Shawn Horcoff isn’t putting too much emphasis on it, but he knows tonight’s homecoming will be one of the most emotional moments of his career.
Drafted in the fourth round, 99th overall in the 1998 NHL Draft, Horcoff was a career member of the Edmonton Oilers, scoring 162 goals and 447 points (the ninth most in club history) over the span of 12 NHL seasons, before being traded to the Dallas Stars in July.
Tonight, after playing nearly 800 games in an Oilers uniform, Horcoff returns to Edmonton for the first time as a visitor.
“It's been a while since I've been this nervous,” Horcoff, a wily vet, laughed after the Stars’ morning skate. “I think as the game gets closer, I’ll start to get a little more emotional.”
The former captain last played at Rexall Place on Apr. 27, helping the Oilers close out their season in style, defeating the Vancouver Canucks 7-2. He still has many fond memories of Edmonton, including that game, his last in orange and blue, but is looking forward to turning the page.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun out there tonight,” Horcoff said. “Honestly, it will be great to play the game and get some closure.”
Horcoff arrived on scene fresh out of college and learned the hard lessons of the National Hockey League as a fourth-line center, devoting much of his limited ice time to the defensive side of the puck. Slowly working his way up and into the spotlight alongside Ales Hemsky and Ryan Smyth, Horcoff, 27 at the time, had a season to remember in 2005-06.
The product of Trail, British Columbia set career highs in every offensive category, scoring 22 goals and adding 51 assists in 79 games. His hot hand continued in the post-season, where he recorded seven goals and 19 points, helping the Oilers make a miraculous run to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.
One moment in particular stands out for Smyth, who spent nearly eight seasons on Horcoff’s left wing.
“I’ll always remember Horc scoring that overtime winner and bringing the house down in Game 3 vs. San Jose,” he said. “What a night that was. I’ll never forget it for as long as I live.”
That goal, scored at 2:24 of the third overtime period, lifted the Oilers to victory in their most pivotal game of the season. Edmonton went on to win the next three, dispatching Rocket Richard winner Jonathan Cheechoo and the heavily favored Sharks in six games.
“That put us back in it. If he doesn’t score that goal, we don’t win the series,” said Smyth, who earned the primary assist with a beautiful, blind delivery into the slot.
“Horc was instrumental in a lot of ways over the years here, but he was something special during that run. He put everything he had out there for the good of the team.”
“Without a doubt, that run is the best memory I have an as Oiler,” Horcoff added. “We did something very special that spring, so it's something I'll never forget.
Throughout his career in the Alberta capital, Horcoff was a consummate pro and the epitome of strong leadership. Thriving on excellence and a sterling shroud of self-responsibility, his work ethic and commitment to the game was second to none.
Veteran centre Sam Gagner is most grateful for that.
He broke into the league at age 18, the year (2007-08) Horcoff was named an NHL All Star after recording 21 goals and 50 points before being sidelined with a separated shoulder.
To this day, Gagner credits much of his success–both as a player and as a leader in the dressing room–to Horcoff’s unwavering professionalism and the qualities he instilled.
“If you ask anyone in this room, we all have an amazing amount of respect for him and what he's been able to accomplish in this league,” Gagner said. “Regardless of the situation or how things were going, Horc brought it every night. He always came in with the right attitude and competed every day, whether it was a practice or a game.
“I'm sure it's going to be exciting for him coming back tonight and there will be a lot of mixed emotions on his end.”
By the end of last season, after many years planted at the helm of a struggling rebuild, both Horcoff and the Oilers agreed: it was time to move on.
The two parted ways on July 5 when he was traded to the Stars in exchange for defenseman Philip Larsen and a seventh round draft pick.
Horcoff got off to a bit of a slow start with his new team, but now that he’s more comfortable in his new surroundings, his game is coming around. The 35-year-old has points in each of his last two games, giving him two goals and three assists on the season.
“[Edmonton] was all I knew,” Horcoff said. “When you move to a new team, you’re moving your entire family and there’s a lot that goes into it. Now that my kids are settled and life is less hectic, I’m starting to feel a lot better about my game.
“We're having some team success, too, which certainly helps.”
With wins in three of their last four, including a sweep on their most recent road trip, the Stars enter tonight’s tilt six points out of a playoff spot.
On the other side, the Oilers are off to one of their worst starts in franchise history (4-13-2). The organization still holds a special place in Horcoff’s heart, but it will be all business come game time.
“I feel for the guys here. They're like family to me,” he said. “Given the situation they're in, it makes it easier for me to cheer for them. I want them to do well and have success.
“Just not tonight. That can start next game.”