By: Will Burchfield
The Golden Knights arrived in Detroit on Wednesday afternoon on the heels of a game in Columbus the night prior, and Tomas Tatar went straight home. It was his first time back here, to these stomping grounds where he lived for the last six years, since being traded to Vegas on Feb. 26. There was nothing insular about Tatar’s existence in Detroit. He took to life in the suburbs. He branched out and made friends. He laughed and joked and made more. The hockey player was a people’s person.
When Tatar split town last week at a moment’s notice, jetting across the country to start a new chapter of his career, he left so much of himself behind.
His NHL roots. His American upbringing. His teammates. His girlfriend. His house.
Tatar, 27, is a sharp dresser. Well, he fancies himself a sharp dresser. “Some people might have different views about it,” teased his good buddy Gus Nyquist. Either way, Tatar has the wardrobe to back it up. When he found out last Monday he had been traded and needed to be on a flight to Las Vegas that night, he had a momentary panic, no, packing attack.
“I didn’t really know what to do. First time being traded, so (it was) hard to say if I should start packing, what should I start packing, for how long,” Tatar said on Thursday morning in the visitor’s dressing room at Little Caesars Arena.
Fortunately, he was at home when he got the news. He decided to throw as many clothes as possible into one suitcase. He’d be back soon for the rest. So there he was on Wednesday, as his teammates lounged at a hotel on their off day, packing up the rest of his closet. Any reunions would have to wait until Thursday.
“I wish I had more time,” he said. “It’s pretty fast.”
When Tatar arrived at Little Caesars Arena Thursday morning for the first time as a visitor, the Red Wings were on the ice for their gameday skate. The mood was light, as it tends to be for these type of practices, but the banter wasn’t quite as lively. A voice has been missing of late.
The diminutive Tatar rarely allowed for a quiet moment. (And good luck getting the last word.) For all his skill, from his silky hands to his sneaky shot, his teammates loved him most for his spirit. He was a candle of cheer that kept on burning, an energizer bunny that never shut up.
“I didn’t really realize how meaningful he was in our locker room and to our team until he left,” said Dylan Larkin, who once sat two stalls to Tatar’s right. “He’s a big voice and a bit of a character, and I miss that.”
So does Nyquist, who’s been friends with Tatar since they first played together in Grand Rapids in 2010.
“He’s just a funny guy. Every day at the rink he’s the one that comes in with a smile. He’s happy, he’s chirping. Even for a short guy like him,” Nyquist said, landing a sly blow, “he’ll get on guys.”
Tatar changed into his warmup apparel in the Knights dressing room — charcoal team hat, charcoal team sweatshirt, charcoal team shorts — and moseyed out to the visitor’s bench as the Wings were finishing up their skate. Almost instantly, he drew a crowd. The smiles grew wider the longer he talked.
This was “Tats” in his element: holding court and lightening the mood. His former teammates were happy to allow him the stage, falling comfortably into their old roles. The roles would be new later that night, Tatar turning into a pest on the other team, and yet they’d be very much the same. Jimmy Howard expected Niklas Kronwall to be high on Tatar’s list of targets; shortly before Tatar was traded, he lovingly placed a cane in the 37-year-old assistant captain’s locker.
“He’ll probably chirp some of our guys and I think he’s going to hear quite a bit back,” said Nyquist.
About an hour later, after the Knights took their gameday skate, Tatar grinned and said, “It’s part of hockey.”
He was asked later if he might try to trick one of his old teammates by calling for a pass. He thought about it for a moment.
“It’s not a bad play,” he decided, storing the idea upstairs.
Tatar entertained a horde of eager reporters, most of them local, for about 10 minutes. Every now and then his teammates razzed him, and Tatar looked up and laughed, and then dutifully took note of the culprit. (Good luck getting the last word). He’s only had 10 days with these guys, but it’s clear Tatar has begun to nose his way into their hearts.
In a way, this was the ideal place to be traded. The entire roster consists of imports. Anywhere else, Tatar would have been the new guy. But everyone’s a new guy on the Golden Knights. This shared experience has made for a tight-knit locker room (and a heck of a team.) Tatar fits right in.
“Guys are awesome. They’re making a lot of jokes, which is cool. I like that kind of stuff, so I’m laughing a lot. Still a little shy,” Tatar said improbably, “but I think it’s going to come.”
Asked to name the biggest jokester on the team, Tatar pointed to “Marchy,” forward Jonathan Marchessault. (“Marchy” hasn’t yet pulled one over on Tatar. “He’s been nice to me,” Tatar said. “I’m new.”)
Speaking of Marchessault, Vegas’ leading scorer, Tatar was elevated to his line at Thursday’s practice. Marchessault typically skates on the first unit with William Karlsson and Reilly Smith, but Smith was injured in Tuesday’s game, and Tatar took his spot.
The promotion to the top line was another reason for Tatar to smile on Thursday, especially because he’d gotten off to a slow start with his new team. He had just one goal through four games — although it was a game-winner versus the Devils — and was struggling to adjust to the Knights’ breakneck pace of play. The NHL’s Cinderella team can skate.
“They’re playing really fast hockey, and guys seem like they understand each other on the ice a lot, so it’s tough to jump on a train like this,” Tatar said. “I’m just trying to get as comfy out there as I can. … I know I have to be better. Hopefully I can adapt as fast as I can.”
Inside Detroit’s dressing room a few hours later, shortly before warmups, classic rock was pumping through the stereo. A few country songs may have gained some play as well. Controlling the music used to be Tatar’s duty, but Larkin has since taken over. This isn’t necessarily a good thing in the Red Wings’ eyes.
Tatar, a European through and through, played heavy doses of EDM and techno. It got the guys pumped up, Nyquist said. A couple lockers down, Anthony Mantha agreed. As for country, they both shook their heads.
“Larks, he’s on a bit of a trial period here,” Nyquist said.
When warmups began, Tatar dashed onto the ice in his white No. 90 jersey, not the red No. 21 he wore for six seasons in Detroit. (Cody Eakin wears No. 21 in Vegas.) Something else was different, too.
“He started wearing no helmet in warmups I saw,” said Nyquist, making Tatar out to be a Vegas big shot. “There’s a lot of product in that hair.”
Tatar said it was actually a routine he started in Detroit.
“I’m keeping it, going no bucket. I think Gus is just mad he didn’t get the chance to put his bucket down,” Tatar quipped.
Vegas scored two minutes into the game, punctuating another slow start for the Red Wings. Tatar knew all about them. The Wings dug themselves too many early deficits in the first half of the season, which resulted in too many losses, which resulted in a selloff at the deadline. On Thursday night, Tatar’s new team was the beneficiary of his former’s team’s flaw, a flaw that helped drive him out of town.
During a stoppage toward the end of the first period, the Wings played a video tribute for Tatar on the Jumbotron. It tracked his career from the 2009 NHL Draft to Grand Rapids to Detroit, a total of nine years in the Red Wings organization. When it ended, most of the fans in the building came to their feet. All of them cheered. Players on both benches stood up and banged their sticks against the boards.
On the Vegas bench, Tatar rose from his seat and waved to the crowd. When he sat back down he looked up at the Jumbotron, where he was being shown in real time, and smiled. The fans cheered some more, and Tatar took a deep breath and drew the leather palm of his glove across his face. If he was wiping his eyes, it was hard to tell.
But Tatar said he was indeed a little choked up.
“For sure. After all these years here the fans were really great to me. It’s hard to complain. I loved it here for sure. I had all the great memories, and I can only be thankful for all that Detroit has done for me. It was a really nice tribute,” he said.
For Wings fans, it may have been the peak of the night. The Golden Knights added three more goals in the second and skated off with an easy 4-0 win. Tatar was held pointless, but he, Marchessault and Karlsson combined for 10 shots on goal.
Afterward, Tatar said he was glad to get his first game against his former team out of the way.
“For sure. These kind of games are exciting, but also a little stressful. Like, how is it going to feel? Guys battled hard out there. It was a good game, but they missed goals and we scored them, so good for us,” he said.
He’s singing a new tune these days, having gone from a team that struggles to score to one that can’t seem to stop. It has to be refreshing, even for a player who rarely needs a lift. Suddenly, Tatar has so much in front of him, with the playoffs drawing near and his team holding down the top seed in the West.
He declined to look ahead on Thursday, dutifully pointing out the Knights still have work to do in the regular season. It was a businesslike remark from a player who approached an emotional game in a businesslike manner. No, there wasn’t much chirping, Tatar said. No, he never called for a pass from one of his old friends.
It was just 60 minutes of sound hockey and another win for the Golden Knights.
“Honestly, it was so fast we didn’t really have a chance to chirp each other out there. Obviously you can see a lot of smiles, it was a fun game. I will probably remember it for a long time, but like I said, I have to move on and focus on this team,” said Tatar.
Tatar began bouncing on the balls of his feet and moving his hands restlessly in and out of the pockets of his shorts as his postgame interview dragged on. He was careful to answer every reporter, but clearly cognizant of the time. He had a crowd of friends waiting for him outside the locker room, as well as a few former teammates he wanted to meet up with. The latter group was about to leave for Columbus, where the Wings are playing Friday night.
“That’s why I’m kind of in a rush,” Tatar said apologetically.
He was duly excused. About 15 minutes later, just after Jeff Blashill had blasted his team’s effort in a grim postgame interview, Tatar strolled down the hallway outside the dressing rooms. He was wearing a tan cashmere overcoat and his blonde Miss-Universe girlfriend was walking by his side. There were local media members and Red Wings staffers milling about the hallway, and Tatar stopped to hug or fist-bump nearly every one of them. They told him how much they miss him. He told them the feeling is mutual.
When Tatar signed a four-year deal with the Red Wings last summer, he envisioned playing here for a long time, perhaps for his entire career. He was proud to call one of hockey’s most successful organizations his own. Some seven months later, that same organization shipped him out of town. It hurt. Blashill could hear it in Tatar’s voice when he and Ken Holland called to deliver the news.
“It was hard for him I think to hear that because he really loved being a Red Wing, and it’s hard to let somebody go that loved being part of the organization,” Blashill said. “But he understands it’s part of the business. The sun is usually shining in Tomas’ world. He’ll get adjusted just fine.”
Tatar made his way toward his greeting party, the largest one in the designated waiting area. He turned a corner and came into view, and the faces in the crowd lit up upon seeing his. There are so many people in Las Vegas who will soon have the pleasure. (Good luck getting the last word.)