Hockey Alum Guenin Back In Columbus

Nate Guenin left Ohio State's hockey program after the 2006 season hoping to make an impact at the professional level. A few years later, he's back where he started from. The defenseman is on the Columbus Blue Jackets roster and back around the OSU program, which is now headed by his junior coach, Mark Osiecki.

Sitting in the home dressing room at Nationwide Arena in downtown Columbus on Oct. 21, Nate Guenin couldn't help but grin.

And why shouldn't he be excited? The former Ohio State hockey player had already played in two consecutive games – both wins – for the Blue Jackets' NHL franchise, making his season debut Oct. 16 and returning to the Columbus to play in a game that counts Oct. 20 for the first time since donning scarlet and gray.

"Ever since I got called back up, I don't think I've stopped smiling," the defenseman told BSB. "I asked for an opportunity coming in here. I just feel like I'm trying to make the most of this chance."

Guenin was handed his opportunity when the Jackets saw three of their top six defensemen – Mike Commodore, Kris Russell and Anton Stralman – suffer injuries within the first week of the season, which began Oct. 8 in Stockholm, Sweden.

After Stralman was banged up Oct. 15 in the team's home opener against Chicago, Guenin – one of the last cuts from the team after a good preseason – was called up from Springfield of the American Hockey League and made his season debut a night later during a win at Minnesota. Going into tonight's game with Philadelphia, he's played in three games without a point.

"I feel I've brought what they expected out of me," Guenin said. "I try to be physical out there, be hard to play against and bring that element to the blue line, and so far I feel like I've done a pretty good job of that."

That type of play should sound familiar to Ohio State fans, many of whom knew the rugged Guenin as "Nasty Nate" during his Buckeye career from 2003-06. A two-time alternate captain before donning the "C" his senior year, Guenin had six goals, 47 assists and 400 penalty minutes in 141 career games.

His professional career had been more of the same. In four AHL seasons (275 games) from 2007-10, Guenin played totaled 12 goals, 49 assists, a plus-minus rating of 20 and 431 penalty minutes.

"He's a physical guy," said Jackets first-year head coach Scott Arniel, who spent the past four years coaching against Guenin as the skipper in Manitoba. "He's going to run into people and he's going to block shots and he's going to stick up for his teammates. He plays the game hard and plays the game smart. He knows what his boundaries are and stays within him."

Before this season with Columbus, Guenin had only a handful of short stints in the NHL. The Aliquippa, Pa., native spent nine games with Philadelphia in 2006-07, then played in three games over the next two seasons before signing with hometown team Pittsburgh. Though he scored a goal in an exhibition game in Columbus against te Blue Jackets, Guenin got only two games with the reigning Stanley Cup champions before becoming a free agent in the offseason, and his NHL totals stood at 14 games, no goals and two assists.

That didn't stop the Blue Jackets from immediately picking up the phone. Though the team was expected to return all of its defensemen from a disappointing 2009-10 campaign, Guenin was encouraged by what he heard from team brass.

"They laid out the scenario for me," Guenin said. "I thought about it that day and explored some other options, but at the end of the day I thought this was the opportunity for me, and so far I'm pretty happy with the decision."

Guenin said the choice to sign with Columbus was purely a hockey decision, but that doesn't mean he's not pleased with the way it all worked out. He bought a house in the area during the summer and lives with former OSU teammates JB Bittner – still the Buckeyes' video coordinator – and Zach Pelletier.

"It's just a familiarity," he said. "Sometimes when you come into camp, you don't know a lot of the guys and you're not comfortable with the area, but this is like a second home to me. I got to know a lot of the guys the past couple of summers just living here and skating and workout out. To me, it was just a really good fit."

The presence in Columbus of new Ohio State coach Mark Osiecki added to the appeal. Osiecki was Guenin's junior coach with Green Bay in the United States Hockey League, and Guenin talked to some OSU decision makers when the job was open following the school's decision to not renew the contract of John Markell.

"I couldn't be more excited that he got that job," Guenin said. "I know what type of guy he is and what he brings. Coach Markell did a good job there, and it was time for a change, I guess, and Osiecki will hold those guys accountable. They will work hard. He will help them grow up both on and off the ice. I owe a lot to that guy."

The two continue to talk about once a week, and Guenin tries to stop by campus whether it's to see a practice or work out with OSU strength and conditioning coach Anthony Glass. During a recent visit, what Guenin saw was a familiar sight.

"I called two of my real good buddies (Dallas Stars forward Adam Burish and AHL veteran Jake Taylor) that played with me in Green Bay and I was telling them about practice, and they were just laughing because they went through the same thing," Guenin said. "He knows what it takes. Those guys, they'll figure it out or they won't be around."

Osiecki has made no bones about how he hopes to turn Ohio State into an NHL proving ground, and having both Guenin and former OSU forward R.J. Umberger (2001-03) playing for the Blue Jackets helps in that regard.

"That's a huge positive for our team in terms of recruiting," he said. "You have guys right there that you can point to, especially as well as I know Nate. That's huge, and R.J. was awesome this summer – around our locker room, our golf outing. I'm still getting to know him, but he's been a great role model for our guys."

That will continue to be the case if Guenin can carve out a niche with the Blue Jackets. Injuries will heal and others will develop, so how much time Guenin will spend in the capital city this year is anyone's guess.

However, if you ask him, he feels like he's up for the challenge of making it a permanent stay.

"I feel I've always been pretty confident in my game and for me it was just all about getting an opportunity," Guenin said. "I can play at this level."

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