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Antoine Vermette making himself at home with Blackhawks

Brandon Saad knew he liked playing with Antoine Vermette right away. He just had no idea what to call him. First names are all but forbidden in the NHL, after all. There are only so many ways a hockey nickname can go — add a “y” or an “sy” to the end of the last name, maybe an “er,” maybe just go with the first syllable, or maybe some sort of combination — but Saad wasn’t sure.

So during his first practice with Vermette after he was acquired by the Blackhawks, Saad simply walked up to his new linemate and asked.

“I said, ‘Vermy’ is good,” Vermette said. “You Saader? OK, let’s go with that. Now we can go out there and play.”

It’s a strange thing to be traded, particularly late in the season. It’s not just about adapting to new coaches and new systems and new linemates. It’s about learning nicknames and getting directions to the rink and finding your way around the arena and learning the protocols, personalities and peccadilloes that make every team different.

Vermette’s been through this before. The trade that sent him from Arizona to Chicago on Feb. 28 was the third deadline deal of his career. But this time, he brought his wife with him. And his year-old daughter. And his dog. Oh, and his wife’s pregnant, too.

“I got it all, man,” he said with a laugh. “It’s fun. My name was floating around in trade rumors all year, and at some point, I told my wife that if something would happen, I wanted them around me. I’m glad they came, even though it’s not the best setup for them right now.”

They’re all staying in a hotel right now, but have been aggressively looking for a home — a rental, of course, with a month-to-month lease. Because that’s basically what Vermette is. The 32-year-old center is in the last year of his contract worth $3.75 million a season, and is unlikely to fit into the cap-strapped Hawks’ future plans.

But the fit has been so good, the transition so easy and natural, that both sides would love to try to make it work. Vermette has been everything the Hawks hoped he would be — a skilled-yet-responsible two-way forward who has greatly bolstered the team’s depth down the middle, lessening the burden on Brad Richards and freeing up Andrew Shaw in the process. Vermette’s line with Saad and Teuvo Teravainen has been consistently dangerous since it was formed.

It’s no surprise he’s a perfect fit in Joel Quenneville’s system. His previous coach, Arizona’s Dave Tippett, is an old friend and philosophical match of Quenneville, though the two have greatly different talent pools with which to work. Vermette was one of Tippett’s favorites, too.

“Your depth down the middle is huge for you team,” Jonathan Toews said. “But to add a guy like Vermy is huge because of the way that he plays. He’s good on both sides of the puck, he wins draws, he’s skilled. He can make his wingers better, not only 5-on-5, but he can kill penalties, he’s got experience on the power play. There’s not a whole lot he doesn’t do well out there.”

Vermette knows the reality of the situation, that the Hawks probably can’t afford him beyond this year, that his stay in Chicago will be brief. But with his family in tow, a place to live in the works, and a working knowledge of nicknames and United Center corridors, systems and athletic trainers, Vermette’s doing his best to make himself feel at home.

“I like it here, it’s great,” he said. “But I recognize it’s a tricky position, and out of my control. That being said, my focus couldn’t be further from that. I like it here right now, and I see the potential and the opportunity this group has. I’m very glad to be a part of that, for however long I am.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com
Twitter: @marklazerus