "If you asked me two or three years ago, I always envisioned myself retiring as a Canuck. But things happen for a reason and I embrace the opportunity that I've got to come to a team that wanted me and is giving me a chance to play and have some fun again."

There's that word again - fun.

Naslund has played for coach New York Rangers coach Tom Renney before. The bench boss was just getting his NHL feet wet when replaced by Mike Keenan in Vancouver just 19 games into the 1997-98 season after the Canucks got off to a horrible 4-13-2 record. A player's coach by design, Renney prefers to let his charges work through scoring difficulty rather than pointing fingers.

"He doesn't name guys publicly and he'll talk to you one-on-one," said Naslund. "He's not one of those guys who'll hang you out to dry in the papers. He adds a lot of positive things."

You could read between the lines and conclude that Naslund had difficulty with Canucks coach Alain Vigneault. Constant line juggling and a defensive system would fuel that argument.

In 2006-07, Naslund played on 13 different line combinations. There was less line dancing last season, but the once-dominant left-winger still found himself skating with Brad Isbister and Ryan Shannon in a 7-1 season-finale embarrassment against the Calgary Flames. Not exactly the West Coast Express.

Year after year, the Canucks failed to find Naslund a dominant centre. And and as his goal totals started slipping from a career-high 48 in 2002-03 to 35, 32, 24 and 25, his frustration grew - even though he was loathe to throw management under the bus.

The Canucks scored 213 goals last season and were ranked 24th.

"To have success and put up the numbers, you've got to click with someone," said Naslund, who has six goals and eight assists through 21 games to sit second in team scoring. It's difficult when you're probably working as hard as you ever have, but the output is not the same.

"That was just the nature of our team. We didn't really have that much offence and you can blame me for some of it for sure. I didn't put up the same numbers that I'm used to.

"It's nice when you're on a line and you know you'll have chances. You know where the other guy is at all times and it's easy to go and find an opening.

Naslund has played with Scott Gomez, Chris Drury and Ryan Callahan as linemates and is still looking for the right fit.

"We haven't really found the right line combinations yet, but we're working on it," said Naslund.

Naslund has also found the East Coast travel to be quite the eye-opener. Instead of long cross-country jaunts, the short Atlantic Division hops to Long Island, New Jersey and Philadelphia are quite laughable.

"I'm blown away by what a difference it is," he said. "We bus to Long Island and Jersey and take the train to Philly."

If a competitive team and easy travel combine in the right manner, maybe Naslund will finally capture an elusive championship in New York. He didn't represent his native Sweden when it claimed Winter Olympics gold in 2006 and world championship gold in 1998 and 2006.

"Those two years in Vancouver - 2003 and 2004 - we had strong enough teams to have gone real far," said Naslund. "But I don't know if one moment stood out. I enjoyed the group there and we grew up together and seemed to be taking a step every year.

"That's what makes it even more frustrating."

Now, Naslund may finally end a long struggle to be known as a champion.

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