CHICAGO — The locker room changed. That was among the first things Patrick Sharp noticed when he came back. The overhaul at United Center had begun three days after his last game in a decade-long tenure with the Blackhawks, an unforgettable mid-June night that drenched the carpet in champagne and dislodged more than a few ceiling tiles in celebration of the 2015 Stanley Cup champions. The new layout featured some structural overlap with the old design, but not much. The player lounge was expanded and nicer couches imported, a full kitchen added and a new entrance constructed. Early on, Sharp tried turning down what he remembered as a hallway. Instead, he ran into a wall.
He’s sitting inside the renovated space now, three days before the season-opener and the first show on his reunion tour. It wasn’t the differences that spurred Sharp’s return to Chicago—though the swankier digs are nice—but familiarity. Same head coach, same front office, lots of similar teammates...look, here comes one. “That little punk walking over,” Sharp says, nodding at Patrick Kane, “was a big reason. A lot of my good friends are here. A lot of my best memories in hockey were here. It was great to get back.”
As the open interview period wound down and unrestricted free agency loomed last summer, Sharp trimmed his list of suitors from five teams to three. Chicago hadn’t expressed interest yet, but that interest existed at all was a pleasant development; still recovering from hip surgery in March after notching 28 goals and 73 points in 124 games over two season with the Stars, the 35-year-old winger was facing, in his words, “a lot of uncertainty about the future of my career, my health, where I was going to play, if I was going to play.” Then Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman called his agent, wondering whether it was too late to enter the sweepstakes. The rest of the world stopped turning. “As soon as they were involved,” says Sharp, who originally left in a July 2015 trade with Dallas, “that was my clear-cut number one choice.” On July 1, he signed a one-year contract worth $800,000 plus performance bonuses, far less than anyone else was offering but all that the Blackhawks could afford.
Like dyeing the Chicago River green each St. Patrick’s Day, it has become an annual local tradition for former players to come gusting back into the Windy City. Defenseman Brian Campbell spent last season on a cheap one-year deal and rode into retirement on the L train, while fellow blueliner Johnny Oduya arrived (again) around the trade deadline. There was winger Kris Versteeg, a member of the 2010 Cup team like Campbell who zigzagged through three other NHL cities before returning in Nov. 2013. And Andrew Ladd, who played six seasons with the Thrashers/Jets organization until Chicago reacquired him for the stretch run in ‘15-16.
Under everyday circumstances, rekindling relationships with so many exes would be a likely recipe for disaster. For the Blackhawks, it’s just business as usual. “I wouldn’t say it’s an ethos,” Bowman says. “There’s this impression that we always want to bring guys back. If anything, we’ve had to get rid of some players we never wanted to get rid of, other than we just couldn’t afford them.”
Two years ago, the Blackhawks encountered this fiscal dilemma with Brandon Saad and responded by shipping his restricted free agent rights to Columbus. Presciently enough, when Bowman broke the news to Saad, he floated the idea of a possible reunion down the road. “More so that it’s a small league and you never know what the future holds,” Saad says, “but you keep those relationships for ever. It just so happened to be as quick as two years.” On June 23, a week before Sharp committed to coming back, Saad, fresh off back-to-back 53-point seasons with the Blue Jackets, was flipped for dynamic Russian winger Artemi Panarin. “Who would’ve thought?” Saad’s agent told him that morning.
“Yeah,” he replied, “it’s unbelievable.”
In the two years since Saad and Sharp departed as cap casualties following the ‘15 Cup run, the Blackhawks have strung together 109- and 103-point regular seasons, respectively, but endured consecutive first-round playoff exits. According to Bowman, they also struggled to find “that right person to complement Jonathan [Toews] in particular,” a role Saad and Sharp each previously occupied. As cost-effective, available and known commodities, their roads retraced to Chicago along parallel tracks.
“Patrick’s older, and the only issue typically with older players is they slow down,” Bowman says. “He’s an anomaly that way. He looks as fast as he did five years ago. I remember from the years we had him, he was always first or second in fitness testing. I was never that worried about his rehab or his ability to improve his hip. I knew he was going to come back and, sure enough, he was one of the best tested guys.
“Saad is the perfect zero-maintenance player. Not real flashy, just super effective, super reliable. I felt that was an element that could help us. We traded a great player in Panarin for him. But Panarin was different. He was more flash-and-dash, high style. And Brandon is not that. But he’s Mr. Businesslike, Mr. Workmanlike Attitude. I think something like that will help us in those playoff environments where we didn’t execute the way we should have.”
So far, so good. Saad struck a hat trick in the opener at United Center, a 10-1 pounding of two-time defending Cup-champion Pittsburgh, and feasted around the net with two more goals over the next three games; Sharp, meanwhile, has three points in four games. “I think both of them look even better, to be honest with you,” Kane says. “Saader’s probably at that age where he’s going to enter the prime of his career and be a big contributor. Sharpie’s probably at a point in his career where he’s getting older but he doesn’t really look like it.”
Aside from the redesigned locker room—and the Woolly Willy beard that Saad rocked during the ‘15 playoffs but has since shaved—Chicago’s latest batch of prodigal players swear little else has changed. “It’s pretty familiar early on,” Saad says. “The comfort level’s great.” Same captain (Toews), same goalie (Corey Crawford), mostly the same workhorse defensemen (Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, minus Niklas Hjalmarsson). Same security guards, same parking attendants, same little punks strutting around.
Speaking of which...as one of the old guard that pre-dated Kane and Toews, back when home games weren’t broadcast on local TV and veterans passed out free ticket vouchers on street corners, Sharp was renowned for pranking the Blackhawks’ rising generation of superstars. And so, not long after reporting to training camp this season, he approached Bowman with an observation. As Bowman recalls, “He said, jokingly, ‘I can’t believe how nobody gives these guys s--- anymore. They just walk on water. I’m going to bring them down a few pegs.’”