VANCOUVER -- Ryan Kesler admitted Wednesday it was awkward to walk into Rogers Arena and past the Vancouver Canucks locker room he called home for 10 seasons, continuing down the hall to the visitors' room with his new Anaheim Ducks teammates.
It could get even more uncomfortable Thursday, when the 30-year-old Ducks center skates out in front of Vancouver fans for the first time as the enemy.
"Hopefully they appreciated the 11 years I played here and remember all the good times," said Kesler, who spent one of those years in the minors. "Hopefully a warm reception, but if not it's part of the game."
Kesler isn't sure if it will be cheers or jeers, but he's used to both by now.
"I guess that's my personality," he said. "You love me or you hate me."
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It may be hard to find middle ground in Vancouver right now.
Celebrated for his grit and physical two-way play during 10 seasons with the Canucks, Kesler scored 182 goals and had 393 points in 655 regular-season games after being picked in the first round (No. 23) in the 2003 NHL Draft. He won the Selke Trophy as the NHL's best defensive forward in 2011, when he helped lead Vancouver to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final with a dominant second-round performance.
But Kesler's popularity took a hit when he asked to be traded, especially when he used his no-trade clause to limit his destination to either Anaheim or the Chicago Blackhawks; in the eyes of Canucks fans, that also limited the potential return.
After the old regime failed to consummate a deal with the Ducks at the 2014 NHL Trade Deadline, new Canucks general manager Jim Benning traded him to Anaheim at the 2014 NHL Draft, getting center Nick Bonino, defenseman Luca Sbisa and Anaheim's first- and third-round picks. Benning used the first pick to select Jared McCann at No. 24, and he traded the latter to the New York Rangers in exchange for fourth-line forward Derek Dorsett.
Where that leaves Kesler in the eyes of fans is anyone's guess, but Kesler only had good things to say about Vancouver.
"I loved this city. I've called it my home since I came here when I was 18 for training camp, and now I'm 30," Kesler said. "That's over one-third of my lifetime, so it will always have a place in my heart."
Kesler even downplayed his feud with the Vancouver media, saying his only issue with a "couple guys that reported stuff that shouldn't have been reported, personally and away from the game."
As for the rest of the attention and criticism, Kesler called it "fair."
"You guys (in the media) think I am grumpy all the time. Sometimes I just don't want to talk to you," he said. "But other than that, you guys are hard on us, yeah, but it's fair and it goes along with playing in a Canadian city and a market that thrives on news about hockey and about the guys."
Center - ANA
GOALS: 6 | ASST: 9 | PTS: 15
SOG: 57 | +/-: -2
That includes the return of a player who became a divisive topic even before forcing his departure, especially coming off a season in which he was stripped of his "A" as an alternate captain. By the time Kesler was finally traded, few seemed to focus on the good things, which included taking a home-team discount on his current six-year, $30 million contract.
As Kesler returns, it might not hurt that the Canucks, buoyed by better depth created in part by his trade and benefitting from a four-line approach under new coach Willie Desjardins, are a surprise early challenger, sitting three points behind Anaheim atop the Western Conference heading into their game Wednesday.
Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau just hopes Canucks fans remember all that Kesler did for Vancouver.
"I hope they understand he was a great team player," Boudreau said.
As for going against his old teammates and longtime friends, Kesler said it helps having already played against the Canucks in Anaheim on Nov. 9, a 2-1 shootout win for Vancouver that ended with Kesler ringing the potential tying shot off the post. It didn't take long for Kesler to engage physically with a couple former teammates in that game, and he doesn't expect it will Thursday either.
"It's still going to be weird," Kesler said. "When you play with guys for 10-11 years, you grow a bond that is never broken. But we are on separate teams now, so friends off the ice and enemies on the ice."
That includes Kevin Bieksa, a roommate for eight years who joked Tuesday about having Kesler's number for a hit.
"He'll get his licks in. I'll get mine in to," Kesler responded. "I'll chirp him a little bit too."
If Vancouver fans decide to do the same to Kesler, it only adds fuel for a player who seems to relish the villain role.
"It's going to be an emotional night for me," Kesler said. "And if they boo me, it will probably jack me up even more."
Not that he really needs it. For all the criticism of his game, including being a shoot-first center that doesn't use his wings enough, few in Vancouver doubted Kesler's ability to rise to important occasions.
He left little doubt that this qualifies as one of those moments.
"I think experience playing in big games, gold-medal games, Stanley Cup Final, Game 7s, I think those prepare you for big games and big moments in games," Kesler said. "This is a big game. I've definitely had this one circled for a long time."