Wade Redden's hockey career has been quite the wild ride.
Twenty years ago, almost to the day, the farm kid from Hillmond, Sask., was breaking into the WHL as a 16-year-old defenceman with the Brandon Wheat Kings. He enjoyed a breakout campaign in 1994 and was named the league's rookie of the year.
Ten years ago, Redden was blossoming into one of the NHL's best defenceman, entering the first of two all-star seasons with Ottawa. Just over five years ago, on July 1, 2008, he became one of the richest blue-liners in NHL history, signing a six-year, US$39-million contract with the New York Rangers.
It all sounds like the perfect life, with a laundry list of accolades in between those accomplishments, but Redden's world would soon come crashing down.
Nowadays, he's a 36-year-old unrestricted free agent, awaiting a contract offer. He's been passing the time at his summer home in the Okanagan and practising with the WHL's Kelowna Rockets on an almost daily basis at Prospera Place. Redden is easily recognizable there, both for his advanced skill level and the shades of grey in his five o'clock shadow - not to mention his Boston Bruins helmet from last season's run to the Stanley Cup final, which they lost in six games to the champion Chicago Blackhawks.
"I'm fortunate that they've welcomed me out on the ice with them," said Redden. "It's the highest level of junior and there's some really good players, so in my position, to be able to stay on the ice and practise at a high level, that's important for me, too."
From the Rockets' perspective, Redden, a 16-year pro, has been a welcome addition to the fold.
"He's like one of the guys right now; he takes part in every practice drill, and we even have a name-tag in our dressing room for him," said Rockets coach Ryan Huska. "It's not every day where you can have a guy that's played a thousand games in the NHL practising with us. It's a pretty great experience for our guys to be around that, and he's been wonderful in our dressing room for our players."
Redden's been enjoying the experience as well, reminiscing about days gone by and also envisioning what's still to come in his playing career, which he hopes will resume sooner than later.
"Obviously, I'd like to get somewhere and get playing myself, but, in the meantime, it's been good," said Redden, who has played 1,129 NHL games. "I've been waiting on an actual contract, but it's tough to know what the right thing to do is. I went to Boston and had a pretty good finish to the year, so hopefully someone is going to need a veteran guy, and hopefully it's not going to be too long."
It's certainly been a strange off-season, with the new post-lockout CBA lowering the salary cap and leaving several veterans on the outside looking in as of today.
Among defencemen effected, Ron Hainsey just recently signed a one-year, $2-million deal with Carolina, while the likes of Ryan Whitney (St. Louis), Tom Gilbert (Florida), Hal Gill (Philadelphia) and Ian White (Winnipeg) were forced to accept professional tryouts. White has since been released by the Jets and remains unemployed, along with Redden and others, such as Carlo Colaiacovo.
"The pinch was felt all the way down," said Redden. "A lot of teams have young guys in those spots right now, so we might have to wait and see."
Redden isn't contemplating retirement, nor is he putting too much thought towards a future in coaching despite acting as an extra set of eyes and offering pointers at Rockets practice.
"I want to keep playing, for sure," Redden said, adding he feels he's got a few good years left in him. "It's hard to say what's next after that; I've spun circles thinking about all that, so I'm trying not to think about it now."
For now, though, Redden doesn't mind lending his expertise and a helping hand to Huska and assistant coach Dan Lambert, who works primarily with Kelowna's defence.
"Whether it's just little positioning things, that's kind of a strongpoint that I've had in my career," Redden said. "But they're great here, the coaches are on top of a lot of that stuff and they've played at a high level, too. It's just fun to be out there and working with these guys."
Fun being the keyword, symbolic of an on-ice emotion that Redden hasn't felt much during the last few seasons.
A lot has changed in the WHL since Redden led Brandon to consecutive Memorial Cup appearances in 1995 and 1996, but that is the one constant -Â fun. And to that end, he's enjoying giving back to the game.
"It's been a long time since I was around this league and the game's really evolved," Redden said. "You look at these kids and I think the skill level has definitely jumped up. But it's great to be around this environment, to remember and to see how much fun they have every day.
"It's a great environment for them to be in, to grow and to become men, and I think the Rockets do a real good job here with them."
Redden was also a mentor in recent years for New York's blue-line prospects with the AHL's Hartford Wolfpack and Connecticut Whale. That role wasn't by choice, however, as Redden's steadily declining play resulted in a demotion to the minor leagues as the Rangers sought salary-cap relief from his aforementioned eight-figure contract.
After playing two seasons with New York's farm clubs, Redden was bought out by the Rangers just prior to the lockout-shortened season. Finally a free agent, Redden wasted little time inking a new one-year deal worth $800,000 with the St. Louis Blues last January. It turned out to be a short, 23-game stint as the Blues dealt Redden to the Bruins at the trade deadline in early April. With Boston, Redden managed two goals and four points in 11 combined games, though he found himself a healthy scratch more often than not throughout the playoffs. That roller-coaster season featured highs and lows for Redden, much like the previous two decades.
There was a time when Redden could do no wrong, also helping Canada capture consecutive gold medals at the world juniors in 1995 and '96. He was the second overall pick in the 1995 draft by the New York Islanders, but never played for that franchise. Redden was traded to Ottawa prior to his rookie season in a swap for first overall pick Bryan Berard.