While under duress from Anaheim Ducks winger Max Comtois in pursuit of the puck behind him, Flyers defenseman Cam York exuded the California cool demeanor he’s known for.

Seven minutes into his season debut in his hometown of Anaheim on Jan. 4, York skated back inside his own blue line to retrieve a loose puck. He then quickly switched directions with the puck to shake the forechecking Comtois, entered the neutral zone, and with two Ducks in his face sent a cross-seam pass to Oskar Lindblom waiting at the opposite blue line.

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That patience and poise, hallmarks of York’s game, garnered praise from interim assistant coach Nick Schultz, who started working with York in player development after the Flyers drafted him in the first round, 14th overall, in 2019.

“When guys are coming, he can look guys off, turn back, and make plays,” Schultz said. “He’s not necessarily throwing the puck away. He understands if he’s in trouble, if you’ve got to make a hard play and get it out so you’re not playing in your end, he’ll do that.”

Three games into his call-up from the taxi squad to the Flyers’ active roster, the 21-year-old York has proved to be a valuable addition to a team shorthanded because of COVID-19 protocols. York has averaged 22:13 of ice time per night, quarterbacked the top power play, and registered his first NHL point with an assist on James van Riemsdyk’s power-play goal against the San Jose Sharks.

Now, after starting the season with the Phantoms, York is on a mission to show that he’s deserving of being a mainstay with the Flyers.

“I went down with the mentality of I want to come back up as quickly as I can and just kind of put my head down and got to work and got my opportunity,” York said. “I’m up and gonna do everything I can to try and stay up here.”

Whirlwind season

York suited up for the “opposing team” in Anaheim, where he grew up a fan of the Ducks and played for the Jr. Ducks youth hockey program. Playing in front of roughly 20 family members and friends at the Honda Center marked a crest in York’s roller coaster of a first full professional season.

Two and a half months earlier, however, York found himself in a trough with the Phantoms, who started the season on a seven-game skid under first-year head coach Ian Laperrière. During that losing streak, York struggled on both ends of the ice, registering two assists and accumulating a minus-4 rating.

“I think individually, at the start, I was just trying to do everybody’s job,” York said. “We were all kind of running around like a chicken with our head cut off almost. I think for me, I just started to settle down and get used to the new coaching staff, which I think was also a little bit of an adjustment.”

The Phantoms started to get off the ground in November, but then York tested positive for COVID-19.

For his first four COVID-positive days, York couldn’t get out of bed.

“[I] had every symptom to the max and thought I was on my deathbed there for a little bit,” York said.

By day five, York managed to get out of bed and move around a little bit. A seemingly simple task like climbing up stairs felt like a full-blown workout, his legs shot from not standing for four days.

York estimates that he took two weeks to recover before hitting the ice again. During his first informal skate, he still felt tightness in his chest as he dragged himself through a light workout.

“My first skate back, I was out for maybe 20 minutes just by myself, kind of messing around, and was sucking air,” York said. “I could barely breathe. I had to get off. So that wasn’t pretty.”

York practiced twice with the team and then played back-to-back games on Dec. 11 against the Cleveland Monsters and Dec. 12 against the Hartford Wolf Pack, marking three weeks since his last game on Nov. 20. He recorded an assist on forward Gerry Mayhew’s goal against the Monsters and the Phantoms won both games.

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After the back-to-back, York found that his chest “started to feel a little bit lighter.” Thankfully, the Phantoms had a full five days before their next game, allowing York to get back in playing condition.

“Our team’s been decimated with injuries,” assistant general manager Brent Flahr said. “Those guys that have played, he’s [York] played huge minutes. Probably too much at times. But I think it’s been an extremely valuable experience for him, playing those minutes at the pro level.”

Flying high

Three games following the week of practice, the Phantoms took off for their holiday break. York flew home to California for a couple of days, using the time to recharge and spend time with family. The trip was a rare moment home after a hectic 18 months in which York played for the University of Michigan, Team USA at the 2021 World Junior Championships (where he captained the team to the gold medal), the Phantoms, and the Flyers. He fished with his father, Jeff, played with his four dogs, enjoyed Christmas dinner, and flew back to Allentown.

Turns out, he wouldn’t be gone from California for very long. York practiced with the Phantoms on Dec. 27, but later that night he received a call from Laperrière, who informed him that he’d be joining the Flyers for their West Coast trip as a member of the taxi squad.

“Gosh, that feels like forever ago,” York said with a smile.

Understandably so — the last three weeks encompassed a whirlwind of change for the young defenseman. From AHL to taxi squad to the active NHL roster, second pairing to top pairing, five-on-five contributor to the top power-play unit, York has taken each additional bit of responsibility in stride.

In each of his three games, York played alongside 34-year-old veteran Justin Braun, who made his NHL debut when York was 9 years old. A reliable fixture on the blue line, Braun has been a solid “veteran presence” and a strong communicator for York, according to interim head coach Mike Yeo.

“I feel like he’s my dad, almost,” York said. “But just on the ice, he’s so good defensively. I love watching him. The way he closes out on guys and uses his body and his stick, he’s really efficient. He plays hard every single shift and for a young guy like me, it’s pretty cool to have a partner like that.”

With York’s recent success at the NHL level serving as the foundation, Yeo said he wants to see consistency from his young defenseman. Ultimately, dependable play from York could make life hard for Yeo, who would be in a position to scratch a veteran in favor of starting York on a nightly basis.

But for now, York is just trying to stay in the moment and play the best he can.

“I think one of the best parts of my game is I don’t get caught up in my emotions or anything like that,” York said. “I’m a pretty easygoing guy. Just kind of go with the flow of things. So whatever happens, happens. But at the end of the day, I want to play and I want to play a lot.”

Calm, collected, and now with six career NHL games under his belt, York is ready to push for a permanent spot in the Flyers’ lineup.