ROCHESTER – Sometimes Matt Moulson hears the words and tears fill his eyes.
When the former Buffalo Sabres winger left his home in Connecticut last month to begin his 14th, and possibly final pro season, his wife and two children stayed home.
After spending nearly two seasons living in Ontario, Calif., a city about 45 minutes east of Los Angeles, Moulson and his wife, Alicia, finally had enough moving.
Moulson said their daughter, Mila, 7, and son, George, 6, attended about five schools in the past three years. They needed more stability.
So Moulson has been living alone this season while playing for the Hershey Bears, the Washington Capitals’ American Hockey League affiliate.
“I get a little tear-jerky when my daughter or son say that they miss me,” said Moulson, whose family often visits him on the weekends. “That’s tough.”
Moulson’s presence in the AHL, a development league, is unusual. Former stars rarely return to the minors in the twilight of their career.
The Cornell graduate scored 30 or more goals in three consecutive seasons with the New York Islanders. From the start of the 2009-10 campaign through his Sabres debut on Oct. 28, 2013, he scored 120 goals in 305 games, the 10th-highest total in the NHL during that span.
Only one AHL player, Americans defenseman Nathan Paetsch, 36, is older than Moulson, who turns 36 on Nov. 1.
Two years ago, the Sabres waived a graying Moulson and jettisoned him to the Ontario Reign, the Kings’ top affiliate, after he went pointless in 14 outings to start the season.
His scoring touch gone, the Sabres were willing to eat the money they owed him over the final two seasons of his massive five-year, $25 million contract.
Assigning him to Rochester would have taken valuable ice time away from prospects, so the Sabres loaned him to a team 2,500 miles away.
If Moulson wanted to be paid by the Sabres, he had to play where they sent him.
Moulson, however, had options last summer. He could’ve simply retired.
But he loved his time with the Reign. He scored 46 goals and 108 points in 117 games in his first stint in the AHL since 2008-09.
Moulson said playing for Reign coach Mike Stothers “was huge for me personally and hockey-wise.”
“He was an unbelievable coach, unbelievable guy,” he said. “I think everyone kind of needs that belief in you to succeed and get that confidence back. I think that was big from him.
“So, I mean, I loved every minute I played under him and with the guys in Ontario.”
So Moulson decided to play another season. He signed a one-year AHL contract with the Bears on July 24.
“He went down to Ontario and really had a lot of fun playing the game,” said Sabres winger Kyle Okposo, Moulson’s close friend. “He really loves it again.”
In a cramped hallway outside the visiting dressing room in Blue Cross Arena following the Bears’ 5-1 loss to Amerks on Wednesday, Moulson sounded excited for the opportunities that another season presents.
He wants to fulfill two goals: win his first championship and play his 1,000th professional game.
Moulson has played 953 – 650 in the NHL and 313 in the AHL – so he could hit the milestone later this season.
“That’s big, that’s something I obviously thought about,” Moulson said. “I do want to get to that mark. I think it’s a good personal accomplishment.
“I mean, I don’t really look at many other personal accomplishments. I want to win to a championship.”
When Moulson was a prospect playing for the Manchester Monarchs, the Kings’ previous affiliate, he said he learned about the Bears’ rich history.
The Bears, the AHL’s oldest franchise, have won the Calder Cup 11 times in their 82 years. They regularly rank among the league leaders in attendance, drawing more than 9,000 fans a game to the Giant Center.
The city, he said, reminds him a bit of Buffalo.
“Blue-collar city where people love their sports,” he said.
With the Bears, Moulson has a dual role: scorer and veteran mentor. Through eight games, he has scored two goals and six points.
In the AHL, he still showcases the talents that helped him score 176 NHL goals.
Moulson never possessed blazing speed or a heavy shot. Still, he can be lethal in tight spaces around the net.
“You normally don’t see a guy that can score as much as he does that doesn’t blow you away with speed or doesn’t blow you away with a great shot or one-timer, because he doesn’t possess all those,” Hershey coach Spencer Carbery said. “But he just has that unique ability to finish plays, and all of a sudden, the puck ends up on his stick and it’s in the back of the net.”
The Capitals also covet Moulson’s ability to be a positive influence on their prospects. Carbery and Hershey center Mike Sgarbossa said Moulson carries himself like one of the guys.
“He’s made a lot of money in his career; he’s produced a lot in the NHL level; he’s done a lot in this game and you would never know it,” Sgarbossa said. “Very humble guy, very good teammate.”
Carbery said: “He’s just a great pro. He sets an example the way he carries himself, the way he works on his game, the type of person he is, his experiences – all that stuff. He makes it really, really easy to learn from him in a lot of different areas.”
While Moulson is still a top-tier AHL scorer, he knows his playing days will likely be ending in the near future. He acknowledged this season could be his last and hopes to stay in hockey whenever the end comes.
“It crosses my mind sometimes,” Moulson said. “I don’t think I ever like to commit to something, kind of take it day by day.”