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Florida Panthers coach Andrew Brunette back ‘home’ in Minnesota

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Minnesota Wild forward Andrew Brunette works the puck behind the net in a 2011 game against the Nashville Predators at Bridgestone Arena. — Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire

Florida Panthers coach Andrew Brunette was born and raised in Sudbury, Ontario, but it is not a reach to say Minnesota became home.

Playing for the Wild is where Brunette saw some of his biggest career accomplishments on the ice — and it is where he got his start off of it.

One reason Brunette decided to retire after 1,110 NHL games in 2013 was because then-Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher had made him an offer to join the team’s front office as a hockey operations advisor.

Brunette has walked into the Xcel Energy Center a few times as a visitor; first with the Colorado Avalanche following his first stint with the Wild, then with the Blackhawks after his second.

”There’s always mixed emotions coming back in here after spending as much time as I have,” Brunette said.

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In 2020, he came to town as an assistant coach with the Panthers — and left with a 5-4 win.

Brunette’s Minnesota homecoming was overshadowed by Joel Quenneville’s return to Chicago the following day.

Thursday, he was back in the building he called home for so long — this time as a head coach.

Brunette ran the Panthers’ practice and will return to the visitors’ bench Friday night coaching his very own team in this building.

“It doesn’t isn’t any different being the head coach than it was coming in as a player,’’ Brunette said. “There are a lot of special memories.”

Had the Wild not let Brunette go in 2019, he probably would not be where he is right now.

Ironically, the man who basically fired him — then-GM Paul Fenton — now works in the Florida front office under Bill Zito. Fenton was fired by the Wild just months after the 2018-19 season ended.

Brunette served the Wild in a variety of roles over the years from player development to being an assistant coach. He was assistant GM under Fletcher before Fenton took over and spent one year as director of player personnel before Fenton had him looking for a job.

Turns out, Brunette was packing up and heading to South Florida.

Quenneville, who coached Brunette in Colorado and in his final season as a player in Chicago, made Brunette one of his first hires after taking the Florida job in 2019.

Brunette told FHN earlier this month that he wasn’t completely sold on going back behind the bench. Being able to work under Quenneville — “if I was going to do it again, I was going to go and learn from the best,” he said — sealed the deal.

It has worked out pretty well. For Brunette and the Panthers.

“It’s never fun but at the same time, I think it was time. It was time for me to move on and try some different things,” said Brunette, who replaced Quenneville as coach of the Panthers on an interim basis in October.

“I think I was ready for a different challenge. I had wonderful years and cannot say enough good things about this organization. But, for me, it was something that was needed and maybe long overdue. I needed to experience things, grow as a person and in the hockey world. It was a great opportunity.

“I didn’t think I would be standing here right now. I thought I would still be doing what I was doing, learning from the best and seeing if I really wanted to coach.”

The Panthers hit a couple of rough patches since Quenneville’s resignation — mainly due to injury or Covid — but continued their high pace of play throughout.

Brunette continues to run Quenneville’s system, and his familiarity with how the Panthers play and their personnel was one reason Zito asked him to take over the team.

Their success, and how Brunette has handled the team, is the big reason while he still has it.

“There really hasn’t been too much of a change,” MacKenzie Weegar said Thursday. “I think he really stepped into the head coaching role and has done a great job for us. He has the respect of the room, the respect of the team. We really do love playing for him. Not much has changed. We just keep going and he keeps doing a great job as a coach keeping us focused and prepared.”

Expect a warm welcome for Brunette from the hockey-mad Minnesota crowd on Friday night.

After all, he was one of the most popular players in the franchise’s history.

Of his 1,110 games, 489 came with the Wild. Brunette also played in 18 games during the 2003 playoffs when the third-year Wild made it to the Western Conference finals.

Brunette not only scored the first goal in Nashville Predators’ history in 1998 — but perhaps the biggest goal in Wild history as he sent Patrick Roy to retirement when his overtime goal in Game 7 of the opening round beat the Avalanche.

“I think a huge part of my life has been dedicated to the Minnesota Wild, and that’s never going to change,” Brunette told the Athletic earlier this season before Florida beat the Wild 5-4 in Sunrise.

“It’s a very special place for me. So, any time we play them, any time even when I watch them on TV there’s a sense of all kinds of different emotions. There’s a sense of pride with how that organization grew from when we first got there. …

“Those were great years. So, it’s always there, and it’ll be interesting coaching against them. I went up against them a few times a couple years ago as an assistant, and at the end of the day, it’s just hockey. But definitely, that feeling never leaves that organization.”

Said Weegar: “He hasn’t said anything, but we know he played here a long time and it’s a special place for him. We’re looking to get the two points for him.”

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