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Inside ex-Lightning forward Alex Killorn’s emotional return to Tampa

TAMPA — Alex Killorn admits part of him wasn’t looking forward to his return to Amalie Arena for the first time as a visiting player. He’s typically good at containing his emotions, but this was uncharted territory.

On Friday, Killorn entered Amalie for the first time as an opposing player to practice with his new team, the Anaheim Ducks. His walk through the hall was a familiar one, but instead of making the left turn into the Lightning locker room he continued down the path to the visitor’s locker room.

“You just keep walking and you’re like, for so many years you walked through that door,” Killorn said.

Killorn, who played his first 11 seasons in a Lightning uniform before signing a four-year, $25 million deal with the Ducks this past offseason, never wanted to leave. Tampa Bay was all he knew as an NHL player. He grew with the franchise. His first season, the Lightning had the third-fewest points in the league. But he saw them become one of the NHL’s model franchises and twice lifted the Stanley Cup.

Killorn developed a kinship with Lightning fans, connecting with them during the pandemic through his “Dock Talk with Killer” show. He made Tampa his adopted home and immersed himself in the community. The image of him celebrating the Cup wins on his jet ski were highlights of both boat parades.

Killorn saw many of his longtime teammates leave before him, from Tyler Johnson to Yanni Gourde to Ondrej Palat. He watched their tribute videos and heard the standing ovations they received when they returned to Tampa for the first time.

Saturday, it was Killorn’s turn. During an early first-period break in the Lightning’s 5-1 win, the team played a video full of his top highlights, followed by a reception that might have been louder than all of the tributes that came before his.

“I don’t know if it’s just the older age or just seeing some of these guys come and go that have been here forever,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said, “but you get a little emotional, for sure.”

Killorn took a skate around the ice, an impromptu move to calm his emotions. With the arena spotlight following him, he lifted his stick to acknowledge the crowd and clapped his gloves, applauding back to the fans.

“I was trying to push back all the emotions, and I’m pretty good at doing that,” Killorn said. “But once I saw that video, it was really tough to hold it in. ... I think, honestly, if I was just sitting there, it would have been different. But to kind of get moving (helped). I was kind of breathing a little heavy, and just to go for a skate was nice. Honestly, a moment in my career I’ll never forget.”

Killorn said returning to Tampa midway through the season helped. Mentally, he had started preparing for life after the Lightning at the beginning of last season, knowing it would be hard to stay given the team’s salary-cap constraints. After choosing to sign with a rebuilding Ducks squad, he said the whole summer was tough.

“I wasn’t really looking forward to (returning), because I thought there’s going to be too many emotions,” Killorn said. “Even through the first period, you’re back and your heart’s racing and you’ve got so much family. It seems like every year there’s another guy that leaves, and we’ve had so many great players here, and then you never think it’s going to be your time and then it happens.”

The night before Saturday’s game, Killorn went to dinner with many of his old teammates. He was able to catch up with head coach Jon Cooper at the arena after the Ducks practiced.

“He’s one of the most important players this organization has seen in the last decade,” Cooper said. “So, he deserved that reception he got and the video he received.”

Deadpanned Cooper, “It was really long, so I was wondering if Killer contributed to the video and sent his old clips in.”

In Tampa, Killorn was part of a core group that grew up together. His role in Anaheim is different. At 34, he’s the oldest player on a roster that includes eight players age 24 or younger.

“It’s definitely a different feel,” Killorn said “It’s a different process than it was in Tampa, and that’s kind of why I was brought in, I guess, to help out with that. ... We practice a lot more here than we did in Tampa, so for veteran guys, it can be a little tiring. But it’s just part of the process with a younger team.

“But to have these younger guys, it’s exciting, because you can see all the talent in this organization and how special it’s going to be in the future.”

Killorn’s long-term future remains in Tampa. He still owns his home in the area and is building another one he eventually will make his retirement home. His fiance, Tiffany, is from Tampa. After Saturday’s game, he joked that he will steal former teammate Braydon Coburn’s broadcasting and podcasting gig with the Lightning.

“I’m going to be in the area when I’m done playing, that’s for sure,” Killorn said. “I love it here. I’m definitely going to retire in Tampa. … These fans and this city mean so much to me.

“Being here (11) years, seeing how we’ve developed, going and getting swept (by Columbus in the opening round in 2019) and them staying behind us and then winning the two Cups, going to another Cup (Final). Even, like, just being around Tampa, people are so good to me and I really missed that. And it’s been great being back here.”

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