VANCOUVER -- There is a tendency to want to romanticize the return of defenseman Wade Redden from hockey oblivion to the NHL.
And why not?
Redden was buried in the American Hockey League by the New York Rangers the past two seasons when his level of play judged against his salary ($39 million over six years) made it more prudent for the Rangers to have him in Hartford where they continued to pay him but his salary did not count against the cap. Redden's stellar NHL career looked like it might go out with a whimper when the lockout ended in early January. A career that began in 1996-97 when he made the jump from major junior after being drafted out of Brandon of the Western Hockey League.
When the two sides agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement that included an option for teams to make two amnesty buyouts, it appeared as though the Rangers would put the 35-year-old former No. 2 overall draft pick on the shelf for the season, then buy him out of the final year of his contract next summer.
But a last-minute agreement between the NHL and the players’ union allowed for an immediate buyout that saw Redden, along with former Montreal Canadien Scott Gomez, paid off by their former employers before the start of the current 48-game schedule and both players became unrestricted free agents.
While Gomez signed in San Jose, Redden chose to join the St. Louis Blues and signed a one-year deal that could pay him $1 million with bonuses.
Those first hours and days presented a strange stew of stress and storybook as Redden had a short time to make a difficult decision about where was the best fit for he and his family, which includes two children under the age of three (two years and seven months).
As it turned out, there was also a fairytale element for the longtime Ottawa Senator.
He scored in both his second and third games and, at times, was played with the Blues emerging young defensive star Alex Pietrangelo.
But fairytale and reality are often strange bedfellows and, whether it was the emotion or the pace or a combination, Redden suffered through five straight games where he was a minus player and saw his ice time and place on the Blues depth chart decline.
He has been a healthy scratch the past two games, but on Saturday, Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock told Redden that he would return to the lineup for a big matchup Sunday night against Northwest Division-leading Vancouver.
“I just don’t like to see veteran players stay out too long,” Hitchcock explained.
And he acknowledged that Redden was perhaps being asked to do too much too soon.
“I think he played those first few games on emotion,” the coach said.
But now Redden’s had an opportunity to get himself ready for another run at it, and the coaching staff will evaluate how this plays out.
“So let’s put him in and see what he’s got,” Hitchcock said.
Much of that will be determined by Redden himself.
“His role is just to be stable and smart,” Hitchcock said.
“The reality is he’s a solid player, but after being out [of the NHL] for so long he’s not a 20-minute plus player yet,” Hitchcock said.
Redden has been trying to be Zen about how this is all unfolding.
“I’m trying to take that approach,” he said after an optional workout at Rogers Arena Saturday.
He has taken the time away from game action the past few days to get his conditioning up and put the drama of the past few weeks behind him. At one point, he and his wife had about 20 people in town for his return to NHL action.
“It’s good to get all that behind me. I’m just focused from now on with playing the way I need to play,” Redden said. “I know my role isn’t what it used to be and I have to accept that.
“Now that I’m back to playing, it’s back to day in and day out and I have to come and be ready. It’s not like it’s coming to the rink and it’s a honeymoon every day.”
Redden, in spite of the chaos of the past few weeks, to say nothing of the past two years, is nothing if not a realist.
He confronted the uncomfortable prospect that he had perhaps played his final NHL game. Now that he's received a kind of reprieve, it’s up to him to put in the sweat equity to make sure this next chapter, however long that chapter extends, is written on his terms.
“At the end of the day, I wanted to get back to the NHL. I didn’t want to go out that way,” he acknowledged.