Sunday night, Rob Zepp stood in a goal crease for the anthem before a hockey game.
For the past nine seasons, those anthems have been those of foreign countries. He’s heard anthems hundreds of times in juniors, minors and international play, but Sunday night in Winnipeg was different.
In his 512th pro start – 13 years since the Carolina Hurricanes drafted him in the fourth round -, Rob Zepp listened to those anthems as the starting goalie in a NHL game, winning his debut for the Philadelphia Flyers over the Jets 4-3 in overtime.
Anyone who has been around pro hockey knows the pinnacle of any career is putting skates on the ice at the highest level in the game.
Many men will spend their prime years plowing away at small rinks around the country and world, ride buses for what seems like forever and sacrifice everything to get that shot. Some guys spend years in strange lands, learning new languages to get their chance in the NHL.
Sunday was a victory for all those journeymen, even before the first puck dropped at the MTS Centre.
The labor of love
Rob Zepp certainly took the road less traveled to becoming the oldest NHL goalie to win his debut since 1926. He played for the Plymouth Whalers in the Ontario Hockey League, the SEC of the junior hockey world.
After turning 18, he was the fourth-round draft pick of the Atlanta Thrashers. He finished in Plymouth, and won the OHL’s Dave Pinkney Trophy – as the Whalers had the lowest GAA all three seasons – before re-entering the draft and going to the Carolina Hurricanes in the fourth round.
Not a lot of players go into the draft twice.
Zepp ended his juniors’ eligibility as captain of the Whalers and joined the Hurricanes’ minor league system. He spent four years, mainly with the ECHL affiliate Florida Everblades; although, he did appear in seven games for the AHL’s Lowell Lock Monsters.
The path to the NHL took a sharp turn when he left North America for Finland after the 2005 lockout ended. When he took his talents abroad, the Hurricanes won their first Stanley Cup and rookie goalie Cam Ward won the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP.
Such is the mercurial and often frustrating path of the hockey goalie.
After two years in Finland’s top league, Zepp took his talents to Germany and signed with Eisbäeren Berlin in the top German league. He took the opportunity and made it unforgettable.
In seven seasons, he led his club to five domestic titles and the 2011 European trophy, a continent-wide league similar to UEFA Champions League.
He won top goalie in the continental league twice and even earned German citizenship to play for the national team in the IIHF World Championships. When Germany attempted to qualify for the Sochi Games, Zepp appeared in two games.
Return to North America
At 33, Zepp reported to Flyers camp and joined a crowded goalie battle. There was no expectation he would unseat either Steve Mason or Ray Emery, who started for the Flyers last season.
He replaced the historic city of Berlin with Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and the brand new arena for the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. Back in the AHL, he has split time with the Flyers’ top goalie prospect Anthony Stolarz, the 20-year-old who shares a hometown with Six Flags Great Adventure.
The opportunity he didn’t expect came knocking this weekend when Mason went down during Friday’s practice, the last before the Flyers’ eight-game holiday road trip started (Philly fans know this happens every year, as the team cedes their space to Disney on Ice).
Zepp returned home to the Toronto area and watched the Flyers crush the Maple Leafs 7-4 Saturday night. Fittingly, the improbable dream would occur against the franchise, which first drafted him 15 Junes ago (the Thrashers moved to Winnipeg and revived the dormant Jets brand).
Was he nervous? He said,
As calm as you try to be, when you wait this long and you get out on the ice, I’m not going to lie I didn’t feel like myself in the first 10 minutes.
And it was a little complicated too because (the Jets) were flying out there. I don’t remember much from the first 10 minutes but I was able to get my feet under me and play more of my game.
Jakub Voracek staked the Flyers to a lead 46 seconds in, but the Jets tallied twice in 55 seconds to take the lead and widened it during the middle period. The Flyers entered the third period, trailing by two, but made a comeback.
Two goals by Vincent Lecavalier, who returned to the lineup following a prolonged benching, tied the game and forced overtime. Off the opening face-off, captain Claude Giroux forced a turnover behind the Jets’ goal line and Voracek deposited the loose puck near side.
It took 33 years to get to the NHL, but only 10 seconds of overtime to make Rob Zepp a winning goalie.
It seems likely that Zepp will return to the Phantoms once Mason is fit to play. The Flyers have their history of goalie struggles since current GM Ron Hextall hung up his mask more than a decade ago.
Hextall was the only goalie to force the mighty Oilers of the 80s to a seventh game in the Stanley Cup Finals and claimed the Conn Smythe for his heroics.
For all the journeymen players out there, the guys who keep playing in smaller rinks and riding the bus and for everyone who strives for that paradise unfound, Sunday night in Winnipeg was as glorious as any game seven.
This is the season of miracles, and Sunday night proved that faith and hope can lead you to incredible feats and overcome the impossible.
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