If there’s one important thing Phil Varone gained in his remarkable first year with the Phantoms, it was perspective.
Part of that comes with age, some of it comes with experience, but for the most part, Varone could read the writing on the walls of the general manager’s office.
Even after a strong training camp with the Flyers this past September, Varone approached the regular season not much different than his previous experiences. The “minor league lifer” and “career journeyman” labels were becoming increasingly harder to detach from his name.
“You’re always hoping for (a call-up), but I didn’t really think about it,” Varone said. “At my age now, I’m more worried about where I am and about winning. If the call comes, the call comes. If not, I’m not too worried about it.”
Hard to believe those are the words from the best player in the American Hockey League last season. Yet Varone was resigned to the belief that he may never get a sniff with the Flyers — even after capping an impressive 2017-18 season with 70 points in 74 games earning the Les Cunningham Award as the AHL’s MVP.
That type of debut with any organization normally would have generated some hype and anticipation coming into training camp, but Varone doesn’t qualify as that can’t-miss prospect. Guys like him and T.J. Brennan and Colin MacDonald are considered the establishment, a veteran core called upon to lead by example for the promising high-draft picks who are transitioning from junior hockey to the professional level.
In all likelihood, if Ron Hextall was still calling the organizational shots, Dave Hakstol would still be behind the bench, Carter Hart would still be plugging away with the Phantoms and Varone would have never made the trip down the Northeast Extension.
“Honestly, no, I don’t think so,” Varone said when asked if he’d be with the Flyers with Hextall as GM. “And that’s why I didn’t think much about it. I wasn’t worried about it. Not that I thought it was going to happen that quickly with the change, but I think good things happen when people put their head down and stick to it and do the right things. That’s what I’ve thought about most of my career.
“I think there’s a little bit of a different mindset now with the changes that have gone on. I’m just trying to make the most of it. I’m trying to make everyone who decided to call me up look good and I’m glad I can stick.”
It took nearly 21 months between NHL call-ups following his previous late-season stint with the Senators in 2016-17, but he was willing to do whatever was required to stick around and shed a few of those labels in the process.
“I think I was just always pegged as an offensive guy," Varone said, "which sometimes is frustrating, because I know I play both sides of the puck well and I’ve shown that in the AHL. I feel like sometimes you get pegged as something that it’s hard to break that mold. I think right now I’m doing that and hopefully, I can continue it.”
With seven games now under his belt, Varone is giving the Flyers’ fourth line what it didn’t have with Jori Lehtera: speed down the middle with an ability to transition from zone-to-zone while keeping up with the pace of play.
Varone appears to be settling in under a coach he’s familiar with after stringing together a pair of solid games over the weekend.
“It’s been a cool experience. The guys have been awesome,” Varone said. “I’m just trying to soak it all in and play the best that I can. It’s been a few years. I feel like I’ve played pretty well, but I know I’ve got more to give.”
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