BOROCOP RETURNS: Mark Borowiecki returns to Canadian Tire Center with the Nashville Predators

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Always grateful and respectful for the career opportunities he has received, Mark Borowiecki acknowledges he has thought plenty about his long awaited return home.

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“I expect it to be emotional,” Borowiecki said in a telephone interview Wednesday before joining his Nashville Predators teammates for an afternoon flight to Ottawa for Thursday’s game against the Senators.

“As I get older and start having kids, I’m more emotional about everything. It will be great to see some people. Ottawa is still in my heart and, obviously, I have a lot of a lot of good memories and relationships.”

Borowiecki, 32, is cut from the same cloth as so many of the NHL tough guys before him.

Tough as nails on the ice — he fought twice more in Tuesday’s 6-2 win over the Nashville Predators and leads the NHL with 124 penalty minutes — he’s reflective and compassionate off the ice, comfortably talking about the game and/or the endless array of causes he supports.

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After graduating from the Smiths Falls Bears and the Binghamton Senators, I have spent nine years in Ottawa, defending the front of the net and protecting his more skilled teammates in the trenches of the rink. Gradually over time, fans learned to pronounce his name from him and warmed up to the tough elements and leadership he brought to the ice.

Ideally, the stay at home defenseman and alternate captain would have stayed at home, serving as a mentor for the club’s rebuilding movement, just as general manager Pierre Dorion pledged would happen as Borowiecki approached unrestricted free agency in 2020.

Over the years, Borowiecki did everything asked of him, including that awkward dressing room interview with late owner Eugene Melnyk before the start of the 2018 season. When he stepped up to stop a robbery on the streets of Vancouver during a Senators road trip in 2019, the BoroCop legend grew as he created new fans and made headlines across the country.

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Suddenly, though, all those good vibrations disappeared in a behind the scenes dispute that involved Melnyk. Borowiecki was never offered a contract after the 2019-20 season.

In keeping with his professional nature, Borowiecki is taking the high road on what went down.

Choosing his words carefully, he says there are numerous good people in the Senators organization.

“It’s sad,” he said of Melnyk’s passing last week. “My first thought was for the family. He was someone’s father. That’s what it’s about. It’s not about hockey. You put the game aside. I didn’t agree with everything that happened and there is a lot of contentious stuff, but it’s about family right now.”

Ever since his departure, the Senators have struggled to find a rugged and reliable third pairing defenseman to replace him.

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When his career is done, Borowiecki plans to return to Ottawa, taking his kids to Senators games, just like his father introduced him to Senators games when he was a toddler. Three weeks ago, Borowiecki’s wife, Tara, gave birth to Leigh, a sister for two-year-old Miles.

For now, Borowiecki is all in on doing what he can to help the Predators, who hold the first wild card spot in the Western Conference.

Tuesday marked his return from an injury and he made the most of his 11:44 of ice time. In addition to his two fights, he picked up an assist on fellow former Senator Matt Duchene’s 36th goal of the year.

There’s a mutual respect between Borowiecki and the Predators, who stood by him last season as he dealt with anxiety and mental issues. Last month, the Predators quietly extended their contract for the 2022-23 season.

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“It was a big relief for sure,” he said of the new deal. “A situation like that puts you on edge and can stress you out.”

All the gestures of support are part of what Borowiecki says is an “awesome” environment.

Fighting isn’t easy on a 30-something body that has endured plenty of hard miles through 442 NHL games, but if that’s what the situation calls for, he’ll continue to drop the gloves.

“A few things go into it,” he said.

“I know what my role is and I’m playing behind two of the best defensemen in the league (Roman Josi and Mattias Ekholm.)

I know what my job is and I will fight if I need to. You go through ebbs and flows during your career, trying to figure out whether fighting is worth it, but (I appreciate) these guys and what they mean to me, especially with the struggles I had last year.”

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Borowiecki says the Predators showed their “ultra competitive nature” in their spirited win over the Wild, continuing to surprise because “not a lot of people had us picked to make a lot of noise.”

The leader is Josi, the Predators captain who leads NHL defensemen with 19 goals and 84 points. Josi appears to be a lock for the Norris Trophy and also has a shot at winning the Hart Trophy as league MVP.

Back in his Senators days, of course, Borowiecki played with Erik Karlsson when he was at his peak.

“There are some similarities,” he said. “They both have the ability to make something out of nothing. The other thing is they are both underrated shot blockers. Roman is way better defensively than people credit him for because of his offensive skills.

“Roman’s practice habits are unbelievable. Every rep he does full out. That’s why his skills are there to make him one of the best in the NHL. I’ve been fortunate to play with both of those guys.”

On Thursday, Borowiecki will be thinking back on his memories of Karlsson, Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, Mark Stone, Kyle Turris, Jean-Gabriel Pageau and so many former Senators stars as he takes everything in again at Canadian Tire Centre.

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