Paul Ranger’s last day at work as an NHL defenceman was on Oct. 22, 2009 when he was employed by the Tampa Bay Lightning. Two days later he left the office, citing personal reasons.

He never returned and remained out of hockey for three years.

Wednesday was his first day back at his old job in the NHL — this after a successful return to hockey with the Toronto Marlies in the AHL last year.

He was so happy to be back at work that he cried, which is just one reason he’s the most intriguing, even mysterious figure on the Toronto Maple Leafs deep roster of potential NHL defenders.

Leafs general manager Dave Nonis was touting him as a potential fixture among his club’s top four defencemen. It may have been a tribute to the 28-year-old’s skills (he turns 29 Thursday) while also serving as a reminder to Cody Franson — absent from camp in a contract dispute — that the club has options.

Either way it’s another huge step on a remarkable journey for Ranger.

That the journey from where he was to where he is now was an arduous, even torturous thing seems self-evident. The first day of training camp is a happy time and full of promise for anyone, generally. For Ranger it’s a life-changer and a sign of a life changed.

“It means everything,” he said, the tears welling up and spilling over the corner of his eyes serving testament. “This is huge and I know it. It’s a big part of my life. All I can say is I’m really excited for it. I’m emotional about it because it means so much. I know that I have greatness within me and I’m going to prove it.

“It’s a new setting; a new journey … I’m pumped for it.”

As for what happened in the intervening three years, Ranger politely refuses to address it or any of the circumstances even tangential to it.

“That’s off limits for me,” he said. “I’m not really going to talk about it at this point. I did a lot of things for myself; I just needed my own time.”

Those closest to Ranger try to explain what happened to their friend and a budding NHL star without tripping on his privacy.

David Branch has known Ranger since he was a precocious kid he coached in minor hockey with the Whitby Wildcats.

“He was always one of my favourites, not because he was one of the better players,” says Branch, the commissioner of the Canadian Hockey League. “But because he was a very bright kid and he did very well in school and had a lot of questions. He was always very philosophical, even at a young age.”

For all its speed, skill and power hockey is a mental game — Ranger, a physical specimen at 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds who wows even fellow physical specimens (“He’s a monster,” says Leafs defenseman Mark Fraser, who played with Ranger on the Marlies last season) knows it better than most.

Without anyone saying so — least of all Ranger — it’s clear that it was his struggles to deal with his mind and where it was taking him was the backdrop for his long sabbatical from hockey.

“People have to understand: [The NHL] is not for everyone,” says Branch. “And you have to respect that Paul isn’t trapped by all of that. He’s got a different value system.”

Athleticism, skill, fitness — they came easily to Ranger. And he could think his way through a hockey game just fine. But that’s only part of being a professional hockey player at the NHL level.

“It’s all pieces of the puzzle,” Ranger says. “Athleticism is a huge part of that; another big part of that is fitness.
“And then the other part — the biggest part — is the mental side. It’s the biggest side of life. … As an athlete it’s drilled you want to improve, but the mental side of the game is something that’s not talked about very much or trained, and it has to do with everything: confidence, self-esteem; mental strength, courage. Some people have doubts.

“If you go into a big meeting (in a regular job) are you nervous? How do you feel? Are you going to fold or are you going to push through? As a young player it’s difficult to come into a camp (feeling) like that. It’s a skill to develop to learn how to think a certain way and practice it.”

For a while he didn’t know if he wanted to do what it took to play. He stepped away from the game with no explanation then and none now. He worked on a fishing charter in Tampa for a while. He enrolled briefly in university. Those are the few details he’ll acknowledge.

He did what many other people his age who weren’t NHL hockey players did: he drifted and doubted and tried — as Branch says — to make sense of the transition of playing for fun and passion and playing for keeps.

It’s no one’s fault, but hockey has things inside out.

In the regular world the mid-twenties are still an age of discovery, adjustment and hopefully making that transition into adulthood. It doesn’t always go smoothly, but that’s the point. You grow.

In hockey it’s called the prime of your career, or at least the early stages of it. With the sport as a foundation everything is expected to fall into place and if it doesn’t fit with the mission — discard it, suppress it or keep it secret.

For Ranger it wasn’t falling into place, but he couldn’t ignore it and he couldn’t continue with the mission.

“And a lot people go through that in their lives,” he says.

Ultimately he got around his past by going back to the beginning. In the fall of 2011 — already two years out of the NHL — he ended up coaching an elite Bantam AAA team — 14-year-olds — with Branch and his two sons; childhood friends.

In working with the kids and with his friends Ranger rediscovered an unexpected joy.

“It was energizing, revitalizing. It just gave me a new perspective or relived perspective about what I enjoyed about the game,” he says. “It was a pleasure.”

Again, tears.

The team was good; eventually they won the provincial championship. Ranger remains in touch with many of them via text or through training in Whitby in the summer.

For a long time he had his provincial gold medal dangling from the mirror of his car.

It’s 18 months later and he can easily rhyme off where his old charges are playing — many of them chasing the same dreams he lived and for a long time put on hold.

“Everyone knows, life changes. And I felt like something I had lost I regained,” he says. “(Coaching) helped me in all areas of my life. I’m very fortunate to have that opportunity and I found a new passion — a renewed passion, and I think I helped those kids on and off the ice.”

A spark had been lit and he began to train again. Big, mobile defenceman who once soaked up 25 minutes a night are a rare commodity, even if they’ve been away from the game. He quickly landed a one-year contract with the Marlies. He had to give up the coaching — reluctantly — to commit to life as a full-time hockey player again.

“I remember my first game back I was like a horse out there, hooves going everywhere,” he says.

Everything was off: timing, touch, instincts. But they came back. The physical side of things was never a problem.

“I remember Game 17 I looked in the mirror and realized I got it,” he says, without being able to explain what happened in that particular game. “I remember having almost an out of body thing and just at myself and I knew. I’ve never looked back.”

The Leafs signed him to a one-way deal worth $1-million in the summer, describing him as a player simply too good for the AHL. He turned down more lucrative offers — Edmonton was an ardent suitor — to be home where his friends and family are close.

Wednesday things came full circle. The man who walked way from hockey was the happiest Leaf at camp; the only one with tears running down his cheeks as evidence. Where he’s been, exactly, he won’t say. But he’s back.

“I feel so strong inside I almost feel like nothing can stop me. I (faced) a lot of needed challenges both on and off the ice and here I am — look at what I’m wearing,” he says, popping the Leafs crest on his jersey.

“I never had any doubts about being able to come back and being able to physically play the game. I never had one doubt in my mind,” he says.

But the game is more complicated than that. Life is more complicated than that. And Ranger sounds like he’s got a handle on that side of the game — and life — too.

“I just had some personal issues to get through and I have,” he says. “Everyone does in this world.”