NEWARK, N.J. -- Almost two years have passed since Zach Parise left New Jersey as an unrestricted free agent to sign with the Minnesota Wild, but the wounds were clearly still fresh for Devils fans when he faced his former club in New Jersey for the first time Thursday night.
The crowd of 14,772 at Prudential Center booed Parise when his name was announced in the Wild’s starting lineup. They preemptively booed him even when he was jabbing at the puck on the first shift of the game.
They booed him every time he touched the puck and did not relent once during the Devils’ 4-3 overtime victory.
The only time they cheered for him was when he was sent to the penalty box for hooking just 7:33 into play. He got the same treatment when he was stuffed by Devils netminder Cory Schneider on a short-handed breakaway attempt later in the period.
There were signs posted along the corner boards, some worse than others. It was clear Devils fans felt abandoned by the once-revered captain.
Parise was not surprised by the reception. In fact, he anticipated it.
"I was expecting that," he said after the Wild’s overtime loss. "I saw a couple signs that were nice. I was expecting the boos. Once you start playing, you drown them out. You don’t hear them."
Parise still felt like the homecoming was a memorable one. He didn’t deny that there was a different feel to this game. He sensed that upon arriving to his old stomping grounds, where he spent seven seasons, the last of which he served as the team’s captain.
"Some pretty weird feelings pulling up to the rink before the game and playing on this ice again, but it was fun. It was fun to be back," he said. "Unfortunately, the outcome wasn’t what we were planning on, what we had hoped for, but for us to claw back into the game and get a point -- that could be big for us late in the year."
Parise was instrumental in leading the Wild’s comeback, cutting a Devils lead in half with a tip of Ryan Suter’s shot while jostling with Bryce Salvador in front of the net just 21 seconds into the third period.
"The first period, he must have been thinking 'Man, this couldn’t be going any worse.' He takes a penalty, does a great job on the penalty kill and gets a breakaway and doesn’t score," Wild coach Mike Yeo said. "To see him get rewarded there in the third, for us, it was great because we know what it meant to him."
The Wild tied the game at three later in the frame to take the game into overtime -- earning a much-needed point given their precarious playoff position in the Western Conference -- but ultimately fell after Devils defenseman Andy Greene’s game winner two minutes into OT.
It was a very Devils-esque win. They controlled much of the game and frustrated the Wild for the majority of play. Parise, who led the Devils to the Stanley Cup finals in the spring of 2012, knows that type of game well.
"That’s the style of hockey they play," he said. "They grind, they grind, they grind. They don’t put the puck in the middle of the ice. They play low-risk hockey."
That low-risk hockey isn’t quite the same without the dynamic firepower the Devils used to possess, however. The team lost Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk in consecutive offseasons, leaving fans feeling rightly perturbed. Even franchise goaltender Martin Brodeur said before the game that the Devils should have never let Parise walk.
But he did, making the gut-wrenching decision to sign with his hometown Minnesota Wild and leaving money on the table elsewhere and inking a matching 13-year, $98 million deal with fellow unrestricted free agent, defenseman Ryan Suter. Maybe fans’ ire would best be directed at general manager Lou Lamoriello, as Brodeur not-so-subtly suggested, but they took it out on Parise instead.
"I don’t have any hard feelings towards them. I understand," Parise said. "I wasn’t expecting cheers, so it’s fine."
Parise’s teammate, Matt Moulson, said Parise showed no outward signs of anxiety before the game. Rather, he went about his normal routine and appeared unconcerned. But having just been through an emotional return himself earlier in the week -- facing the New York Islanders on Long Island for the first time since he was unceremoniously shipped out of town to Buffalo -- Moulson could empathize with the mental toll.
"It’s emotional. You spend so many years putting your heart and soul into a team and you have to come back and play against them," said Moulson, who tallied two goals against his old team Tuesday night but was instead cheered by Islanders fans. "Mine was a little different situation but same emotions I think. You pour everything into your team and that becomes your family. It’s a little weird [when you change teams]."
And those ties still appear strong for Parise, because, as much as fans might resent him, he is clearly still beloved by his former teammates. A group of his old New Jersey buddies made its way down to the visitor’s locker room to catch up after what they knew would be a difficult game for him.
Luckily for Parise, who has had this date circled on the calendar for quite some time, it’s finally over.
"You know, I know his time here means a lot. I know what people think of him here means a lot, too," Yeo said. "Obviously, it was a tough decision, a tough move for him. That said, maybe it’s an opportunity for him to -- I don’t want to say move on -- but that’s what we need him to do. Obviously, we’re happy to have him here."