As No. 80 twirled around the ice at Gila River Arena donning Chicago Blackhawks’ white, black and red, everything seemed so recognizable. The city was familiar, the arena was familiar and the faces were familiar.
The only thing different was the dressing room Antoine Vermette emerged from to take the ice.
Just 19 days prior, Vermette emerged from the wooden doors of Arizona’s dressing room, walked past the Rinkside Club and galloped onto the ice in Coyotes’ brick red. Thursday, 12 days after being traded to the Blackhawks, Vermette returned to Glendale, Arizona, walked out of the visitor’s dressing room and faced his old team for the first time.
Vermette didn’t score in his return to Arizona, but was a major factor throughout the game. He appeared to seamlessly transition into his new role like he had done it all year.
Over the years, Vermette nudged his way into the hearts of Coyotes fans.
For all intents and purposes, he was the Coyotes’ No. 1 center. He played on both special teams units, faced off against other team’s top lines and was on the ice in the game’s final minute, up or down a goal. In his Coyotes career, Vermette scored 53 goals and had 111 points.
His versatility is what made his so valuable to have and so unfortunate to lose.
Vermette’s legacy in Arizona is about more than simply his on-ice performance — it’s the era he played in. Acquired on Feb. 22, 2012 from the Columbus Blue Jackets, Vermette joined a team on the rise and only aided its ascent.
Brought in during one the hottest runs in Coyotes history, Vermette played the final three games of Arizona’s 11-0-1 February. With No. 50 in tow, the Coyotes went on to win their first ever Pacific Division championship, first-ever playoff series in Arizona and reach the Western Conference Final.
Vermette’s addition will always be a remembered for two things — that playoff run and the time the Coyotes were serious buyers, rather than sellers, at the trade deadline.
Since then, the Coyotes are yet to return to postseason play and have gone from mediocre each of the past two seasons to one of the league’s three worst teams in 2015. Instead of taking that next step and building off a multi-series-winning playoff run, the Coyotes have fallen back down the standings and are playing fairly meaningless games in the standings in March.
The tiny number in the win column, coupled with Vermette’s pending UFA status, prompted the Coyotes to ship him off mid-season to the team he helped beat in the first round of that 2012 playoff run.
In essence, Vermette’s addition marked the middle of Arizona’s improbable run to prominence and his departure was the final nail in the coffin of a lost season. To some extend, the rise and fall of the Coyotes in the standings is tied to the franchise’s pair of trades.
That’s why Coyotes fans took it so hard when Vermette, and Keith Yandle for that matter, were shipped off in favor of youth conducive to a much-needed rebuild.
Vermette’s departure signified the end of any chance to return to those previous heights in the near future. However, it may be the start of another era — an era later considered to be the embryonic stage of building a Stanley Cup champion.