Since signing his free-agent contract with Columbus on July 5, 2013, the saga of Nathan Horton’s return to the ice has been well-chronicled. From undergoing offseason shoulder surgery last July to his debut in union blue on Jan. 2, 2014 and his subsequent shutdown due to a lower body injury a few weeks ago, he knows he can do better, on the ice and health-wise.
"It’s been hurting me for a little bit," said Horton. "I don’t know if it’s going to get better, or if it’s one of those things that I don’t know if it will go away in this short of time. It’s gotten a little bit better. I started skating (Sunday), I’m going to go tomorrow and we’ll see how it is."
In the 34 games he’s played for the Blue Jackets, he’s garnered 4-13-17, -3. Not stellar numbers, by any stretch of the imagination. Considering that he hasn’t been 100 percent since returning, it should come as no surprise that he has yet to return to stats that he’s used to contributing.
It seemed as if much of his form had returned with him in January. That could be chalked up to the adrenaline of playing after missing six months. He started to develop chemistry with his linemates, Ryan Johansen and Boone Jenner. That adrenaline soon wore off as the pain was still there.
With the Blue Jackets on the cusp of their second playoff appearance and making the stretch run, he’s had to watch from the sidelines, wishing he could be out on the ice and helping his team.
"Obviously I’m disappointed," he said. "I know I can play better than I have. It’s been a tough year for me, for sure. Right now is the best time of the year and I want to be in (lineup). It’s one of those things that I can’t do much about."
"Hopefully we stay in the spot that we’re in and make the playoffs. It’s just been a tough time watching and being so close (to being fully healthy). We just need to get in there and anything can happen."
While everyone, including himself, wishes that he were in top form, he still has many years with which to contribute to the team, as the foundation of bricks grows ever higher. And yet, he hopes to draw back into the lineup as soon as this week with Columbus playing four games in six days. Make no mistake about it – he most likely will not be back at 100 percent health until the summer rolls around.
"I don’t know what my timetable is, whether it (shoulder) is going to be better or worse. But, for sure, I’m going to be back, hopefully this upcoming week."
Playing through injuries at this time of year is nothing new to hockey players. As the saying goes, "it’s playoff hockey, baby!" The intensity and adrenaline rush are ratcheted up a few more notches. Having won the Stanley Cup while he was in Boston, Horton knows what this entails, for both the team and the city.
"There’s nothing better than playing in the playoffs," he said. "When every game means something, that adrenaline kick we get when we’re playing… that excites me! It should excite everyone. It’s the best time to play."
He’s been in Columbus for just over nine months. He’s seen the fervor of the fans and knows the brief playoff history of the club. Horton has been in the league long enough to realize that he’s in a hockey city with a healthy fan base that deserves to have their team take the next step and make the playoffs on a consistent basis. And, he hopes the sight of visiting teams’ fans overrunning the arena begin to fade.
"The city has been great," Horton said. "The fans really care about our team. Obviously, on some nights it’s tough with other teams coming in, like the Red Wings (or more recently, Chicago). There are a lot of fans for the other team.
"But, there are still the fans that care about our team and care about what we’re doing. I’m having fun and I’m enjoying (being in Columbus). Hopefully, we can make them happy and make ourselves happy by getting in the playoffs and having fun."
Yes, this is a city that wants to see results RIGHT NOW. But, with the upcoming talent of the young players such as Ryan Johansen, Ryan Murray and Boone Jenner, to name a few, Horton smiles when he gazes into the future and what that might hold in store for this franchise. The winning will come, of that he’s sure.
The smile is still there, as it has been since he arrived in the Arch City. It has an ebb and flow to it, just as anybody’s smile does. But, make no mistake – his smile will not disappear just because he’s not playing. Because he knows that the Blue Jackets are on the rise and the fans are holding the "E" ticket. Twirl that thought around your cranium for a while…