It’s the moment that every NHL player fears.
When they’ve played with the same team for years, to the point where home ice feel like a second home, and then something from “the business side of the game” evicts them. They’re wearing a different uniform, on a different team, with different teammates. They return to the place they used to call home and — to their horror — they have to get suited up in the visiting dressing room.
Not the one meticulously constructed and maintained to maximize the comfort levels of hometown heroes. No, that other one. The proverbial futon in the basement for house guests.
“It’s a little awkward, walking in here and going to the visitors’ room,” Vegas Golden Knights center Jack Eichel said. On Thursday night (7 p.m. ET on ESPN+), he’s returning to face the Sabres in Buffalo for the first time since their rancorous split, one that ended with him being traded to Vegas.
It can get more than a little awkward for NHL players who return to their former arenas wearing another team’s jersey for the first time.
They all can’t be lovefests, like when Jarome Iginla returned to Calgary with the Boston Bruins in 2013 to a video tribute, multiple standing ovations and his uniform number projected on the ice. Sometimes it’s like when Jesperi Kotkaniemi returned to Montreal this season after signing an offer sheet with the Carolina Hurricanes, and Canadiens fans treated him with the adulation of stepping barefoot on a Lego.
Eichel said on Wednesday he didn’t know what he was walking into with Sabres fans.
“It’s definitely strange. But I’m not the first guy to get traded and go to another team,” he said. “You think about what sort of reception you’re going to get. But I can’t control that. Whatever the reception is, I can handle it.”
What might the reception look like? We took a look back at 10 recent NHL player homecomings from within the last 10 seasons, and scored them 1-10 based on four criteria:
Buzz, as in the hype levels before the game
Emotion, in either celebration or hostility
Quality of game
Comeuppance, as in whether the player or his former team had the last laugh that night
Here are 10 Eichel-level returns and how they played out:
10. Evander Kane returns to San Jose (Feb. 14, 2022)
Game quality: 3
Total score: 18
Kane’s return to San Jose as a member of the Edmonton Oilers had a chance to be contentious, perhaps even venomous. His split with the Sharks was as acrimonious as it gets.
The Sharks didn’t allow him to attend training camp and then buried him in the AHL after he served a 21-game suspension for violating the league’s COVID-19 policy. Then they terminated his contract in January “for breach of his NHL Standard Player Contract and for violation of the AHL COVID-19 protocols,” causing him to forfeit $22.8 million from the remainder of the deal. The NHLPA filed a grievance in response.
The Oilers played in San Jose on Valentine’s Day, but there was no love there for Kane. Only 11,153 Sharks fans were in attendance. They booed Kane when he touched the puck and cheered when he was dumped to the ice by defenseman Nicolas Meloche, but there wasn’t much beyond that. The Oilers won 3-0. Kane didn’t record a point. The overall vibe from the fans matched the attitude from their franchise: Just simply being exhausted of Evander Kane.
9. Matt Duchene returns to Colorado (Oct. 26, 2018)
Game quality: 4
Total score: 23
Duchene spent the first nine seasons of his NHL career with the Avalanche, but requested a trade in 2016 when he believed the team was heading into (another) rebuild. That request wasn’t fulfilled until Nov. 2017 when Colorado sent him to Ottawa in that massive three-way trade that landed Kyle Turris in Nashville and had the Avalanche ending up with defenseman Samuel Girard and the first-round pick that would become defenseman Bowen Byram. Not too shabby!
The emotions for this return were a bit muted. There was almost a year between Duchene being traded and his first game back in Denver. “I’m sure some of our fans love him, some of them don’t,” Avs coach Jared Bednar said at the time. “I’m sure the players have motivation with Matt coming back in and would like to show him what type of team we’ve become.”
When the teams met in Oct. 2018, Duchene was acknowledged during the first period to a mix of cheers and boos, although some fans stood and applauded him as he waved to the crowd.
Then it happened: Five seconds after that divisive homecoming moment, Duchene tipped home a Cody Ceci shot for a goal. He’d add another in the second period. Unfortunately for Ottawa, the Avalanche lived up to their name, scoring five unanswered goals for a 6-3 win over Duchene’s team. But, unofficially, that has to be the fastest goal ever scored by a returning player who was booed by his former fans after a tribute on the big screen.
8. Rick Nash returns to Columbus (March 21, 2014)
Game quality: 5
Total score: 24
It was revealed at the 2012 NHL trade deadline that Nash had requested a trade out of Columbus, having spent nine seasons with the team that drafted him with just four playoff games to show for it.
(“Wow, four playoff games!” — Jack Eichel, probably.)
The Blue Jackets didn’t complete a deal at the deadline, but circled back with the Rangers in July 2012 to send him to Broadway in a trade that saw Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky and others come back to the Jackets. The Rangers didn’t play Columbus in the lockout shortened 2012-13 season, so he waited until March 2014 for his return.
Nash’s return to Columbus started off well. A video tribute led to a rousing ovation for a player that wanted out after giving his all for nearly a decade. But the vibes turned sour later in the game when Nash barreled into goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, gave him a shove and sparked a melee. In the third period, former teammates Matt Calvert and Nash threw down at center ice in a spirited fight. Said Calvert after the game: “He had to pay for what he did. It was a gutless move.”
The Rangers won, 3-1, although Nash didn’t have a point. But he did have himself quite a journey that night.
7. Zach Parise returns to New Jersey (March 20, 2014)
Game quality: 9
Total score: 28
In July 2012, both Parise and fellow free-agent defenseman Ryan Suter left money on the table elsewhere to sign matching 13-year, $98 million contracts with the Minnesota Wild. Suter left the Nashville Predators while Parise left the New Jersey Devils, having been arguably the most popular player on the roster not named Martin Brodeur, especially after he helped them make the Stanley Cup Final earlier that year.
He didn’t return to Newark until March 2014. The time between his departure and reunion did little to dull the emotions, as Devils fans booed him every time he touched the puck and brought signs calling him a “traitor.” The biggest cheer he received was when he was called for a hooking penalty in the first period. While he didn’t have a point in the game, he helped create a goal that cut the Devils’ lead in half en route to overtime, where three of his former teammates combined for the game-winning goal.
“Some pretty weird feelings pulling up to the rink before the game and playing on this ice again, but it was fun. It was fun to be back,” said Parise.
Fast forward to 2021, and Parise’s contract was bought out by the Wild, allowing him to return to the East Coast … with the New York Islanders, managed by former Devils GM Lou Lamoriello.
6. Ryan O’Reilly returns To Buffalo (March 17, 2019)
Game quality: 8
Total score: 29
The Buffalo Sabres traded O’Reilly to the St. Louis Blues on July 1, 2018, roughly three months after he admitted losing his love for the game during another losing season — essentially punching his own ticket out of town after three seasons in Buffalo.
For a while, it looked like a lateral move, as the Blues were in the division basement. But O’Reilly returned to Buffalo on March 17, 2019, in the midst of St. Louis’s “worst-to-Stanley Cup champions” turnaround that saw him lead the team in scoring. The Sabres, meanwhile, had only won two of their last 15 games. So the whole thing was a little awkward.
O’Reilly received a mix of cheers and boos in the early part of the game. But those cheers disappeared in the shootout when O’Reilly was the Blues’ last shooter, needing a goal to extend it. They returned, en masse, when O’Reilly plunked the puck off the post to give the Sabres the win and a fleeting measure of comeuppance. Needless to say, O’Reilly got the last laugh that season.
5. Daniel Alfredsson returns to Ottawa (Dec. 1, 2013)
Game quality: 6
Total score: 30
There wasn’t a lot of mystery about how this was going to go. Alfredsson was the most popular player in franchise history, playing in Ottawa for 17 seasons. On his way out, he basically said the team broke an informal deal in which Alfie took a cap-friendly two-year deal to get an extension that never came, leading him to sign with the Detroit Red Wings. Senators owner Eugene Melnyk would argue that meeting Alfredsson’s price wouldn’t have allowed them to improve other aspects of the team.
Melnyk wasn’t exactly Mr. Popularity in comparison to Alfredsson — to this day, Senators fans hope Alfredsson could find a way to buy the franchise from him — so there was a chance the former captain’s return could have also been a referendum on ownership. Instead, it was an emotional celebration of Alfredsson’s legacy, complete with a 67-second video tribute and a lengthy ovation that followed it.
Alfredsson assisted on the game’s first goal and, rather poetically, the empty netter to clinch the 4-2 win for the Red Wings, against an Ottawa team that was 10-13-4 and would go on to miss the playoffs.
4. Marc-Andre Fleury returns to Pittsburgh (Feb. 6, 2018)
Game quality: 8
Total score: 31
Some player returns are contentious. Others are a celebration. The return of Fleury to Pittsburgh was squarely in the latter category, as fans made his first game back in the Steel City as a member of the Golden Knights a joyous outpouring of appreciation.
Fans lined the glass with signs thanking him for his 13 seasons with the Penguins, where he played an integral role in winning three Stanley Cups before the team opted to go younger and cheaper with Matt Murray, sending Fleury to the expansion Golden Knights. The team lauded him in a video tribute that lasted nearly two minutes; the fans continued the revelry for almost another two minutes of cheers that clearly touched him.
“I was happy I had the mask on,” Fleury said.
Neither Fleury (33 saves on 38 shots) nor Murray (21 saves on 25 shots) had exemplary nights. The Penguins eventually got the win, 5-4 in overtime. But it wasn’t about what was happening that night, but rather all of those other nights when The Flower bloomed in Pittsburgh.
3. Roberto Luongo returns to Vancouver (Jan. 8, 2015)
Game quality: 7
Total score: 32
Luongo wasn’t sure what to expect upon his return to Vancouver with the Florida Panthers. He had finally been traded in March 2014, ending a lengthy soap opera that included his requesting a trade in 2012 after losing his starting gig to Cory Schneider; watching the Canucks trade Schneider when they couldn’t offload Luongo’s 12-year contract; and Luongo finally accepting a trade to the Panthers, with whom he starred from 2001-02 to 2005-06.
Canucks fans had been critical of Luongo during his time in Vancouver, especially of his postseason performances. But when he returned to the city with the Panthers, he received an in-game video tribute and a lengthy standing ovation from Canucks fans. They weren’t booing — they were “Louuuuu’ing!”
Luongo rose to the occasion, stopping 32 of 33 shots in a 3-1 win for the Panthers in a meeting of teams in the playoff hunt. That victory led to the night’s most memorable moment: Luongo being named the game’s first star, receiving another ovation from the crowd, tossing his goalie stick to Vancouver fans and applauding them as he left the ice. That, friends, is closure.
2. P.K. Subban returns to Montreal (March 2, 2017)
Game quality: 8
Total score: 34
Subban was everything in Montreal: an extremely popular star player, winning a Norris Trophy; a lightning rod of criticism for those who undervalued or misunderstood him; a philanthropist, through his considerable charitable efforts that focused on the wellbeing of children; and, finally, the pivot point in a blockbuster trade in June 2016 that saw GM Marc Bergevin send him to Nashville for Shea Weber.
We witnessed the totality of that history in March 2017, when Subban made his return to Montreal. There was a tribute video that had as much off-ice content as game highlights. As the crowd chanted his name, tears streamed down his face as he stood on the ice watching the clip.
“All those memories come back, whether it was stuff to do with the hospital or kids, family, teammates, whatever it is, hockey games, emotional games, and I felt that I shared that with all the fans and the community here, and I guess that’s how it all came out,” he said after the game.
There was no better encapsulation of the moment than when Subban assisted on the Predators’ first-period power-play goal. The crowd cheered when he touched the puck. When it sailed into the Canadiens’ goal, there was joy, then the sudden realization by fans at Bell Centre that they were supporting the enemy now. So then there were boos.
Montreal won the game, 2-1. Weber was a defensive force all night, shutting down what had been a hot offense for Nashville. So was Carey Price, who playfully squirted his water bottle at Subban during the game. They were teammates for seven seasons in Montreal. Like the rest of the night, their bond was a reminder of what was, what might have been and where it all led for P.K. Subban and the Montreal Canadiens.
1. John Tavares returns to Long Island (Feb. 28, 2019)
Game quality: 5
Total score: 35
I’ve covered many events, from high-school football rivalries to Stanley Cup Finals to both the Winter and Summer Olympics. None of them had the incendiary emotional vibe that existed at Nassau Coliseum the night John Tavares returned to face the New York Islanders. This was a singular moment that I witnessed, a night filled with such bile that you needed rain boots to wade through it.
Tavares was drafted first overall in 2009 and spent nine years as the Islanders’ franchise star. He approached free agency right as the team hired Lou Lamoriello as GM and Barry Trotz as coach. Their new arena at Belmont Park was only a few years away from opening. Things were moving in a positive direction on Long Island … and then Tavares moved on to the Toronto Maple Leafs via a seven-year free-agent contract. The desperate courtship from the Islanders and their fans had failed.
In preparation for his return with Toronto, fans desecrated their Tavares jerseys, creating electrical tape nameplates that read “LIAR” and “JUDAS.” They ran over his jersey in the parking lot like a speed bump. Inside the arena, they chanted “we don’t need you!” and tossed a rubber snake on the ice. Leafs defenseman Justin Holl joked to Tavares, “At least they forgot [about you].”
The chants continued during the game, becoming increasingly more anatomical in nature. The Islanders played a 60-second video tribute to Tavares during the first period, the audio of which was drowned out in boos. The game was atrocious — a 6-1 beatdown by the Islanders in which Tavares didn’t register a point.
My lingering memory of that night was Tavares holding postgame media availability under the stands at Nassau, calmly rehashing his decision to leave the Islanders, when he was interrupted by a fan who screamed “JOHN, YOU SUCK!” from the seating area.
Not every homecoming is a welcome one.
From reader Kendall:
— Kendall Aubertot (@kndl) February 26, 2022
In fairness, Colorado Avalanche center Nazem Kadri told me he’s “hoping to put that stuff behind me” when it comes to his multiple, multigame postseason suspensions. But that clearly hasn’t stopped some Avs fans from getting geared up for the playoffs.
Winners and losers of the week
Winner: Jaromir Jagr‘s legacy
We can’t say enough about Jagr, 50, using his considerable influence to move Kladno’s regular-season finale to O2 Arena in Prague and use ticket proceeds to benefit Ukrainian families seeking asylum in the Czech Republic after Russia’s invasion. The event raised $160,000, while the NHL kicked in another $68,000.
Loser: Alex Ovechkin‘s legacy
Ovechkin’s continued support of Vladimir Putin — who remains his Instagram profile co-star — is now subtext for his accomplishments. Tying Jagr for third in all-time goals should be a moment for unencumbered celebration. Instead, Ovechkin’s politics stand in contrast to Jagr’s advocacy, unavoidably.
The scoring surge has continued past the COVID-19 lineup and schedule interruptions. Through 909 games, the NHL has a scoring average of 3.09 goals per team per game. That’s higher than the average in 2005-06, aka the post-lockout oddball season. If it holds, it would be highest since the 1995-96 season, the precipice of the dead puck era. Wild times.
Loser: Teams needing goalies
I’m not convinced Marc-Andre Fleury is going to move at the trade deadline. Braden Holtby is a good option with playoff experience. Semyon Varlamov has another year of term and a high price tag. After that, it’s paying draft capital for a lateral move at best, a downgrade at worst. Teams should have hopped on the goalie carousel in the summer!
Winner: Auston Matthews
The Toronto star is on pace for 60 goals and has moved to the top of the Hart Trophy race thanks to that scoring prowess and a growing appreciation of his defensive game. Best of all? He’s reignited the “best player in the world” debate with Connor McDavid. Let the takes begin!
Loser: Michael Bunting
Matthews’ linemate Bunting leads all rookies in goals (20) and points (46), but in our latest Awards Watch he didn’t receive a single first-place vote. (Those all went to Mo Seider of the Detroit Red Wings and Trevor Zegras of the Anaheim Ducks.) Can a 26-year-old rookie win the Calder? Given with whom he plays, he might make an undeniable stats case by season’s end.
Winner: Phil Kessel
Phil the Thrill skated one shift on Tuesday night against Detroit before hopping on a charter flight organized by Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo to be back home for the birth of his child. His iron man streak reached 956 games, the second-longest active streak in the NHL. We want only the best for our sweet boy. Good luck and congratulations.
From your friends at ESPN