- Katie Strang, ESPN.com
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Zach Parise noticed one particular date when he first saw the Minnesota Wild’s 2013-14 schedule. He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw it wasn’t until March. Midway through the season, he was still able to put the game on the back burner. But now, Parise’s much-anticipated return to New Jersey is right in front of him, with his first game back at Prudential Center against his old New Jersey Devils club on Thursday.
Time to finally face the music.
“I’m excited,” Parise said. “It was a lot of really great memories there and I haven’t been back since. It will be a lot of emotions going through going back to that rink for the first time and everything.”
The 29-year-old Parise, a first-round draft pick (17th overall) by the Devils in 2003, spent the first seven years of his career in New Jersey, where he blossomed into one of the elite forwards in the National Hockey League. He even led the Devils to the Stanley Cup finals in 2012. But after the team’s surprising playoff run that spring, he decided to test free agency and signed with his hometown Minnesota Wild instead of re-signing with the Devils, as many New Jersey fans had hoped. Parise and stud free-agent defenseman Ryan Suter inked matching 13-year, $98 million deals with Minnesota.
Parise hasn’t been back to New Jersey since and doesn’t quite know what to expect from Devils fans in his return Thursday night.
“I’m guessing some mixed reviews,” said Parise, who has 23 goals and 45 points for the Wild this season. “I don’t know, though. I’ve said it before: What’s important to me is how good I was treated when I was there. I understand sports. Fans love their players and their teams and they don’t want to see players leave, but the part I’ll remember most is how good to me when I was there and that’s what matters.”
Parise still keeps in touch with his former teammates. He was planning to get together with a few of them for a low-key dinner Wednesday night. Those friendships won’t ever fizzle for Parise, no matter where he plays. The bond became particularly strong when the Devils advanced to the Stanley Cup finals in '12. Though they lost to the Los Angeles Kings in a six-game series, it was an experience Parise will never forget.
“You develop bonds that you just don’t get when you don’t make it that far,” Parise. “It’s something that, yeah, I’ll always remember.”
His relationship with general manager Lou Lamoriello remains intact, as well. Despite having to make that tough phone call on July 4, 2012, when Parise told Lamoriello of the decision to return home to Minnesota, the two maintain a good relationship. They trade texts occasionally and even an odd phone call here or there. Parise’s wife, Alisha, still keeps in touch with Lamoriello's longtime secretary, Marie.
There is no bad blood between Parise and the organization.
“We have a great relationship,” Parise said of Lamoriello. “I don’t think he holds a grudge or holds anything against me. He understands that’s the way hockey works. We had a good relationship beyond hockey where I would feel comfortable talking to him or calling him or something like that.”
At the time of Parise’s signing, Lamoriello acknowledged that he couldn’t compete with the tug of home. He understood. Parise now gets to see his father, former NHLer J.P. Parise, almost daily. His dad is able to attend morning skates and join Zach for pregame meals, not to mention the time devoted to being an on-site grandpa to Zach's 2-month-old twins (a boy, Jaxson, and a girl, Emelia).
Was coming home as good as he had hoped?
“It’s been better,” he said. “It’s been great.”
Maybe Devils fans will understand that, too. Parise didn’t just chase the dollar signs. In fact, he left significant money on the table to play for Minnesota (Philadelphia made an offer far more lucrative than the one he signed).
Maybe Devils fans won’t understand. But, according to Parise, that’s OK, too.
“People believe what they want to believe. I don’t know. Maybe it made more sense to them since I wanted to go back to Minnesota,” he said. “You never know.”