Florida Panthers

Florida Panthers’ Sean Bergenheim close to returning

The last time forward Sean Bergenheim played in a Panthers game, LeBron James didn’t own his first NBA title and Tuesday night’s Panthers opponent, Chicago, owned only its first Stanley Cup since 1961.

In those 18 months, the James-led Heat won two NBA titles, Chicago won last year’s Stanley Cup and Bergenheim won a grievance against the Panthers after proving his hip and abdominal injuries came from before the 2012-13 lockout. Bergenheim got green, as in a full year’s salary. He’d rather have had ice. The end of the 2012 season ended the best two-year stretch of Bergenheim’s NHL career.

“The whole last year and a half I haven’t been playing has been extremely, extremely tough,” Bergenheim said after Monday’s practice, his first since returning from physical therapy in Toronto. “I’m a hockey player and hockey player the whole time here doing rehab and working far more hours than I would be [if I were] playing. It’s been extremely tough, the whole road. For a hockey player to not to be playing, it’s a bad feeling.

“I played as long as I could injured,” he continued. “The year before the lockout, it was tough playing through that. Finally, I got the surgeries. I have no doubt these surgeries that were done, I’ll feel so much better. I can be a far better player than I was. I’m looking forward to it. It might take some time to get to 100 percent, but in the end, I’ll feel better than I have in years.”

Bergenheim finished Monday’s practice on a line with center Scott Gomez and right wing Brad Boyes. Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said Bergenheim still hadn’t been cleared to play and wouldn’t be by Tuesday night.

“I’m definitely much closer than I was before Toronto,” Bergenheim said. “We’ll keep on working with the trainers here, who have been unbelievable to me since I got back, the time they’ve given me. I think it’s sooner rather than later.”

Sooner on the Panthers schedule are the Blackhawks. For most of the Panthers history, Detroit stood as the NHL’s standard for consistent success. Now, it’s Chicago. Unlike 2010, the franchise could keep the Cup-winning team pretty much intact instead of suffer some salary cap-prompted disintegration.

“They have a consistent level of play because there’s a lot of guys who have been there a long time,” said Panthers left wing Kris Versteeg, a member of the 2010 Stanley Cup winners. “The odd time, they switch it up, but these guys play as linemates, as teammates, consistently every night for the last five, six, seven years. They know where they are on the ice, they understand their roles.

“I remember when I was there, they were really trying to emulate the Detroit Red Wings’ style,” he continued. “That’s why they brought in [former Detroit coach] Scotty Bowman as senior advisor to hockey operations. It seems to have poured into their team because, just like Detroit, Chicago’s the team year after year other teams are trying to emulate.”