Zach Parise expects to feel like an outsider walking into familiar place Thursday when he enters Prudential Center through the visitors entrance for the first time.
The Minnesota Wild left wing said the entire experience of playing a road game against the his old team, the New Jersey Devils, will be one of the strangest, coolest and most humbling experiences of his career.
"I've been excited to come back here to play, but it was one of those things, you look at the schedule in October and you're like, 'Ah, we're not going there until March, I've got a lot of time until then,'" Parise told NHL.com Wednesday night. "Then it's December and you're still like, 'I've got a couple of months.' But then the Olympics came and went and you're like, 'Oh my gosh, we're going there in five games.' It really snuck up on me, but I've been looking forward to it. It's going to be fun."
Parise's last game at Prudential Center was June 11, 2012, Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final, when he scored a power-play goal to help the Devils extend the series against the Los Angeles Kings. He left New Jersey 23 days later to sign a 13-year, $98 million contract with his hometown Wild.
SOG: 204 | +/-: 8
That only made the decision more difficult as Parise weighed returning home to Minnesota against staying loyal to the team that drafted him, developed him, and helped him become the type of star player worthy of such a lucrative contract.
Parise scored 194 goals and 410 points in 502 games with the Devils. He reached the Stanley Cup Playoffs six times and had the one appearance in the Final.
"It was brutal," he said. "It's a fun process, don't get me wrong, but it's tough. It's a life-changing thing, and you want to make sure you're making the right decision, and you're really analyzing it from all different angles. Going through it, I think, was very tough because I like to consider myself a loyal person, and to leave an organization, leave people that had treated me so well for such a long time was a very tough thing to do."
Parise said he has no regrets about choosing the Wild over the Devils. It was life-changing for all the right reasons.
He married his longtime girlfriend, Alisha Woods, shortly after signing his contract. They're now the parents of two-month old twins: a boy, Jaxson, and a girl, Emelia.
Parise's parents (his dad, J.P. Parise, played in the NHL) were able to be at the hospital when Alisha gave birth. They live 20 minutes away and are always around to lend a hand.
The Wild are an up-and-coming team in the Western Conference, poised to make the playoffs for the second straight season. Parise hasn't disappointed. He has 45 points in 54 games after scoring 38 points in 48 games last season. He leads the Wild with 41 goals since the start of last season.
"I love where I'm at," Parise said. "We couldn't be happier with how things are going right now. Everything worked out."
But as he prepares to face his old team in his old barn for the first time, Parise is at a bit of a loss. He has no idea how he'll be received by the fans who once adored him but have since had to get over him.
"I couldn't even guess one way or another," Parise said. "I have no clue."
If they boo, he said he'll understand.
"It's sports and fans are passionate about their teams and their players, and you don't want to see a player on your team leave," Parise said. "There wouldn't be any hard feelings. What matters to me is how great they were to me when I was here. If they want to boo me now, I guess that's OK."
Parise said he'd actually be surprised if they cheered him, although "I think it would be pretty cool if they did," he added, laughing.
No matter how he's greeted, Parise said nothing can change his appreciation for the Devils, the people in the organization, and the fans in New Jersey. He went out to dinner Wednesday night with some former teammates he's still close with. He's hoping that there's time Thursday for him to say hello to some of the staff members he got to know so well. He occasionally talks with Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello.
"I made so many good friends here [in New Jersey], lifelong friends that are still here, that I still keep in touch with," Parise said. "That's one of the great things, all the great people we met when we were here."
If Devils fans are looking for a ray of hope at the end of this difficult season, Parise offered it by saying New Jersey will reach the postseason despite being five points out of the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference with three teams to jump and 13 games to play.
"With [Ilya Kovalchuk] leaving, I think that caught everyone a little bit by surprise, but you know what, they'll rebound," Parise said. "They've got a fantastic coach, and I still think they're going to make the playoffs. I think they'll be all right. I am a big fan of Pete [DeBoer] and how he coaches. I think they've got good players there. I just have a feeling that they will make it."