Goaltender Anton Khudobin walked into the Stars locker room after Thursday's practice and immediately realized there was no way he was going to get to his locker. So, he stood and stared for a few seconds, shouted something, and left.
Blocking the path to Khudobin's locker and swallowing up a corner of the room were a group of reporters, who had gathered at the nearby locker of center Martin Hanzal, the main attraction on this day. The veteran center is set to play his first game since last season after the long road back from spinal fusion surgery.
"I feel like a hockey player, that's good," Hanzal said. "It's been a long, long process and I am finally at the point that I'll be a game player, so I am really excited to be here and get ready for tomorrow."
Friday will be Hanzal's first game since February 21 last season. The 31-year-old center was limited to just 38 games in 2017-18 due to a variety of injuries including the back. He had the spinal fusion surgery in March.
He's been skating and practicing, but it will take some time to get up to game speed.
"I was skating the last three and a half months just by myself and I felt pretty confident, and then I started skating with the team and I had zero confidence," Hanzal joked. "The game speed is totally different than practice, so it's going to take awhile. I hope it's going to be quick."
Video: Montgomery expects Hanzal to help Stars right away
Hanzal was one of the team's key free-agent signings heading into last season, but the injuries derailed his first year in Dallas and kept him from making an impact. The Stars believe he can be a difference maker as he draws into the lineup.
"When you talk about a true pro and someone whose high hockey IQ helps you every night, I expect him to help us right away," said Stars coach Jim Montgomery. "Do I expect him to be crisp and sharp? No. He's got to get into it, but we think on the second power-play unit and third penalty kill tandem up front, and 5-on-5 obviously, the more he gets into a rhythm, the better we are going to be as a hockey team."
Montgomery said he hopes to get Hanzal somewhere between 10 to 13 minutes in the game. In Thursday's practice, Montgomery reunited the top line of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Alexander Radulov. Hanzal was centering the second line with Devin Shore and Jason Spezza on his wings.
"I think [Hanzal] has the ability to give us a true second line," Montgomery said. "Devin Shore has had a really good year and so has Jason Spezza. To me, it puts in our top two lines probably our six best offensive minds. We have other players who have good offensive minds, but they are probably the most creative."
For Hanzal, he's just glad to be a player again.
"It was a long process, very long," he said. "I wouldn't want to do it again because when you don't play hockey for ten months, it is boring. I miss this. I feel great right now. I think I can bring something to the team. I just want to go to the game and start playing hockey."
Bruins claim Smith off waivers
Just as the Stars were beginning practice, word came that the Boston Bruins had claimed forward Gemel Smith off waivers. The Stars had placed Smith on waivers Wednesday in preparation to open a roster spot for Hanzal's return.
The Stars paused practice briefly as GM Jim Nill brought Smith to the bench area of the rink, where Smith said his goodbyes with handshakes and hugs.
After practice, Montgomery discussed Smith, who struggled to get ice time with the Stars this season.
"He came in and had good games, but it's consistency I guess," Montgomery said. "It's a tough situation because maybe other players got more opportunity than he did. You have to force the issue for the coach. The last game he played, he didn't force the issue, not that that is the only bearing on what transpired. You can play yourself into the lineup, and you can play yourself out of the lineup.
"Would we like to have Gemel Smith still here? Yes, of course we would. We don't want to lose him to the Boston Bruins. That's the part of the business that we all don't like, and we were sad to see Gemel go."
Ben Bishop will get the start in goal Friday vs. San Jose
The Stars reassigned left wing Roope Hintz to Texas on Thursday afternoon. The 22-year-old has three points (two goals, one assist) in 14 games with Dallas this season.
Here's the practice lineup from Thursday
Jamie Benn - Tyler Seguin - Alexander Radulov
Devin Shore/Roope Hintz - Martin Hanzal - Jason Spezza
Blake Comeau/Valeri Nichushkin - Radek Faksa - Tyler Pitlick
Mattias Janmark - Jason Dickinson - Brett Ritchie
Esa Lindell - Miro Heiskanen
Gavin Bayreuther - Roman Polak
Joel Hanley - Taylor Fedun
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.
Mark Stepneski has covered the Stars for DallasStars.com since 2012. Follow him on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.