Jean-Gabriel Pageau was warmly greeted in the familiar hallways of Canadian Tire Centre, as he shared fond embraces with members of the Ottawa Senators and the facility staff on Thursday morning. It had only been a week and a half since the last time he stepped foot in the arena in which he called home for seven years, but in just the brief time since, seemingly everything has changed as the 27-year-old enters the new chapter of his career in New York.
Thursday night's clash between the Ottawa Senators and New York Islanders marks the first time that Pageau will face his hometown team in Ottawa since being traded at the NHL trade deadline on Feb. 24 and signing a six-year contract extension with the Islanders. The week has been a whirlwind to say the least, as he's moved out to Long Island, jumped right into the Islanders lineup, experienced a Dads and Mentors trip and played in both of the Islanders home arenas. He also scored in his first two games, and dropped the gloves in a rivalry game against the New York Rangers, but the quick return to his hometown of Ottawa presents its own frenzy of mixed emotions.
Video: Morning Skate 3/5: Pageau
"I'm mostly settled in the organization," Pageau said of the transition. "My teammates and everyone has helped me so much to be comfortable and settle in. I'm almost all set now. It feels weird, 10 days ago feels like a long road trip and I'm just coming back home. It's going to be a lot of emotion, I'm with a new team now and I want us to grab the two points."
While Pageau is thrilled for his future on Long Island, he's appreciative of the rare opportunity he had to play and represent his hometown for seven years. For some players, the pressure of playing your hometown is too much, but he always saw it as extra motivation and was grateful for all of the trials and tribulations along the way that have shaped him into the man and player he is today.
"It feels a little bit weird to be on the other side," Pageau said. "I'm a little nervous, but I think that's good nerves. I don't think it would be normal if I wasn't. I'm happy with the new team, but I'm also grateful with everything I left in here Ottawa. Everyone has been treating me so nice in my new team and making me feel so comfortable. On the other side, Ottawa did the same thing to me when I first started. I'm so grateful for all the help they gave me for my first chance. All of the trainers, the strength coach, my teammates, my coaches; they made me a better player."
The feeling is mutual for the Senators, who experienced Pageau's impact during his 428 games with the franchise, in which he amassed 182 points (87G, 95A), reached the 2017 Eastern Conference Finals and often warranted an enthusiastic Pa-geau! Pageau-Pageau-Pa-geau chant from the fans in Ottawa.
"He's kind of a guy that wore every hat here not just on the ice, but in the room," Bobby Ryan said. "That being said, he was a popular guy. I hope he enjoys it. I hope our fans reward him for all of the years he put in here. I know we certainly will."
"He was great while he was here with me," Senators Head Coach D.J. Smith said. "He plays hard every single night, he's very respectful, team-first, he was great with the guys in the room. I'm sure the fans and everyone will respect him coming back here and get him a good reception coming back. He really did a lot of good things for this organization."
The Senators are grateful for the heart, leadership and character Pageau gave during time in Ottawa. It was no surprise to his former Ottawa teammates, when they heard of the feisty 5'10, 180-lbs. center dropping gloves with a player nearly five inches taller and 30-lbs heavier than him as he dutifully defended his new teammate during his Islanders debut against the New York Rangers on Feb. 25.
"That's Pager for you," Ryan said. "He can do a little bit of everything; he stood up for a teammate and had a beautiful goal as well. I wasn't expecting anything less than fireworks from him when he left."
Pageau is eager to take the ice against his former teammates and close friends that he grew up with during his professional career, but he knows once the puck drops at 7:30 p.m., those friendships pause until the final buzzer sounds.
"I have so many good friends on the Sens team still," Pageau said. "Off the ice, we're all friends, but on the ice tonight it might be a different story. All the years, I have so many good memories; some good ones, some bad ones. We went through so much in seven years here. It's going to be emotional for me."
Pageau has handled the boomerang with grace and a contagious smile despite the mixed emotions present in his return. Fortunately, he has a confidant in Islanders teammate and fellow native of the Ottawa area in Derick Brassard, who played for the Senators from 2016-18 to share insight.
"He got drafted here and he's really well liked by his teammates, by the people around the city, the way he plays the game," Brassard said. "I think the people are really going to appreciate or show him love tonight. It's going to be a special night for him. Hopefully, we can get a win for him."
With just 10 days between his departure from Ottawa and his homecoming, Pageau felt some relief that he didn't have to wait until next season to encounter the assuredly emotional night. He spent Wednesday evening catching up with his wife, friends and family and picking up a few things, including an extra razor or two, to take back with him as he continues the new chapter of his career in New York.
"Who wouldn't be happy to come back home to play in front of your friends, your family and those fans that were awesome to me," Pageau said. "They were always supportive whether I was having a bad game or a good game. They were always there. It's going to be great to come back and get this game out of the way.
"I'll try to stay focused for my game" Pageau continued. "We need to grab some wins. We know where we are in the standings and that's going to be my main focus."