When Cam Atkinson said goodbye Columbus last summer he knew a future homecoming date was bound to happen.
That red-letter number on the calendar has finally arrived.
On Thursday night, the Flyers right wing will return for the first time to the Ohio capital where he played the better part of 10 years for the Blue Jackets.
Atkinson, 32, came over in the trade which sent Jake Voracek back to the Blue Jackets (where he began his career).
Both players have experienced successful seasons. Atkinson leads the Flyers in goals, points and shorthanded goals. Voracek, who’s been back to Philly twice already (including Tuesday night’s 4-2 Columbus win at the Wells Fargo Center), leads the Blue Jackets in assists with 46.
Atkinson enjoyed his time in Columbus and says he plans to make his post-career home there. As for what kind of reception to expect, the Connecticut native anticipates a positive one.
“I’m excited to head back to Columbus, I spent 10 years there,’’ Atkinson said after Wednesday’s practice at the Wells Fargo Center. “Made a lot of friends in the hockey world and friends outside of hockey. I have friends and family flying in (from Connecticut) for the game so I’m sure tomorrow is going to be a little more emotional.’’
With captain Claude Giroux traded to Florida last month, some of the leadership slack has been taken up by veterans such as Atkinson, Kevin Hayes and Ivan Provorov.
While the Flyers and Blue Jackets are both out of playoff contention, this game should have a little more juice than one of those play-out-the-string affairs.
“Definitely anxious to get there and just see people I haven’t seen in a long time,’’ Atkinson said. “I think I’m happier that it’s later in the season than the start, just to digest everything that’s happened. I talked to Nick Foligno who went through the same experience. He gave me some advice, said just enjoy the moment.’’
Atkinson was a popular player in Columbus and that’s why Thursday night should be a good experience.
“I spent a lot of time there within the community,’’ he said. “Made so many friends. Hopefully it’s going to be a good turnout. Hopefully a lot of cheers and no boos.’’
Prior to Thursday night, the Blue Jackets had already visited Philadelphia in January and came away with a 2-1 win. That, said Atkinson, helped ease the transition.
“Got the nerves out,’’ he said. “There are a lot of different faces on that team, a lot of new faces. The core guys that were there the last four, five years are gone. I’m excited to go back, experience it and just walk through Nationwide (Arena). . .all the people behind the scenes who go unnoticed but were part of my career there.’’
Interim head coach Mike Yeo appreciates what Thursday’s game will mean to Atkinson.
“I think our fans have had a chance to see what he brings to an organization,’’ Yeo said. “The work ethic that he brings every night, the passion he plays the game with. Obviously makes him a fan favorite. When you play that way, you invest a lot into an organization. He has memories of the intense battles he’s had so it’s going to be a special night for him.’’
Atkinson was one of those players drafted low (sixth round, 157th overall by Columbus in 2008) who worked his way to the top and provided inspiration for all those players who weren’t high draft picks.
“I think Cam is a good example for young players and old players,’’ Yeo said. “It’s him recognizing the impact he has on everyone else. He’s the guy who is going to block the shot, the guy that’s going to be on the right side of the puck, goes hard to the net. Those are all things that winners do.’’
Right after Giroux left town, Yeo stuck an “A’’ (for alternate captain) on Atkinson’s jersey and it probably would have been a “C’’ if not for showing Giroux respect by not making the transition until next season.
“It’s his first year with our organization but in the absence of G (Giroux) and Coots (Sean Couturier) not having an ‘A,’ that’s a big part of why he an ‘A’ has been on his (Atkinson’s) jersey at different times,’’ Yeo said.
Martin Jones will start in goal for the Flyers. . .The Flyers’ power play has sunk to historic lows, now ranked last in the NHL at 12.81 percent. If the Flyers finish the season under 13 percent, it will mark a new franchise low dating back to the organization’s inception in 1967.