ST. PAUL -- Ryan Malone couldn't have imagined two months ago -- heck, even six weeks ago -- being at Xcel Energy Center for media day festivities.
Out of professional hockey for more than two years, there was something about coaching at Da Beauty League over the summer that seemed to stir something up inside of him, however.
The fire that was extinguished when he played for the American Hockey League's Hartford Wolf Pack during the 2014-15 season was coming back.
As the story goes, Malone was skating in the AHL after signing a contract with the New York Rangers. A gritty player during his 10-plus years of pro hockey, the catalyst came when a young player mouthed off to him during a scrum, as an act that otherwise would have yielded a jab to the teeth got nothing out of Malone.
That's when he knew it was time.
"I think I retired the next day," he said. "That's when it kind of hit me, 'I just don't got it.'"
So, for the past two years, Malone has played the part of dad to his two sons while living in Wayzata.
He served as a coach during Da Beauty League, until one night late in the season, with his team in need of bodies, Malone brought his gear to the rink. He's been hooked again ever since.
What started out last month as a quest to earn a spot on an AHL roster and eventually compete for a place on the U.S. Olympic team in February has morphed into one more NHL attempt.
A couple of weeks back, Malone phoned a few friendly faces in the sport, in search of a tryout during training camp. He got a call back from Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher with an opportunity.
On Friday, when players hit the ice for their first official practice and Bruce Boudreau's notorious skating test, there Malone will be, with jersey No. 21 flapping behind him.
"Even coming down to the rink to get my gear last week, you get that feeling again. It's definitely something special," Malone said. "Any time you are in an NHL jersey, it's a privilege and an honor. It's very exciting right now."
To be sure, Malone faces a tall task in making Minnesota's roster.
He hasn't played in the NHL since 2014-15, when he skated in six games for the New York Rangers. Before that, he was limited to 81 games over two seasons prior, his final years with the Tampa Bay Lightning, as the physical toll of playing his style began to catch up with him.
But a couple years away from the sport has allowed the soreness to melt away. His fiancé, Elle, is a fitness trainer who has kept the 6-foot-4, 220-pounder in peak physical condition.
A six-time 20-goal scorer, Malone said he can still play the game at a high level. Once he found out that NHL players and AHL guys on two-way contracts wouldn't be heading to PyeongChang, South Korea for the Olympic Games in February, he figured he'd give this hockey thing one final shot.
"I didn't feel my game was that far removed and I stayed in pretty good shape the last few years, so I just figured I'd try to make the Olympic team and see where that goes," Malone said.
Malone said it didn't take long for his goals to change.
"Right when Chuck offered the deal and then you come here and you see the jerseys, you meet the guys, and you see some old teammates," Malone said. "All of it was just kind of surreal. And living in Minnesota now, it's really my second home. And being a fan here the last couple of years, being able to pull that sweater on now, there's a lot of pride."
Malone sat down with his two sons, 9-year-old Will and 7-year-old Cooper, and told them he was going to try and play for Minnesota. If he makes the Wild roster, however, his boys won't see him play in the Olympics.
The two were over the moon.
"Will said, 'You've already been to the Olympics,'" Malone said with a smile. "I get goosebumps just thinking about it. They saw me skate in Da Beauty League and they were pretty excited. They would definitely love to see me pull that sweater on just as much as I would."
Boudreau coached for years against Malone in the Eastern Conference when he was coach of the Washington Capitals and knows well what kind of game the former St. Cloud State Husky can bring if he's at his best.
"I give him tremendous credit for getting himself ready to come to camp," Boudreau said. "He will be given opportunities to play and show his stuff."
Malone's first test will come Friday during Boudreau's skating test, which the coach admitted he'd made a little more challenging this season. At that point, he'll see just how far a month's worth of on-ice training has gotten him.
"The worst thing that can happen is I'll have to skate two more times, so I'll be getting better at the end anyways," Malone said. "Either way, it'll be fun. It'll be exciting just to be involved in the mix here."