Driving into the vast south Philadelphia parking lot each and every time seemed like a cruel joke to Denis Gauthier, one that played out over and over and over.
Each of the 40 times he pulled in for home games, Gauthier would see the towering Wachovia Center, a structure that had become quite familiar after playing 1 1/2 seasons for the city's beloved Flyers.
And each time Gauthier would turn in the other direction toward the venerable, but soon-to-be-demolished, Spectrum, it was as if the modern, cavernous arena was taunting him from across the lot.
"It was a really tough situation to go through last year," Gauthier said. "But, as I've said many times, you find out a lot about yourself in hard times that you go through."
Gauthier tells this story while standing outside the dressing room of the Los Angeles Kings at their practice facility in suburban El Segundo. As he talks, the Montreal native exudes joy at where he's at now compared to a year ago.
After 10 NHL seasons with the Flyers, Calgary Flames and Phoenix Coyotes, Gauthier spent all of last season in the American Hockey League with the Philadelphia Phantoms.
Never an all-star or a player that's considered one of the best in his profession, Gauthier still felt he had a comfortable spot in the NHL. After all, the big-hitting defenseman was good enough to suit up for 489 games, including 12 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"Going back down, it's a tough pill to swallow," Gauthier said. "It's tough on your ego. We're proud people. We like to walk with our heads high and our chests out. It was hard to do that last year."
It wasn't as if his skills had deteriorated to the point where playing in the NHL wasn't an option. Gauthier instead was a casualty of the very thing that has brought financial stability to the League's 30 teams, the salary cap.
Looking to rebound from a disastrous 2006-07 season that saw them finish in the NHL cellar and miss the playoffs for the first time in 12 years, the Flyers went on a spending spree, signing defenseman Kimmo Timonen and forwards Daniel Briere and Scott Hartnell to big-money contracts in order to be competitive.
It also meant someone had to pay a price when the team bumped up against the salary cap, instituted after the 2004-05 lockout. The Flyers found a way to cut payroll by waiving Gauthier, who was set to make $2.1 million in the second year of a three-year, $6.3-million deal he signed with the club after coming over from Phoenix. In short, the defenseman made too much money and wasn't deemed worth the amount.
"Being told that you can't be in the NHL for any other reason than you're not good enough kind of (stinks)," Gauthier said. "It's a business decision. It was all about money and the salary cap. Somebody had to pay for it.
"There were a lot of days then I was mad. But I'm not mad at the Flyers or the GM (Paul Holmgren) or anybody else. I mean, I understand the business part of things. It's just unfortunate that myself or anybody has to go through that situation."
Through an understanding that Holmgren would trade him if he could make the right deal, Gauthier quietly hoped that he would be moved to another team. But no other team was willing to take on his salary and the Flyers, who'd have half of the remaining $4.3 million he was owed on their cap, wouldn't expose him to re-entry waivers.
Gauthier soon learned that his stay with the Phantoms would be long-term. Instead of sulking, though, the 32-year-old sought about making the best of his situation.
"Having Craig Berube there as a coach is a huge, huge factor," he said. "I had played with him in Calgary for a year or two. We had a really good relationship. He understood.
"The first meeting we had, he said, 'I know you don't want to be here and I don't want you here either. You should be up there. Just work hard, come with a good attitude and help the young guys along.' And that kind of really settled me in nicely."
Gauthier served as a mentor to the team's younger players and took on a leadership role with the Phantoms, serving as their captain for two months. On the ice, he played in 78 games, contributing 3 goals and 15 assists along with 80 penalty minutes as the team advanced to the Calder Cup playoffs.
Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi, who had been a scout for the Flyers, knew about the defenseman and gathered reports on him when he looked to re-tool his blue line this summer.
"I'm sure he was not happy about being in the minors," Lombardi said. "A lot of it was economic. But that's the type of person he is. He didn't go there and whine. But that's been his whole career. He's been a guy that plays his (butt) off every night. And he's a good teammate.
"He did that, even in the minors, when he was down there because of that contract. That's a classic example of people that do character and not talk character."
Lombardi helped Holmgren make good on his word by trading minor leaguers Patrik Hersley and Ned Lukacevic to Philadelphia for Gauthier. Since the deal, Gauthier has found a regular role on the Kings' third defense pairing, playing alongside Tom Preissing and logging 15 minutes a night.
Terry Murray, himself a former Flyers coach and assistant who's now the Kings' boss, sees a player appreciative of his chance to be back in the League.
"The only place to play hockey is in the National Hockey League, and I know he's aware of that," Murray said. "When you end up in the minors after playing almost all of your career in the NHL, to take a step back, it takes a special person to be able to handle that emotionally.
"I went to a lot of those games he played last year. He really worked hard and worked very well with the young players."
Finding a new lease on his NHL life has Gauthier savoring his time with the Kings.
"Being back here … I'm not taking any day here for granted anymore," he said. "There comes a time after so many years that you just feel like you're here and you should be here and there's nothing that's going to happen to you. You're invincible. You've got a three-year deal. That doesn't mean that much anymore in this (collective bargaining agreement), in these times.
"Every day I'm here, I'm grateful. I get up every day in the morning and I'm in a good mood. If this is my last chance, I'm going to have fun until it's the last day."
Author: Eric Stephens | NHL.com Correspondent