In the neutral zone during a preseason game while he was on a professional tryout with the Philadelphia Flyers … that’s when it dawned on Bill Guerin his playing days were over.

“I was OK with it,” he said. “I felt like it was on my terms.”

After Guerin left the bench to join the action, former Wild player Tyler Ennis — who was with the Sabres at the time — breezed by Guerin in the middle of the ice, triggering Guerin’s epiphany.

The next day, he was released by Philadelphia. A few months later, in December 2010, Guerin officially announced he was done.

But retirement didn’t last.

Involved with hockey for as long as he can remember, Guerin couldn’t stay away from the game and embarked on the management track that led him to being tabbed the fourth general manager in Wild history Aug. 21, the next phase of a decorated career that Guerin is tackling with an unwavering passion for a sport that has taught him what it takes to be a champion.

“I don’t think I can ever be without it,” he said. “I just love it. I do. I love it.”

Before that realization in 2010, Guerin was constantly around hockey.

Growing up in Massachusetts, he started skating at the age of 3 and was playing two years later.

His mom, who is from Nicaragua, needed an activity for Guerin, and a friend of hers suggested ice skating. That idea spawned one of the longest-running commitments of Guerin’s life.

After junior hockey in New England, he starred at Boston College and with USA Hockey before eventually landing with the Devils in the NHL after being the fifth overall draft pick in 1989.

“I just started enjoying it,” Guerin said. “I didn’t say, ‘Box checked’ or anything. This is what I do. There was no Plan B. So this is what I do. I play hockey. Every day was great.”

What ensued was one of the most successful NHL careers for an American-born player: Eighteen seasons for eight teams, two Stanley Cups (before two more in management) and induction into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.

After that second title as a player in Pittsburgh, Guerin had hoped to stay on with the Penguins. But they didn’t extend an invite.

“That was probably the hardest call I had to make in my career, honestly, to say that we weren’t going to offer him a contract,” said Devils GM Ray Shero, who was GM of the Penguins at the time.

Staying in the game

Guerin, then 39, tried out with the Flyers but when he knew he was ready to retire, he called his wife, Kara.

She pictured what their new life would look like, and she saw them walking the dogs and driving their four children to school. But Kara wasn’t the only person Guerin called after he decided to stop playing. He also reached out to Shero, and Guerin eventually rejoined the Penguins as their player development coach.

“In order to be fulfilled, he had to stay in the game,” Kara said. “I think that’s what he absolutely had to do.”

As a development coach, Guerin took in scouting meetings and worked with players in the minors — experience he’s grateful for because it prepared him to become a general manager after five seasons as Penguins assistant GM.

Always a leader, Guerin started to envision himself in the GM chair as his career progressed. He was also exposed to that side of the game when he was on the negotiating committee during the 2004-05 lockout.

“We all have our own beliefs,” Guerin said. “We all feel that we know what’s right and what works.”

Making a transition

While he misses the competitiveness of playing, Guerin gets that same feeling when he’s hammering out a trade or pursuing a free agent. And the philosophies he is implementing as GM are lessons he learned from being on the ice.

“Individuals having great seasons don’t win championships,” he said. “Individuals that have great seasons that are playing like a team will.”

Now that he has had time to examine the Wild closer, Guerin said he feels his initial impression that the team must improve but is set up to win has been validated.

He has what he calls “pressure points,” mileposts at which he’ll evaluate the team, but otherwise he’s taking a more organic approach to managing the team.

“I like the way he’s come in and everybody is fair game,” Wild owner Craig Leipold said. “They are all on the table, and by that I mean he hasn’t made any predetermined decisions on anybody on this team no matter who it is.”

Looking ahead

Guerin wants to give the staff members he inherited the chance to show their skills, and he and Leipold haven’t discussed a contract extension for Bruce Boudreau — who is in the final year of his deal.

“Bruce and I have a very good relationship already,” Guerin said. “Obviously, you look at wins and losses, but you also look at relationships and dealings with players and things like that. But Bruce has been around a long time and had a lot of success. I feel lucky to have an experienced coach like that with my first job in my first year.”

Although he is just at the start of that tenure, Guerin already knows how he wants to change the Wild.

And that’s making the organization better than it was when he arrived.

“Obviously, we want to achieve the ultimate goal,” Guerin said, “but I want this team to be in a position to be able to compete year in and year out.”