GLENDALE – Radim Vrbata walked into a room full of reporters and photographers at Gila River Arena this September and was met by a lot of familiar faces in the Phoenix media after signing with the Arizona Coyotes – again.
This season marks the beginning of Vrbata’s third stint with the Coyotes in a 15-year NHL career.
Before the 2007-08 season, the right wing from the Czech Republic was traded by the Chicago Blackhawks to what were then the Phoenix Coyotes. A year later, he signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning, but returned to the Valley after just one season in Tampa to play five more seasons with the Coyotes.
Then, as a 33-year-old free agent in 2014, Vrbata inked a two-year deal with the Vancouver Canucks.
Now, he’s back in the desert.
“It feels like coming back home, it really does,” Vrbata said. “You see familiar faces and the guys that you played with on the team that were drafted back then and in training camp, so it feels really good to be back.”
Each time Vrbata has returned, he has found one constant waiting for him — right wing Shane Doan has been there, wearing the captain’s “C” on his sweater.
“When I saw (Vrbata), I gave him a big hug and we were just laughing,” Doan said. “Just. . .it’s a friend coming back.
“In our sport, it’s tough. I’ve had a lot of really good friends that leave and you really don’t see each other again because what’s brought you together is the hockey, and they retire or they go somewhere else and your paths don’t cross.”
Doan was quick to mention his 14-year-old son, Joshua, who he said is an avid Coyotes fan and loves Vrbata’s forehand-to-backhand move on breakaways.
“The way that Vrby can score, it’s so exciting for us, but as a friend it’s great to have someone you’re comfortable with that you enjoy, his wife, his kids. It’s family.”
Whether on-ice teammates or not, Vrbata said that having familiar faces in the Valley helped his transition.
“Just settling down, it’s so much easier because we know people, we have friends here,” he said. “We know our way around. Family-wise, that’s the easiest destination to go to.”
Vrbata isn’t the only one to come in and out of the locker room in Glendale, the current hometown of the Coyotes. Antoine Vermette, a center who was traded to the Blackhawks in the 2014-15 season but returned just months later, played two stints in Arizona.
One of Vrbata’s teammates, defenseman (and fellow Czech) Zbynek Michalek, has been in his third stint with Arizona since he returned to the team last season.
“Once you find a comfortable spot, some players seem to just perform better in certain spots,” Michalek said. “For us, for myself, I can speak that it’s been the case. I just find for my family, and living, and everything together, that’s a big part of our lives too.”
Michalek and Vrbata have shared locker rooms a lot in their careers.
“Ah, ‘Here we go again,’” Michalek said with a laugh. “You know, story of my life. I’ve been playing with him in juniors, and then here in Phoenix, we keep coming back and playing together. Obviously, I’m real excited. We’re good friends off the ice. Our families are close and hang out together, too. It’s really nice.”
Brad Richardson, a forward for the Coyotes who played with Vrbata in Vancouver, signed with Arizona before last season. While still in Vancover, Vrbata gave him good reviews of the Coyotes organization.
“When I talk to anybody about Phoenix, I say good things because I only have good things to say about this place,” Vrbata said. “I’m proving it again by coming back. When Richy signed, I knew he would like it here, and obviously he did.”
While Vrbata looks toward a new season with old friends, he stood patiently in front of that room full of reporters. One media member asked the NHL veteran about his age, and Vrbata took a playful jab at his new, old teammate.
“Once you get past 33, 34, 35, everybody will now say you’re too old,” Vrbata said. “Luckily we have Doan here, who’s even older than me.”