Thursday, January 6, 2011

Steen, Colaiacovo complete circle back to Toronto

Forward, defenseman were dealt to
Blues in 2008, return to AAC for first time

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- It's been two-plus years since they last wore the Toronto Maple Leafs emblem, but for winger Alex Steen and defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo, it's a long-awaited homecoming.

For the native son Colaiacovo, it literally is a homecoming.

The Blues (20-13-5), who play tonight at Air Canada Centre for the first time since Oct. 13, 2008, were the opposition for both Steen and Colaiacovo that night. Both played roughly 19 minutes in the game, a 5-4 win for the Blues in the shootout. Both wore Leaf sweaters.

On Nov. 24 of that same year, Steen and Colaiacovo became members of the Blues, traded to St. Louis for forward Lee Stempniak, a trade that the Blues have benefitted from most.

And when the two step onto the ice surface at the AAC today for the morning skate, some old but distant memories will certainly come flooding back.

Especcially from a media standpoint. "It'll be you guys times 10," Colaiacovo joked.

"I've kind of thought about it a little bit, what kind of feeling it's going to be being on the visiting bench and doing everything opposite of what I was doing when I was there," Colaiacovo said Wednesday after practice at St. Louis Mills. "I guess that feeling will come once the time comes, but right now, I'm going to enjoy the time with my family tonight and have a good game tomorrow."

Even though the memories are so long ago, that first time through typically brings it all back.

Colaiacovo spend five seasons in the Leafs' system, Steen three-plus seasons. It's the place where it all began as far as the National Hockey League was concerned for both, as both were first round picks.

"It's still going to be pretty special," Steen said. "The ACC was a great building. The fans were always good to me. The city was great to me. There's still some vibes that are going to be going on there. But in saying that, the team's a lot different. The organization, the management ... that part of it has drifted a little bit. I think it would have been more special if a lot of the guys were still there and you got to play against them. The guys have moved on throughout the league. That'll be different, but the building's still the same."

The only remnants on the current Leafs roster are Tomas Kaberle, Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin and Luke Schenn. Change was imminent, and both Steen and Colaiacovo were part of the overhaul.

"You got the sense right away after everything started to change around the team, they started moving guys out," said Steen, who leads the Blues in goals (13) and is second in points (27). "I think it was pretty evident that they wanted their own guys. It was a matter of time.

"If you look at the team now, Kaberle's pretty much the only guy left that I played with. It's been a drastic change in Toronto."

It's been so long since Steen was last in Toronto, he forgot all about Grabovski, Kulemin and Schenn, but it's understandable. The Blues and Leafs have only faced one another once in each of the past six seasons.

And no matter if a player plays down the fact that they're coming back to the place they were part of or not, there will be some extra adrenaline pumping.

"The motivation there is a recognition that you're playing against a team that you used to be with," Blues coach Davis Payne said. "They're some sort of feelings there I'm sure. But ultimately, both of those guys have been St. Louis Blues long enough that our performance and contributing to that success is probably their biggest goal.

"As an athlete, you recognize you were once with an organization and a chance to play against them, there's something there. I'm not exactly sure. I was never traded as a player."

Colaiacovo will have a large contingency of family and friends on hand, but he said, "I'm just treating it as just another road game honestly. I've kind of talked to my family about it and I don't want to make it a big circus. It's going to be nice to go home and see my family who I haven't seen in a while, but playing in Toronto, obviously I know a lot of people there. At the end of the day, I want to focus on playing hockey and not let anything away from the rink bother me."

The media frenzy will be like a circus today. Both will answer two-year-old questions, they'll talk about the old days of wearing the Leaf jersey. But when the day comes to a close, both will remember that sometimes, good things come to those who wait.

Trades come as a shock to everyone involved, but this one turned out to be just what the doctor ordered for both.

"I've said it before and I'll say it again: it's the best thing that's ever happened to me," said Colaiacovo, who battled through injuries during his stay in Toronto and stints of being a healthy scratch under coach Ron Wilson. "To get out of there and away from the black cloud that was hindering me while I was there, to come here and get a fresh start to a place I absolutely love playing and absolutely love being a part of with a great bunch of teammates, great sports fans, great city, I haven't been more happier in my life than here in St. Louis.

"I enjoy every opportunity. They've given me the chance to really make me be the player I always thought I could be. To be on a winning team is great. Everything about it just brings a smile to my face and I couldn't be more happier. I'm not saying I didn't enjoy my time in Toronto. I had a blast playing in front of my family and friends and being around my family and friends 24/7, but the timing of the trade and move was perfect for me and I can't complain. It couldn't have worked out any better."

Even though the trade worked out well for both players, there might be a chip on their shoulders when they go up against the Leafs (14-20-4) tonight, especially since their respective careers have blossomed in a Blues uniform.

"I don't know if that's the mentality," Steen said. "You want to go into the old building that used to be your home, have a good game in front of the fans there.

"The biggest thing for us is we've got to get back to our winning ways as a group. This isn't an individual thing for me. We kind of lost our way the last couple games and we're trying to find our way back there. That's the main objective with the game."

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