Zdeno Ciger wonders if former teammates Vinny Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis will even recognize him when the Tampa Bay Lightning show up in Bratislava, Slovakia, later this month.
"I'm going to be happy to see them again and talk to them, but I don't even know if they will remember me or recognize me because I have long hair and a moustache now," Ciger told NHL.com. "I've changed a lot."
Since playing his final NHL game for the Lightning in 2002, Ciger has been immersed in the hockey culture of his country, including in his current stint as coach of HC Slovan Bratislava. He had all but forgotten about the NHL, until now.
Ciger, who played 352 NHL games combined with the New Jersey Devils, Edmonton Oilers, New York Rangers and Lightning, will lead Slovan -- the two-time defending Slovan Extraliga champions -- into an exhibition game Sept. 30 against Tampa Bay.
It's uncharted waters for a Slovakian hockey club, and, to an extent, for Ciger.
While he has a strong connection to the NHL, Ciger said it's been so long since he played in North America that he doesn't know what to expect from the Lightning.
The NHL game has changed, and Ciger is interested to find out what it's like. He eagerly anticipates the challenge in front of him, albeit for only an exhibition game.
"It's going to be a tough game, but we're going to show people we can play and we definitely want to win," Ciger said. "It's going to be very interesting. People here have never seen an NHL game live. They just watch it on TV."
It's been a while since Ciger has seen an NHL game live, but he doesn't seem to miss it. Instead, he's happy to be coaching and living in his home country. He doesn't want to leave now, and it's not a career goal of his to coach in the NHL someday.
"I don't even want to coach another team in Slovakia. This is my team now," Ciger said. "I'm home here. I have a very good relationship with the management here. I'm very good friends with the owner. Life is good here."
Coaching, though, became his profession by accident nearly two years ago.
Ciger left the NHL for good following the 2001-02 season, when he had a disappointing 29-game stint with Tampa Bay after the Rangers traded him for Matthew Barnaby in December. Ciger would play parts of four more seasons for HC Slovan before retiring for good in 2006. Halfway through the following season, Slovan GM Maros Krajci called Ciger after firing the team's coach.
Ciger, who was embarking on his post-playing career, said he told Krajci that the players needed a familiar face behind the bench and that he wanted to help. He came aboard midway through the 2006-07 season and has since won back-to-back Slovak Extraliga championships. Slovan has won seven league titles since 1994.
"I told him maybe I can try it, maybe I can help," Ciger said. "I've been really lucky so far."
Ciger initially returned to Slovakia to play in 1996, which was somewhat surprising considering he had just finished his most productive NHL season, scoring 31 goals and dishing out 39 assists in 78 games for the Oilers.
Some would consider it ridiculous to leave NHL money on the table to sign for considerably less to play in an inferior league, but Ciger said going home was more important than money.
"I'm born here, so it's a little different than for other guys," he said. "Surely it wasn't as much money as the NHL, but I didn't want to just play for the money. For me it's important to be home, so I had to find a middle ground. I didn't want to spend my life just running after money."
Five years later, Glen Sather, who was the GM in Edmonton when Ciger had his dominant season, lured Ciger back to the NHL with a lucrative contract to play for the Rangers, the team Sather was now managing.
"It's going to be a tough game, but we're going to show people we can play and we definitely want to win,.”
-- Zdeno Ciger on his team's upcoming exhibition game with the Lightning
After arriving in New York for training camp, Ciger didn't play as much as he had hoped. He was dealt to Tampa Bay, where he said he never could get on the same page with coach John Tortorella.
He left the NHL following the 2001-02 season and has never looked back.
"Maybe I'm stupid, but I'm happy and this is my life," Ciger said. "People like me here. I have a good hockey life here, and a good history."
He'll become a legend if he can lead HC Slovan to a victory against Tampa Bay.
"Hockey has changed a lot in America so it's tough now to compare, but I know some of the players a little bit, so maybe I can tell our guys something about them," Ciger said. "I don't think it's important, though. We have our system. That's what we'll play."
Contact Dan Rosen at firstname.lastname@example.org