Friday was a day of firsts for Shane Pinto.

The Ottawa Senators center practiced with the team and spoke to the media for the first time since being suspended for 41 games by the NHL for “sports betting activities” on Oct. 26 . The 23-year-old will be eligible to return to action on January 21 when the Senators take on Philadelphia.

“It’s great, it’s special,” he told reporters in Ottawa. It’s a bit like we take for granted being surrounded by the team and knowing how much the guys mean to us.

“I don’t want to get too emotional, but it’s great. It’s been a long road for me and I’m happy to be back among the guys. »

Pinto was already at the heart of a long contract dispute even before his suspension.

He is still a restricted free agent and was unable to secure a contract extension with the Senators this off-season. Pinto was coming off a 20-goal, 15-assist campaign in his first full season – his third overall – in 2022-23.

According to TSN, he is expected to sign a contract before returning to action later this month.

Pinto declined to go into detail about the cause of his suspension, but admitted it took him by surprise.

“A little,” he said. I don’t want to go into detail, but I was a little caught off guard. It came out of nowhere and went from there. »

“It honestly broke my heart,” he added. I love my sport so much, I put so much time and effort into it, and when you’re taken away from it for so long, it’s hard to hear. You’re in shock at first and you lean on people to help you get through it. »

Pinto said he had conversations with other players to learn from his situation.

“I think it’s become part of our daily lives,” he said of gambling in sports. We see it in advertisements now, it’s pretty obvious.

“But that’s no excuse. I have to be more careful, more mature in what I do. I have to realize the position I find myself in. Professional athletes will always be scrutinized. Like I said, I took this for granted and I need to do better. »

Pinto said he received support from the team and spent much of his “extended off-season” at home, where he was able to be surrounded by family and friends. He returned to Ottawa three weeks ago, but said he skated during his leave.

The Senators, meanwhile, have a disastrous 14-23-0 record and are in last place in the Eastern Conference. Pinto admitted he found it difficult to watch the games, especially at first, and felt “helpless.”

However, he doesn’t feel like he’s that far from his mid-season form.

“I think the timing might be a little different, but I skated a lot. I skated every day, I really improved,” he said.

“I think my conditioning will be there, maybe a few little things, like my puck control and my timing. I think I will need one or two games and hopefully I will be back and contribute. »