Veilleux back in Minnesota with a vengeance

  • Article by: KENT YOUNGBLOOD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 1, 2012 - 6:41 AM

 The winger hopes his aggressive, physical play will keep him in a Wild uniform beyond this year.

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The Flames' Jarome Iginla, left, took a hit from the Wild's Stephane Veilleux in 2008

Photo: Larry MacDougal, Associated Press file

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Seems as if two years' worth of waiting got dumped on the Xcel Energy ice in one compact shift of hockey.

Stephane Veilleux had played exactly one NHL game in two seasons before his first shift in the Wild's game against San Jose Sunday, the team's first since Veilleux returned as a part of the Marek Zidlicky trade with New Jersey.

Veilleux went over the boards and hit Jim Vandermeer. Then he hit Justin Braun. By the time he returned to the bench Veilleux was tired and coach Mike Yeo was cheering.

This is nothing new to longtime Wild fans. Veilleux was the second of two third-round draft picks by the Wild in 2001. He first played for the Wild during the 2002-03 season. From then through 2008-09, Veilleux played 361 games with the team, eighth most in franchise history. Never a big scorer, Veilleux's value came with his energy, his skating, his ability to play sound defense and kill penalties.

"I've always been a big fan of Steph," said Wes Walz, his former teammate with the Wild who now works with Fox Sports North. "The energy he brings, both to the ice and to the dressing room, can be contagious, can help a team. I think he can help this team right now."

And, frankly, the team can help him.

Veilleux will spend the final 19 games of the season trying to prove he still belongs in the NHL. It is a six-week audition he hopes bears fruit when his contract expires after the season.

"I worked so hard to get back," Veilleux said. "And this feels good. I'm just taking it day by day, focusing on trying to get wins, enjoying the moment."

Tough journey

In the summer of 2009 Veilleux chose to sign with Tampa Bay rather than San Jose. Rick Tocchet was the head coach, and Walz was an assistant. During that season the team was sold to Boston investment banker Jeffrey Vinik. After the team failed to make the playoffs, Vinik cleaned house. Again a free agent, Veilleux couldn't garner an NHL deal.

Veilleux started the 2010-11 season playing for a team in the top Finnish league. He ended it playing for Ambri-Piotta, a team in the top Swiss league coached by former Houston Aeros coach Kevin Constantine.

"It was tough mentally, knowing and believing you belong in the NHL," Veilleux said. "Your head is somewhere else. I don't think I was ready. No excuses. That's just the reality."

Veilleux decided to try to work his way back. He got a call from New Jersey over the summer, and signed a two-way deal with the organization. Until he came back to the Wild, Veilleux had played all but one game for the Devil's AHL affiliate in Albany.

Of course, Veilleux isn't about to second-guess himself. He wouldn't revisit his decision to go to Tampa when a two-year deal in San Jose was available. Nor does he second-guess his decision to play in Europe.

"As a pro athlete, you can't focus on that," He said. "If you let things like that bother you, I don't think you'll be at your best."

Back home

But Veilleux will live in the moment, and right now that moment is pretty good. His wife, Amy, is from the region and the two make their offseason home here. Veilleux said he came to love Minnesota during his time here. Now he gets a second chance in his adopted home.

"Now I have to take advantage of it," he said. "I have to do what I did to have success here before. Be a leader, bring a positive attitude. I'm looking forward to the challenge."

His wife is pregnant with their first child. The due date is July 19, so he has a lot to play for.

"He has a chance to fight and claw and scratch and prove he's an NHL player," Walz said. "Whether it's with the Wild or any other team.''

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