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Darcy Tucker and Vancouver defenceman Kevin Bieksa trade punches during an October 3 game. (Doug Pensinger/2009 Getty Images)
Darcy Tucker and Vancouver defenceman Kevin Bieksa trade punches during an October 3 game. (Doug Pensinger/2009 Getty Images)

David Shoalts

Tucker finally leaving Toronto days behind Add to ...

Darcy Tucker heard all the speculation on the sports-radio talk shows and in the newspapers. But when the call came it was still a punch in the gut.

He was on a golf course near his cottage in Muskoka last spring when his cell phone rang. After eight seasons as a Toronto Maple Leaf, his contract was being bought out and he would be a free agent.

"Obviously you hear things, things go on in the papers," Tucker said Tuesday morning. "I didn't want to believe it until it happened.

"But when it happened, it was time to pick up and move on and it was hard to do."

At the time, he did not have any idea how tough it would be to leave the city he came to call home and move to another NHL city. Eventually, the Colorado Avalanche came calling but his first season in Denver was even worse than his last season as a Leaf, hobbled by a series of nagging injuries robbing him of the ability to play the scrappy, yappy style the fans loved him for and by the usual issues in the dressing room of a failing team.

By the end of last season, with the injury problem persisting, Tucker finished with 16 points in 63 games, less than half the disappointing 34 he registered in his final tour as a Maple Leaf. Since the NHL schedule did not bring him back to the Air Canada Centre last season, Tucker was practically forgotten by the fans amidst all of the misery of the Leafs' first rebuilding season.

But there will be more than a touch of nostalgia around the place on Tuesday night when Tucker makes his first visit to Toronto since the buyout. He is coming back on a triumphant note with three points in five games, one of the leaders on a young team that is a lot further down the rebuilding path than the Leafs, having burst out of the blocks with a 3-1-1 record.

"I had a couple of injuries last year but more than anything it was a tough adjustment," Tucker said after the Avalanche's game-day skate. "My kids pretty much grew up here. The biggest adjustment for me was moving my family and trying to adjust to a new city. I take full responsibility for the poor season I had last year."

Tucker also plays down the impact injuries had on his performance in 2007-08, his last season as a Leaf. But there is no denying the fact they cut into his effectiveness as a small but abrasive player who could score. He admitted that devoting a good portion of last summer to complete rest has much to do with his renaissance this season.

"I came back to Toronto, went up to my cottage and got lost up there for pretty much the whole summer," he said. "I took almost two full months completely off. I did absolutely nothing when it came to working out from the time the season was over until the first of July.

"Once that first of July rolled around I felt pretty good and I was ready to go."

The other factor, he says, is being a 34-year-old mentor to the young players on the Avalanche, like teenagers Matt Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly, who sit next to him in the dressing room.

"It was difficult to pick up the pieces when I left," Tucker said. "It was tough. But so far this year I'm having a lot of fun.

"I've got two guys who sit beside me on the road all the time and in the dressing room. They have a lot of questions and things I have to answer. That's helped me out. They play with some good spunk and it's actually elevated my game a little bit."

Looking back on his time in Toronto, Tucker can see the irony in being sent packing and then hearing general manager Brian Burke (who came after the buyout) saying his greatest need was forwards who play with grit.

"Somebody asked me that the other day," he said. "At the time I got here [in a trade with the Tampa Bay Lightning] the team was looking for a player that was gritty, a blue-collar player. I filled that void.

"It was nice the fans had a great bond with myself and my family as well. It made it a great experience over our time here. I only have fond memories.

"People ask me a lot about what happened at the end. For me, I look at it as it was a business decision. I wanted to remain a Maple Leaf and I wanted to remain here but it was not to be. I have no hard feelings at all. I have great joy at coming back to the city and coming back here in the summer time."

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