TORONTO - Much like his tenure with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Darcy Tucker's return to the site of his best NHL years was emotional -- and productive.
The Colorado Avalanche dropped the Leafs 4-1 Tuesday night, with Tucker contributing a goal and an assist in his first game in Toronto since joining the Avs in the summer of 2008.
Tucker received an extended ovation following a video tribute on the centre-ice scoreboard, prompting him to give several appreciative waves to the adoring Air Canada Centre crowd. He also got a rousing cheer when he was announced as the game's second star.
"It meant a lot, actually, it was tough there for a little while," Tucker said of the fans' reception. "Actually I was more emotional during the national anthem, seeing the two national anthems, standing on the blue-line. It was an emotional game."
Tucker's gritty style endeared him to Toronto fans right from the moment the Leafs acquired him in a trade with the Tampa Bay Lightning during the 1999-2000 season. Still, the plucky winger wasn't sure how he'd be received from the Leafs faithful as a member of the Avs.
"I didn't know what to expect," he said. "I knew it was going to be emotional on a personal level, not only for myself, but for my family sitting in the stands, friends that I've made here over the years that had Avalanche jerseys on tonight. It was a difficult night for all of them.
"But I told them before the game and last night, try to enjoy the experience, I'm going to enjoy it, no matter how emotional I get, I'm going to try and enjoy it and have fun with it."
Tucker's best season with the Leafs came in the first post-lockout year, when he scored 28 goals and totalled 61 points. But after the team missed the playoffs for the third consecutive year in 2007-08, the Leafs opted to buy out the remainder of Tucker's contract, allowing him to sign with Colorado as an unrestricted free agent.
It's an ending the 34-year-old harbours no contempt over.
"It was a decision at the time they had to make," Tucker said. "(If you don't) make the playoffs, you're a team looking from the outside in, changes are going to happen. I was part of those changes, I don't have any real feelings toward the organization."
There was a little irony in the fact Tucker's return came on the night Toronto was honouring one of its greatest captains, Ted (Teeder) Kennedy, who passed away last summer.
"It was funny, when we used to go on the road and we were in a hostile environment, we used to put my name under Teeder Kennedy in the hotel, so for me to see that tribute before the game, I was hoping it was a sign of things to come," Tucker said.
His first season in Colorado certainly didn't go as Tucker hoped; he netted just eight goals in an injury shortened 63-game campaign. This season, skating on a line with shifty Marek Svatos and rookie center Matt Duchene, Tucker is almost halfway to that total with three goals through six games as the Avs are off to a surprising 4-1-1 start.
Regardless of how this season and the rest of his career plays out, Tucker promises another return to Toronto.
"I've always said the Maple Leafs are always going to be in my heart, no matter what happens," he said. "I'm going to come back and live in this city, so it's only normal I would be a Leafs fan when I come back."