Frans Nielsen is glad to have his first game against the New York Islanders since leaving as a free agent last summer behind him.
"There was some nerves," Nielsen said Sunday night after assisting on a goal in the Detroit Red Wings' 4-3 overtime victory over the Islanders. "I've been looking at the schedule for a long time waiting for this game. Feels like now that it's done, I can move on."
The 32-year-old Danish center was drafted by the Islanders in the third round in 2002, No. 87 overall, and had 119 goals and 230 assists over 10 seasons in New York before signing a six-year, $31.5-milion deal with Detroit.
There were about a dozen signs held by fans near the ice welcoming Nielsen back during warmups and he received some applause from the crowd when his name was called during the announcement of the Red Wings' starters. Nielsen also got an ovation during a video tribute about eight minutes into the first period.
"It was awesome," he said. "I had been here so long. So many people in this organization mean so much to me. I was happy about that."
Nielsen knew this wasn't going to be just another game.
"There's going to be some butterflies for me and some nerves," Nielsen said when he met with reporters about three hours before the game. "Hopefully it just gonna take a couple of shifts and I can relax and play my game."
Nielsen, one of three players to leave the Islanders in free agency along with Matt Martin (Toronto) and Kyle Okposo (Buffalo), says he wasn't looking to go elsewhere, but began exploring other options when talks with the Islanders stalled.
"It wasn't an easy decision," said Nielsen, who was the longest tenured Islander at the time of his departure. "I don't have anything bad to say about anything here. It dragged out for some reason and got to a point where I got a chance to talk to other teams and kind of realized it might be fun to get a new challenge and try something new."
So what does he cherish most about his time in New York?
"A lot, from playing the first game to scoring the first goal," Nielsen said. "The first playoff series I was in against Pittsburgh (in 2013). The (Nassau) Coliseum, just how loud it was. I don't think I'm going to experience that again. To winning a round last year. All the friendships, all the people you met not only with hockey, but away from the rink. ... One-third of my life I lived here, so lot of stuff you miss about (not) being here, too."
Nielsen said it felt 'weird' flying into town Saturday night after Detroit's loss at Pittsburgh, and then staying in a hotel nearby. When he arrived at the arena, he saw former teammate Johnny Boychuk by the player's entrance and jumped in his car for the 'two-minute ride' down to the parking level.
The Red Wings were in the market for a new center after former star Pavel Datsyuk decided to end his NHL career and return to Russia. Nielsen has fit right in with his new team, totaling six goals and nine assists in 26 games.
"I love him," Detroit coach Jeff Blashill said. "He's got inner drive to be great. He's selfless, he does what it takes to win for the team. He's an all-around player who plays in most situations for us, penalty kills, power plays, can go up against other teams' best players. ... He's got lots of experience, he's a leader-type person. There's no question he brings a presence just by with the way he handles himself and the type of teammate he is. "
With the Red Wings remaining in town overnight before flying out to Winnipeg on Monday, Nielsen expected to spend time with some of his former teammates after the game.
"The friendship you build up with all these people over the years," Nielsen said. "We had some really tough times and a lot of the guys went through the tough times here where we weren't winning. Just going from that to building a competitive team, you just build a special bond when you go through that."