- Scott Barboza, Reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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WILMINGTON, Mass. -- As the 2012-13 NHL season was in doubt during the lockout, 15-season NHL veteran Jay Pandolfo was left to wonder if he had played his final professional hockey game.
The Burlington, Mass., native did his best to keep ready if the lockout ended, with the hope of catching on with a team for the shortened season. He, along with former Boston University teammate and former pro Mike Grier, and a smattering of current Bruins players, put together early-morning skates in Boston.
Still, there was a chance the 38-year-old veteran's work trying to keep up with the pack would be fruitless.
Those early-morning skates were worthwhile on Sunday as Pandolfo realized a lifelong dream of donning a Boston Bruins sweater for the first time.
Of course, there were nerves.
"A little bit," Pandolfo said after Tuesday's practice at Ristuccia Arena. "I don't think it would be normal if you aren't. I hadn't played a game in 10 months, and then playing for a team you grew up watching, it makes you a little bit more nervous."
With Milan Lucic out of the lineup due to personal matters, Pandolfo stepped into the lineup, skating the fourth line with Daniel Paille and Shawn Thornton. He had 6 minutes, 48 seconds of ice time in Winnipeg, including a shift on the Bruins' penalty-kill unit.
It might seem a meager stat, but Pandolfo's ice time was a stark contrast from the scenarios that could have been.
"If there wasn't a season, that might've been the end of my career," he said. "I wanted to keep skating, and hopefully something would happen. Then, getting the opportunity here, I wasn't guaranteed anything. But to be a part of the organization now is great."
Pandolfo had gone through the lockout limbo before. When the 2004-05 season was lost, the 6-foot-1, 190-pound winger returned to his roots. That year, before hooking on with EC Red Bull Salzburg in Austria, Pandolfo went back to his high school alma mater. The former NCAA champion worked with longtime Burlington High head coach Bob Conceison as an assistant.
"He was great with the kids," Conceison said in a phone interview Tuesday. "He taught them a lot of the little things -- and that's what's made him a great professional."
In fact, Conceison hoped Pandolfo would return for a second tour this year if the labor struggle endured.
"Unfortunately, they signed ..." Conceison trailed off. "Well, fortunately for Jay."
Pandolfo is among a vanishing breed of pro hockey players who trace their development to Massachusetts high school hockey. He was part of a generation that included Chelmsford's Keith Aucoin -- now with the New York Islanders. Pandolfo squared off against friend and future BU teammate (and former Bruin) Shaun Bates at the Garden for the MIAA state title in his senior year of 1991-92.
"I remember how fun it was playing in the Garden," Pandolfo said. "It didn't matter who you were playing; it was a great opportunity, and we always enjoyed it."
Bates and his Medford High team bested the Red Devils that day, but Conceison -- who is among the state's longest-tenured coaches and a member of the 300 victories club -- finally won his first state championship game last year in the Division 1 title game.
Among the first to call and congratulate the coach was his star pupil.
"I'm really proud to say he played for our program," Conceison said of Pandolfo. "I always use his name in the room when I'm talking to kids about what they need to do to make themselves better players."
Pandolfo hasn't made any long-term considerations about what he'll do once his playing days are over. He's more concerned with his opportunity with his hometown team.
After signing a professional tryout agreement with the Bruins for training camp, Pandolfo was simply looking for another chance. That officially came last week in the form of a one-year, two-way contract.
With 881 NHL games under his belt entering this season and having twice hoisted the Stanley Cup as a member of the New Jersey Devils, it hasn't taken long for Pandolfo to fit into the Bruins' scheme. He played under head coach Claude Julien while with the Devils in 2006-07, so there's an element of familiarity.
"It was nice to see Jay play the way the he did, because he hadn't played in a long time. That's not easy to step into," Julien said of Pandolfo's Bruins debut. "But he was smart about it. He knew exactly what he needed to do. He's been with us since training camp, so he knew our system and what needed to be done."
What Pandolfo's role is with the Bruins going forward remains to be seen. But with seven players held out of Tuesday's practice with flu-like symptoms, it's possible his ice time could increase during the upcoming three-game road trip.
No matter the future, you can't help but think things have come full circle for Pandolfo. Conceison was in the stands Tuesday at Ristuccia Arena (he was in a capacity school vacation week crowd) to watch Pandolfo practice.
Afterward, Pandolfo reflected on the opportunity to put on the eight-spoked "B" in front of the home crowd, which he has yet to do. He also talked about the privilege of having spent his entire high school career at Burlington and imparted some words of wisdom to the younger generation of NHL hopefuls in the area.
It echoed his current situation.
"Do it for as long as you can," Pandolfo said. "Having the opportunity to play in front of your hometown is something you'll never forget."
Near the end of his career, Jay Pandolfo is getting to play for his hometown team.