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There’s a joke in journalism circles that you could write a story about a player or coach returning to his hometown or to face his former team almost every night. The NHL schedule offers so many trips down memory lane that the entire topic is often viewed as an unimaginative cliché.
It’s not often, however, that four such likable and popular former teammates arrive en masse as part of the same team. That will be the case when the Vancouver Canucks visit Gila River Arena on Thursday night with former Arizona Coyotes captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson and forwards Conor Garland and Brad Richardson in tow, along with defenseman Luke Schenn.
Since moving on over the past two seasons, this is the first time back in Arizona as an opposing player for Ekman-Larsson, Garland and Richardson. I got the chance to chat one-on-one with all of them on Thursday morning.
It wasn’t supposed to end this way for OEL. He was a Coyotes lifer, a cornerstone of the team when he signed an eight-year contract extension with an average annual value of $8.25 million on July 1, 2018, and one of four captains in the franchise’s Arizona history.
He put up what is probably the best season by a defenseman in Coyotes history when he had 21 goals and 55 points in 2015-16 and should have been a Norris Trophy finalist, if not the winner. He topped 14 goals in five separate seasons and he was a critical piece in the Coyotes’ run to the 2012 Western Conference Final, logging the most minutes of any Arizona player in that postseason by a full three minutes over everyone else.
He never really meshed with former coach Rick Tocchet in their four seasons together, however, and he fell steeply out of favor with the Alex Meruelo ownership group. The Coyotes unloaded his hefty contract along with Conor Garland in a foundation-shaking trade last summer that earned them a trio of aging veterans (Antoine Roussel, Jay Beagle, Loui Eriksson) and the No. 9 pick in the 2021 NHL Draft that Arizona used on Dylan Guenther.
“I didn’t really see myself leaving so it’s so weird being back here,” Ekman-Larsson said Thursday. “I thought it was weird playing against these guys in Vancouver. I think I had more tape-to-tape passes to them than our team.
“Obviously, they came to me last year to see if we could make a deal or try to do something. I think personally, you get to that point where it’s kind of a drain on you. I think the time was right to kind of move on from the organization’s perspective, and for me, to be able to see something else. I think you need that once in a while to kind of get out of your comfort zone a little bit. I think that helped me get back to having fun again.”
Ekman-Larsson has four goals and 23 points in 68 games for Vancouver, playing in a different role than he did when was in Arizona.
“He’s not put in an offensive situation anywhere near as much as Quinn Hughes,” said Canucks coach Bruce Boudreau, who won’t have Hughes on Thursday. “The last game against these guys, he got three assists when Hughes wasn’t playing. I think he’s still young enough that he’s going to be a real value to this franchise.”
Ekman-Larsson, 30, was preparing for some sort of tribute video from the Coyotes on Thursday, and he was preparing to get emotional about it.
“I’m a very sensitive person and I spent 11 incredible seasons here,” he said. “I’ve never been in this situation before so I don’t know how I’m gonna react, but I’m ready for whatever happens. If I feel like I’m gonna cry, then that’s what’s gonna happen. If I’m smiling or just being happy about being back and seeing everybody again, that’s what I’ll do. Whatever happens, it will be special to me because this organization is special to me.”
3 memorable OEL stories that I wrote
3 favorite OEL memories
March 26, 2016: OEL set an NHL record for defensemen by notching his eighth game-winning goal of the season in a 3-1 win over the Dallas Stars. That same goal helped him reach the 20-goal mark for the second straight season, something that no other Coyotes defenseman has ever accomplished once.
Nov. 16, 2019: On Hockey Fights Cancer Night, OEL switched spots with Leighton Accardo to let her take the faceoff against Calgary Flames captain Mark Giordano while OEL dropped the puck. Accardo won the draw.
January, 2021: Shortly after his final season in Arizona began, with trade rumors swirling around him, and with COVID-19 still impacting daily interactions with media, Ekman-Larsson caught my eye as he walked past a media scrum with coach Rick Tocchet. Feigning fear of the disease-plagued media, he covered his mouth and nose with his shirt and donned a look of mock horror. When OEL’s sense of humor surfaced, it was hilarious.
Conor Garland did everything right in his development. He worked diligently at the parts of his game that needed tweaking or outright revamping. He toiled patiently in the AHL, waiting a long time for his chance. When he got that chance, he took advantage of it.
Even more than OEL, it was stunning when the Coyotes included him in the trade to the Canucks, but that was the price that Arizona had to pay to shed Ekman-Larsson’s contract. With that, one of the most exciting players in the franchise’s recent memory was gone.
In his first season in 2018-19, Garland had 13 goals in 47 games and half of them seemed to go off body parts instead of his stick, including a shot that deflected off his head and into the net against the Edmonton Oilers.
“In my first meeting, Toc said, ‘We need guys to get to the net and stay in front; that’s how we’ve got to score goals,'”Garland said. “I just remember thinking I could stay if I did that so that’s what I did and I think that’s kind of how I carved out a spot for myself here.
“I have a lot of memories. My first game here was special. When I got here, (Derek Stepan) was like a role model for me so to be standing next to him for the anthem was pretty cool. And I think my first camp, I was on a line with Kyle Chipchura and I was so nervous and that stayed with me. It felt like you were on high alert at all times those first couple of years. It’s weird to think that this will be my last game in this building.”
Garland has 14 goals and 37 points in 66 games this season. He is not happy with his play but he is happy that the Canucks kept their playoff hopes alive by taking three out of a possible four points from Vegas in a two-game series. What happens over the next few weeks could determine whether Garland is still a Canuck, or if new GM Patrik Allvin makes wholesale changes.
“After the (trade) deadline, with all the talk about me possibly getting traded, I just kind of got to the point where I couldn’t think about that stuff anymore,” Garland said. “There’s a possibility I could get moved for sure, but I don’t really think about it. I understand my situation. I’d like to be here, but that’s not entirely in my control.”
Wherever he ends up, Garland will always hold a special place in Coyotes lore for his unique, whirling dervish style of play, his affability, his suitability and his ability to overcome his smaller stature.
“I just think people like guys who play hard and I think they probably knew that I was just as invested as they are,” he said. “When you’re smaller, a lot of people can relate to that. And when you’re fearless, people gravitate to that. I just tried to play each game like it was my last and I always loved playing here.”
3 memorable Garland stories that I wrote
3 favorite Garland memories
Nov. 12, 2019: Moments after the Coyotes rallied to beat the Blues in St. Louis on Garland’s shootout goal, Garland went skipping down the hallway in his skates to give St. Louis native Clayton Keller a hug while Keller was doing a postgame interview. Keller had set up Garland for the game-tying goal and he had also scored a goal of his own. Garland knew how special playing in St. Louis was for Keller.
Summer: It didn’t matter which offseason it was. Garland always had a detailed plan for what he would work on to improve his game. While other players offered clichés about improving everything, Garland would get so detailed that he became my favorite offseason topic. He even offered photos of his backyard deck in Massachusetts where he planned to work on his shot.
Every interview with Garland was a memorable one because he was so insightful, so introspective and so articulate.
Aug. 5, 2020: With the Coyotes and Predators tied at 1-1 in Game 3 of their qualifying round series in the playoff bubble, Garland took a cross-ice pass from Stepan and toe- dragged around defenseman Matias Ekholm for the eventual game-winner.
Arizona will always be a part of Brad Richardson’s life. His mom and dad are still taking care of his daughter, Lexi (7), here while he is away, and when the season ends, he plans to come back here and spend a lot of time up in Flagstaff with good bud Jason Demers, his girlfriend, Jessica Szohr, Lexi and Richardson’s 14-month old daughter, Bowie, who just learned to walk.
“This is probably the organization that I felt most connected to because I felt like when I was here, I was really a big part of the team and a big part of the core of the team when we were trying to build something,” he said. “I still live here and that’s probably the reason why. I felt like I was connected and I love the community and love living here.”
Richardson began the year with Calgary and coach Darryl Sutter, with whom he won a Stanley Cup in 2012. He played sparingly with the Cup-contending Flames, however, and last month, Calgary waived him and Vancouver claimed him.
Richardson knows that he is on borrowed time. At age 37, he may find it hard to find a home next season, but he still feels that he has something to contribute on the ice and in the dressing room. He would like to keep playing and yes, he would welcome a return to Arizona.
“Sometimes your body doesn’t feel as good as you want it to, but I do have still have a passion and desire to play,” he said. “After the season’s over, I’ll just take my time and see what I want to do and talk to my family and then go from there.”
I have no inside knowledge of their intentions, but with the Coyotes in search of veteran leadership and centers, Richardson could be a good, inexpensive fit to conclude his career with a bunch of guys with whom he remains close. While I was interviewing him, injured Coyotes forward Christian Fischer walked past and jumped into the conversation so he could say hello to Richardson, his former nemesis in Two Touch games outside the dressing room.
“I’m not kidding you; this is no bullshit,” Fischer said. “G (Garland) came over before you got here. He goes, ‘You should see our sewer games with Richie now.’ That’s the first thing he says. He doesn’t say ‘Hello’ or ‘What’s happening?’ It was like, ‘This is what’s going down right now.'”
3 memorable Richardson stories that I wrote
3 favorite Richardson memories
Feb 28, 2019: Like the story above notes, Richardson became the second Coyote to score four goals in a game, and the first since Keith Tkachuk did it on March 20, 1997, against the Chicago Blackhawks (a span of 22 years) in the team’s first season in the Valley. The goals came in a 5-2 win against, wait for it, the Canucks at Gila River Arena. Richardson has a habit of victimizing his former teams.
2018-19 season: Richardson scored a career-high 19 goals in just 66 games to tie for the team lead with Alex Galchenyuk. Three of those goals came shorthanded when he played alongside dynamic PK partner Michael Grabner, who had six shorthanded goals that season.
Aug. 7, 2020: Richardson knocked in a rebound of Vinnie Hinostroza’s shot at 5:27 of overtime as the Coyotes beat the Nashville Predators in the qualifying round of the postseason to advance to the first round in the Edmonton playoff bubble.
I only chatted briefly with Schenn, who brought a physical presence to the Coyotes blue line and a professional approach to the dressing room. My favorite Schenn moment came after he left Arizona and won a Cup with Tampa. I wrote this story on the topic.