Sergei Gonchar is not sure what he will miss most about Pittsburgh.
"It has not hit me yet that I will not be back," he said Friday from his offseason home in Miami. "Ask me in a few months when I am not there every day."
Gonchar, 36, signed a three-year contract that totals $16.5 million with the Ottawa Senators within 30 minutes after the NHL free-agent market opened at noon Wednesday.
By autographing that offer sheet, he ended a five-year career with the Penguins. The notable numbers: 54 goals, 205 points, a Stanley Cup and a pivotal role mentoring fellow Russian Evgeni Malkin.
During an exclusive interview with the Tribune-Review, Gonchar referred to the Penguins as "we," the Senators as "them" — catching his mistake only at the end.
"It is a business, and it will be my job to adjust, and I will," he said. "I can tell you it will not be easy for me to leave. When I talk to my grandchildren about playing in the NHL, I will start with playing in Pittsburgh. It was like I started a new career there."
Did you enter last season thinking it would be your final year with the Penguins?
No. I always thought we would get a deal done. Even at noon on Wednesday I thought we would get a deal done. It was tough because I wanted to stay there. We won a Cup together. We had great chemistry, and I thought we had a shot to win more.
How often did you talk to Evgeni Malkin about your contract situation, and when did you talk to him after signing with Ottawa?
It was tough for me to call him and say, "Oh, OK, I'm with Ottawa — goodbye." It was not like that, but we did talk on Wednesday. He understands from both sides, I believe. I talked with a lot of my teammates or heard from them by text message before Wednesday, and after; it was not just Evgeni. I heard from Sidney (Crosby) and Max (Talbot). I had great relationships in Pittsburgh. That won't change.
What did Malkin say when you told him you were leaving?
(Laughs) I can tell you, but only in Russian.
There was no shortage of interested teams, so why the Senators?
Well, it is a Canadian city. You know how Canada is with hockey; playing up there is something special. If I was going to leave, I wanted to go someplace where hockey really mattered. Also, we played against them a lot in the playoffs and I do believe they are a good team. They played us very tough in the playoffs. They are very close to winning the Cup, and I believe I can help them go that next step.
The Penguins weren't willing to give you a third year, and a lot of people believe their reluctance was the sensible move.
Yes, I can say before you ask that it motivates me. My goal is not to play just until that third year. I want to play in the NHL until the (2014) Olympics. They are in Russia, and I would love to be there for my country. Three years was never going to be the end of my career.
How do you view your legacy with the Penguins?
You (media) guys can decide that. I never thought about it, and it is tough for me to judge right now. Everything was so quick. I woke up a Penguin on Wednesday and just after noon I was with Ottawa. Maybe in a year or two you will have a good answer to that question, you will write something and I will let you know if I agree or disagree.
I can say now you were one of the most impactful players in franchise history, but I'm curious if you believe playing a vital role in the Penguins' revival was important for your hockey legacy?
I honestly have never thought one second about that. What I will remember is playing for a first-class organization that treated me and my family well. What we had in Pittsburgh was a great atmosphere, great friendships and, for me, special teammates. That is why I wanted to stay.
Your start with the Penguins was rough by your own admission. Fans warmed to you, but some of them said you shouldn't be re-signed. They were unhappy with your performance in the Game 7 loss against Montreal. What is your last message to them?
Thanks for everything, and I mean that. The first year I was not as good as I would have liked to be, and I would like to say to them thank you for getting over that. They turned around and cheered me, and the people were always kind to my family. All that energy at the (Mellon) Arena — I had never played with home crowds excited for hockey.