VANCOUVER - Cody Hodgson felt the love of Vancouver Canucks fans on Saturday as he made a triumphant return to Rogers Arena.
Hodgson's new team, the Buffalo Sabres, hung on to beat his former Vancouver squad 5-3 before a sellout crowd of 18,890 to remain unbeaten after three games with him in the lineup.
"It felt a little weird passing by the home room and getting dressed in the visitors room," said Hodgson. "But once I was on the ice, I was just trying to stay focused on what I could do."
He went without a point, but that didn't matter to his faithful followers as they welcomed him back five days after his surprise trade at Monday's deadline.
Hodgson was the headliner in a surprise four-player deal that also sent depth defenceman Alexander Sulzer to the Sabres for 20-year-old rookie winger Zack Kassian and rearguard Marc-Andre Gragnani at the NHL trading. All four players suited up in their respective lineups.
But Hodgson drew the loudest cheers.
"The fans have always been real passionate and supportive here, and it was nice to get that welcome," said Hodgson.
Cody-mania started in the morning as fans came early for a chance to get his autograph. Later, several spectators, mostly decked in blue Canucks jerseys, flocked to the Sabres end during the pre-game warmup, with some bearing signs expressing their love and support for Hodgson. A loud cheer erupted after public address John Ashbridge announced that Hodgson was in Buffalo's starting lineup.
One spectator sported a Canucks jersey with an inserted Sabres logo and held up a sign that read: "Never gave up on a big fish!" The sign also bore a picture of Hodgson and Cam Neely. It was a clear reference to the ineffective trade that the Canucks made when they sent Neely, a future hall of famer, to Boston for Barry Pederson.
Former Canuck Sulzer also drew cheers. But the crowd showed little emotion for 20-year-old winger Zack Kassian, until he scored, and Gragnani, 24, who was buried in the minors during most of his four-season tenure with the Sabres.
Kassian and Gragnani did not help their cause as they were on the ice together for two of Buffalo's three goals in the first period. But Kassian endeared himself again later as he assisted on David Booth's second goal of the game in the third period and then notched his first goal as a Canuck.
He narrowed the gap to 4-3 before Hodgson's line produced an empty-netter by Tyler Ennis with 1:03 left in the game.
"It feels good," said Kassian, who also had a game-high seven hits. "I think it takes a little pressure of my back, and now I can just play and try to get settled in away from the rink and focus on hockey."
While Hodgson tried to say all the right things about the Canucks upon his return, Kassian took some shots at his former team following the game.
"To be honest, I feel better in a couple of days here than I did in Buffalo. It's just the team atmosphere."
"I played all right," said Hodgson. "I was just trying to focus and trying not to make too many mistakes and just play the way I can play. Obviously, it's tough to focus."
But Sabres coach Lindy Ruff had no complaints about Hodgson after the Sabres improved to 30-27-8.
"He played well tonight," said Ruff. "He had some opportunities again. I know that there wasn't any finish. But I again thought that that line was one of our better lines. They got the empty-net goal for us.
"He's got no points to show for it, but I've liked how well he's played in his own end, and I've liked what he's done up ice."
Ruff was also happy with the play of Sulzer, whose insertion marked a rare NHL occurrence as two Germans were paired on the blue-line together.
Sabres defenceman Christian Ehrhoff, who departed Vancouver last summer as a free agent, had the last laugh on his former team by scoring the winning goal. He said Hodgson has played an important role with Sabres, who have a shortage of natural centres.
"Obviously, it fills a need for us down the middle," said Ehrhoff of the trade. "Cody has had a great season here from what I've heard. We need a playmaking centre, and he can be that player."