Scott Hartnell could barely keep a straight face as he declared he felt as though he was 18 years old again.
"No, I wouldn't go that far," Hartnell smirked immediately following.
But standing at his locker room stall at Centennial Sportsplex in Nashville, a Predators logo on his Gold t-shirt, the now-35-year-old Hartnell - whose career started 17 years ago with these very Preds - is just as rejuvenated as he's ever been, back for his second stint in the Music City.
Selected sixth overall in the 2000 NHL Draft by General Manager David Poile and the Predators, Hartnell spent the first six seasons of his NHL career calling Nashville home before making stops in Philadelphia and Columbus.
Now, after being bought out by the Blue Jackets and almost immediately inking a one-year, $1 million deal with the Predators, saying the veteran winger is thrilled to be back would be an understatement.
"Just watching [the Stanley Cup Final] on TV last June, the excitement of the city, the way these guys were playing… I'm just excited to be a part of the fold," Hartnell said. "I'm excited to make my impression felt here in the room and on the ice."
Video: Hartnell returns to Nashville after a decade away
Hartnell made a name and a career for himself by doing a bit of everything - scoring goals, making plays and stirring up the opposition, one of the best agitators in the game to date.
Things have changed in Nashville since Hartnell last called it home - the eclectic restaurants and the influx of vehicles on the roads were listed by name - and while there were a few faces still around the building since those days in the early 2000s, it's a different cast of characters on the ice. For the most part.
The hockey world is small, and those stops with the Flyers and Blue Jackets have reunited Hartnell with the likes of Preds Head Coach Peter Laviolette and center Ryan Johansen. Hartnell enjoyed his best statistical seasons under Laviolette in Philadelphia and then got to know a young Johansen in Columbus. Now, he's back sitting next to one of them in the locker room and reminding the other of why he wants him on his team.
"I know what his game is on the ice, and inside the room, just my experience with him, he's a terrific teammate," Laviolette said of Hartnell. "He watches out for the young guys, he blends in the with the group easy, and he's well-liked by everybody in the room."
"I really believe it's going to be huge addition, and it's going to be a huge benefit bringing him in here," Johansen said of his former linemate in Columbus. "I've seen him do it for a few years in Columbus and now coming in here, he wants to prove to everybody that he's still got it. In talking with him and knowing him pretty well, he's really excited. He's excited for the opportunity he has to be a difference-maker, and I'm really happy for him, and his position where he's going to be put into right now."
The feelings are mutual for Hartnell, who has enjoyed the familiar intensity and teachings of Laviolette, as well as witnessing the maturity of Johansen firsthand.
"He wears his emotions on his sleeve," Hartnell said of Laviolette. "He's out there skating and doing the drills almost harder than we are when he's demonstrating something, so that intensity feeds off through us, which is huge. He just loves to get the boys together and loves to win."
"Just being away from [Johansen] for two years, the way that he's matured, the way that he's grown up… just his presence around the room, he's a lot more intense, a lot more serious and you can tell that the guys in here already look up to him," Hartnell said. "We're looking to him to take this team and lead us in the right direction from the get go here."
The return to Nashville is something special for Hartnell - a chance to prove himself once more in the city where it all started. The talent, the experience and the comradery assembled on his new club make it easy to be optimistic for what lies ahead.
And while he's well aware that he may not have the legs of an 18-year-old any longer, a change of scenery can still make it feel pretty darn close.
"I need to take advantage of this opportunity," Hartnell said. "It's one thing getting the chances, but you have to put the puck in the net, you have to play hard every practice and every game, so I know that's just part of my M.O. It's been like that my whole career, and it's going to be no different this year.
"Winning is the most important thing, and the one thing that I haven't done - you make your money and all that kind of stuff - but I've never won a Stanley Cup. That's one thing I think everyone in here has the goal to do, and now we need to do it."