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Nick Seeler’s regular 80-mile commute to Philly a small price to continue his NHL dream

The Flyers' seventh defenseman has shuttled between Lehigh Valley and Philadelphia all season long.

Flyers defenseman Nick Seeler yells against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021. Seeler, who signed a two-way contract in the summer has played in 15 of the team's 17 games.
Flyers defenseman Nick Seeler yells against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021. Seeler, who signed a two-way contract in the summer has played in 15 of the team's 17 games.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Whenever Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher calls Nick Seeler to tell him he’s been loaned to the Phantoms, Seeler heads to his hotel room in Voorhees, packs a bag, tosses it in his Ford F-150, and takes off for another hotel room in Allentown.

Seeler’s truck, which he bought just before he joined the Flyers, has already logged a lot of miles in the young season. As the seventh defenseman in an organization short on cap space, Seeler is often the player who has to deal with the day-to-day reality of the Flyers’ cost-cutting.

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Seeler not only gets loaned to the Phantoms when the Flyers’ primary six defensemen are healthy, which hasn’t happened often through the first 17 games, but he also sometimes has to make the trip on regular practice days to help the Flyers stay under the salary cap.

It’s not a new concept in the NHL, but it’s a new situation to Seeler. He hasn’t been in one spot long enough to get an apartment, which means he hasn’t been able to cook, something that’s usually a relaxing hobby for him. At home, he loves to grill steaks, smoke brisket, and make one of his favorite dishes, “Korean meatballs with a gochujang glaze over white rice with veggies,” but living out of hotels doesn’t allow for anything so complex. Despite not knowing what city he’ll be in on a given day, Seeler has been taking everything in stride.

As he drives the hour and a half from Voorhees to Allentown, Seeler turns on his music (’70s rock, today’s hits, or Christian singer Lauren Daigle) or a podcast and goes. Sometimes, he uses those 80 miles to catch up with friends from home or his family, especially his 1-year-old niece, Rylin Buchta.

“We talk a lot, like normal sibling stuff,” said Kelly Buchta, one of his older sisters. “And it’s like ‘Oh, I’m heading back, or I’m going to Philly, or I’m going here,’ and he just takes it in stride. I think he’s in a spot now where it’s ‘I’m going to take every opportunity I can.’”

Seeler has faced tougher challenges, and it has made him both grateful for the chance the Flyers are giving him and strong enough to deal with the constant uncertainty of his role. Ahead of the 2020-21 season, Seeler realized he needed to take a step away from the sport for his own well-being. After long discussions with his family, he decided to forfeit the last year of his contract with the Chicago Blackhawks. As a fringe NHLer, he made the decision knowing there was a chance no one would want him after a year away from the ice

“It was a really difficult decision for me, but I needed to,” Seeler said. “I needed the physical and mental break, kind of a reset.”

Seeler went home to Minnesota and, for the first time since his hockey career took off, had the ability to snowboard without the fear of getting hurt. He spent time at the dog park and fishing on his grandfather’s boat that he fixed up. He also earned his real estate license.

There were peaceful moments as well as periods of uncertainty, but his family and friends helped him through it. Pat Hellier, a childhood friend and teammate, said Seeler’s friends “filled his schedule and forced him to put a smile on his face and do stuff.” At the end of it, when he decided it was time to give hockey another try, it was clear he had made the right decision and had come out stronger because of it.

The question was whether teams would agree.

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When Seeler announced he was headed to Philadelphia on a one-year, two-way contract, his loved ones were ecstatic. They were happy he was getting another chance. His sisters and friends were excited he was headed to the city where It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is set. They also knew Philadelphia’s reputation as a city that appreciates gritty, hard-nosed players, and felt it was the perfect place for Seeler.

Two games in, Seeler showed that grit when he dropped the gloves against the Seattle Kraken’s Jamie Oleksiak, who has five inches and 50 pounds on him. His sisters were glued to the screen through the fight. Ashley Seeler, who was supposed to be meditating for her online grad school class, found herself accelerating her heart rate instead of slowing it down. Buchta — who gleefully said, “It was awesome!” — said it seemed like the culmination of everything he’d worked toward. Philadelphia fans agreed and showed that with the sound of their roars in the Wells Fargo Center.

Hellier, who has been on the receiving end of Seeler’s competitive glare, if not his fists, said it’s funny because Seeler is actually a “gentle giant.” He’s quickly gained this reputation in Philadelphia, but he’s also the type of guy that stops a game of golf to move a turtle on the course to safety, Hellier said, and can talk about a hockey fight one minute and gush over his niece the next.

It didn’t take long for Seeler’s new teammates to pick up on this. Goalie Carter Hart called Seeler a “warrior” after the defenseman blocked a shot with his face in the preseason.

“He’s a great human overall, just off the ice great guy,” defenseman Ivan Provorov said later. “On the ice, he’s one of those guys that is willing to do whatever you need him to do to help the team win, whether that’s block a shot or fight one of the biggest guys in the NHL.”

Seeler wasn’t able to find the words to describe how his off-the-ice personality fits with a guy who’s averaging 1.5 hits per game and isn’t opposed to dropping the gloves. His sisters and friends, however, have determined it’s because he’s a protector, not a fighter. Any physicality he shows is born from a desire to help his teammates win.

Hellier remembers Seeler’s competitiveness from when they were on the peewee football field and Seeler, a “little squirt,” would turn into a nasty competitor. His sisters remember it going back as far as they can remember, whether he was playing goalie for Ashley as she kicked soccer balls at him or if he was competing with Kelly, who won an NCAA title as a defenseman with the University of Minnesota, as they shot pucks in their backyard.

When Seeler talks about his love for hockey, the competition and camaraderie are the top two things he mentions. In Philadelphia, he’s found both an organization and a fan base that have similar values. To say it’s been “great” is an understatement, he said.

The level of character on the team is unique, Seeler added, and as a result, he’s felt welcomed into the group despite shuttling back and forth between leagues. Keith Yandle, his defensive partner, has served as a teacher, and it helps that they have a similar sense of humor.

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Between the break Seeler took and the new environment, his sisters see a significant change in him.

“Very recently, like in the last few months, certainly since going to Philly, there’s a level of confidence that I see in him on the ice and off the ice,” Ashley Seeler said. “And I don’t think I’ve seen it before at the level that it’s at now.”

Seeler has helped the Flyers stay afloat without the injured Ryan Ellis, amassing 25 hits, 21 blocked shots, and eight shots on goal as part of the third pair. He’s impressed coach Alain Vigneault with his willingness to put in hard work and his desire to be here.

His sisters, who Hellier said played a huge part in pushing Seeler to where he is now, are watching every game with pride, especially knowing what he went through.

“Just watching him continue to get more comfortable and continue to increase in confidence and clear out in front, break pucks out, utilize his speed is just really fun,” Buchta said.

“I’m super proud of him and super proud of his journey.”