Like many locked-out NHLers, Eric Fehr found work elsewhere during the league's labor standoff, but unlike many locked-out NHLers, Fehr didn't have a team to come back to once the NHL returned.
The Winnipeg Jets decided not to bring Fehr back this summer after one injury-plagued season, so he flew to Finland and joined Hämeenlinnan Pallokerho (HPK) with the intention of staying there if an NHL team didn't come calling.
A few teams did, but one stuck out to the 27-year-old forward.
"Looking at the teams around the league, I felt very comfortable coming back here," Fehr said after the first day of training camp wrapped up Sunday. "I always loved my time in Washington and I thought that this would be the best place to be."
At the behest of one of the team's professional scouts who watched Fehr play with HPK, General Manager George McPhee signed Fehr, who spent six seasons with the Caps from 2005-11, to a one-year contract worth $600,000 Sunday.
“Looks like he’s gotten over the surgeries and the rehab and he also was playing really well in Finland, so we thought it’d be a nice addition,” McPhee said. "He has always been a goal scorer, and he's been set back by some injuries, but hopefully this is a year where he can come in and score goals."
Much has changed in Washington since the Caps traded Fehr in July 2011 to his hometown Jets in exchange for prospect Danick Paquette and a 2012 fourth-round draft pick, but then again, so has Fehr. The Caps' first-round draft pick (18th overall) in the 2003 NHL Draft battled bouts of inconsistency and injury throughout his first stint, scoring a career-high 21 goals in 2009-10 and arguably two of the biggest goals in franchise history during the 2011 Winter Classic, but also undergoing two separate shoulder surgeries that stymied his potential.
After being traded to the Jets, Fehr could only muster two goals and one assist in 35 games last season in his most disappointing season to date. Much like defenseman Tom Poti, Fehr rushed back from injury too soon, which ultimately hindered his recovery.
“I came back before I should have and after that it spiraled out of control,” Fehr said. "In hindsight, I would have loved to have waited longer and felt better, but I was playing in my hometown, the team wasn’t winning and I wanted to help out and it didn’t work out.”
Winnipeg elected not to re-sign him, so he ventured to Finland in an attempt to rekindle his confidence. He did exactly that, scoring 13 goals and assisting on 12 others in just 21 games.
“I definitely had to play hockey during the lockout," Fehr said. "That was something that I really wanted to do. I had a tough year last year and I wanted to get back playing, put it behind me. I’m real happy that I went to Finland. I was able to start playing, to start scoring again and get the confidence back up.”
Fifteen of Fehr's teammates from his last season in Washington are still currently on the roster -- many of whom came up through Washington's farm system --so they know full well what they can expect from him.
"Fehrsie and I played together going back to [winning] a championship in the minors [with the Hershey Bears in 2006]," forward Brooks Laich said. "There's a lot of history with Eric and I and a lot of other guys in the room with Eric, too. When he came back, there were a lot of smiles and a lot of big hugs. What's old is new again."
Fehr certainly hopes that Laich's sentiment is the case in his second go-around in Washington.
“I felt like I was in survival mode a little bit, just trying to get through every game," Fehr said of last season. "Now I’m feeling a lot better. I’m happy to be playing hockey and it feels a lot better on the ice when you’re not in pain all the time. I’m playing with a lot more confidence right now so hopefully that carries into the season.”
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