After two impressive victories in Alberta to open their lockout-delayed season, the Sharks return home Thursday night to face the Phoenix Coyotes in the first NHL game at HP Pavilion in more than nine months.
But for one Shark, the homecoming has taken a lot longer: Defenseman Brad Stuart will be wearing a teal jersey in San Jose for the first time in seven years, one month and 29 days.
Stuart said Wednesday that he's excited about returning, though he has no regrets about the course his career has taken.
"I've learned a lot in the time while I was gone and I feel like I'm a better player because of it," Stuart said, adding he was also "a little bit anxious. It's going to be kind of strange going through the Shark mouth again."
Stuart, 33 returns a different hockey player than the one who left at 26. He plays with a bit of a mean streak that wasn't on display very much in his first go-round.
It is the journey over the past seven years that has helped change him.
The Sharks made Stuart the third player taken overall in the 1998 NHL draft. He was a blue-chip blueliner who played 377 games over five-plus seasons in San Jose, scoring 36 goals and adding 117 assists.
Stuart's last home game as a Shark was Nov. 26, 2005 -- a 7-6 loss to the Detroit Red Wings in which he earned an assist. Four days later, general manager Doug Wilson pulled off the blockbuster trade that sent Stuart, Marco Sturm and Wayne Primeau to the Boston Bruins for Joe Thornton.
Stuart said the trade, coming only a few months after his wedding, was extremely disruptive. But he said he didn't make it personal.
"I never looked at it like the Sharks didn't want me any more, but I was a little bit shocked," Stuart said. "It was part of the business, but still there was a lot of stuff you had to deal with."
There would be stops in Calgary, Los Angeles and Detroit before the circle back to San Jose was complete.
Knowing he wanted to return for family reasons, the Sharks acquired Stuart from the Red Wings on June 20. A three-year, $10.8 million contract extension followed.
"Career-wise and from a personal standpoint, it was perfect," Stuart said. "The team has a good chance to win and I have a chance to be a big part of that. And I get to see my family every day that I'm home."
That last point was the stickler in Detroit.
Stuart was living in Los Gatos in his third season as a Shark when he met his future wife, Melissa, who grew up there. She and her young stepdaughter, Cierra, did follow Stuart to Boston and Los Angeles, but went back to Los Gatos while he played in Canada because of family issues.
The four-year deal he signed with the Red Wings in 2007 was considered one move too many for Cierra to have any stability in her life.
Beyond that, the family was growing with the addition of two boys, Jake, 6, and Logan, 4.
"At that point my stepdaughter was 12 or 13, and that's an age where it gets harder for them to keep changing," Stuart explained. "They've got friends, they've got schools, they've got family. You can't just rip them away from all that stuff."
Stuart and the Red Wings worked out an arrangement that allowed the defenseman to fly home to Los Gatos when the schedule allowed, even if it meant missing a practice.
Other times, Melissa and the children would fly to Detroit.
Still, his wife would be the one who had to deal with routine problems in San Jose.
The Red Wings respected Stuart's desire to be closer to his family, but also let him know he would be welcomed back if things did not work out.
As events developed, Stuart never did test the free agent market. He knows he could be making more money if he had, but money was far from the top priority.
The multiple changes in scenery also led to the change in Stuart's game.
"I'm not a power-play guy anymore," he said. "I don't really care if I score any points. I want to be solid. I take a lot of pride in working hard, playing physical and killing penalties."
The dramatic change came after he arrived in Detroit.
"There were so many talented defensemen there, they didn't need me to contribute any offense," Stuart said. "I'm a lot more effective at what I do now than if I tried to keep my game more offensive. Who knows where I'd be now?"
In fact, Stuart is in San Jose now because of those changes. In June, Wilson praised him as "a physical, team-first defenseman who is tough to play against."
For now, Stuart plays alongside Marc-Edouard Vlasic as the top shutdown pair for coach Todd McLellan, whose time in Detroit overlapped with Stuart's.
"What it does," McLellan said of pairing Stuart with Vlasic, "is give us two pretty good defenders and we feel comfortable playing them against anybody's top line."
Whether old memories come rushing back when Stuart does skate through the shark mouth remains to be seen. But one thing that will make it special for him gets back to the reason Stuart is once again a Shark.
"To have a chance to have my boys there to see that will be a big thrill for me and for them," he said. "It's going to be fun."
Phoenix (0-2-0) at Sharks (2-0-0), 7:30 p.m. CSNCA
Sharks sign Scott Gomez to one-year contract Page 5