BOSTON — Saturday night won't be the first time that Mark Stuart and Blake Wheeler have returned to the Garden since being traded away from the Bruins last February. But it will be their first time in the building since the Bruins raised a new banner to the rafters.
Stuart and Wheeler, who first returned to Boston with Atlanta last April, are in town again with Winnipeg to face their old club Saturday night, and admitted to having some mixed emotions when they watched their former team hoist the Stanley Cup last spring.
"I watched here and there," Stuart said of the playoffs. "It was exciting to see the guys play and I was happy for them. I played with a few of those guys for a long time, so I was proud of them for sure.
"It really was a weird feeling," Stuart added. "[I'm] happy for those guys when they won, but it's also really tough to watch because you want to be there and you want to be part of it."
Wheeler had similar thoughts. He didn't get a chance to see the Philadelphia and Tampa Bay series, but admitted to watching the Bruins' opening-round win over Montreal and the Cup Final against Vancouver.
"It was gratifying, but it was hard at the same time," Wheeler said. "You want to be a part of it, but you certainly take something out of it just watching the guys you played with for a few years. That was the hardest part getting traded, I knew, Stuey and I both knew, that it was a very real possibility that was going to happen. To see it come true was kind of a mixed bag of emotions. I'm certainly happy for all the guys. They work harder than anyone and they certainly deserved it."
Stuart admitted that he has spent some time thinking about the "what ifs" had he not been traded with Wheeler to Atlanta last year in the deal that brought Rich Peverley to Boston.
"For sure, I mean it's so hard not to," Stuart said. "But I tried not to dwell on it too much because then you just make yourself go crazy. That thought definitely creeps in, but you've just got to move ahead. I'm happy to be in Winnipeg. I'm very proud to be a part of this organization."
Wheeler said that starting fresh in a new organization with a familiar face like Stuart alongside him helped ease the transition. The two Minnesota natives also helped each other cope with the mixed emotions of seeing their old team win a title without him.
"We had a few powwows for sure during the playoffs," Wheeler said. "We live all of 10 minutes apart in the summer. We definitely met up a few times and talked about it. It made it a little easier to swallow."
Stuart and Wheeler got a second fresh start this summer when the Atlanta franchise was relocated to Winnipeg.
"I think it's been easier for me than for some of these guys because I wasn't in Atlanta for too long," Stuart said. "It wasn't like I really got settled in there. I just stayed in a hotel there, so when we moved to Winnipeg it almost felt like I was going from Boston to Winnipeg in a sense. It's been good. Winnipeg's been great. The fan base there is so good and they've received us so well."
Wheeler has been impressed by the passionate fan base in Manitoba as well, though slightly less thrilled with the Winnipeg weather.
"It's definitely colder," Wheeler said. "They warn you about that, but you really don't appreciate it until you're up there and it's 0 degrees in November. But the city and the fans are great. We're pretty lucky. It's pretty crazy the amount of support we have up there. Out home games are really an event every night. It's a lot of fun to play up there."
The Jets are happy with the former Bruins as well. Stuart has emerged as a leader on the blue line, chipping in 2-4-6 totals to go along with 50 hits and 56 blocked shots.
"He's been fabulous," Winnipeg coach Claude Noel said. "Mark Stuart is a guy who plays with a lot of bite for us [with] his aggressive nature. He's a guy that plays with his heart more than on his sleeve, he plays with his heart part. And it shows in our team. He's part of our leadership group, a big part of it. He exemplifies a lot of what our team needs to be, and that's a hard-working group that plays hard and plays for the team. He's been really good for us."
Wheeler got off to a slow start, but has come on of late and has 1-10-11 totals and is a plus-5.
"Blake got off to a frustrating start," Noel said. "He didn't score a whole lot, so he's been trying to find his game and he's been way better the last 4-5 games. He's got really good speed. He can really take pucks to the net. He's a guy that can create offense. He's been good as well, especially of late."
The Jets also feature another familiar face. Former Bruins defenseman Shane Hnidy has remained in the game as the color commentator on Winnipeg's radio broadcasts. He drew a big crowd in the Bruins room after Saturday's morning skate, first greeted by his ex-teammates, then mobbed by reporters. The latter scrum led Hnidy to crack, "You guys never talked to me like this when I played."
Unlike Stuart and Wheeler, Hnidy has no mixed feelings about his time in Boston, where he got to go out on top as a Cup champion last spring before retiring.
"I've always said if you win a Cup, you're forever bonded with that city," Hnidy said. "Every time I come back to Boston, every time I see the guys, it's a memory that will last forever.
"I think about it every day," Hnidy added. "It was a special moment. The opportunity to win and end your career on that note was something I'll always cherish."