The phone call came sometime around 9 o'clock Tuesday night. It was 7 days before Christmas and Jim Vandermeer's life was about to change.
Get on a plane, son, you've been traded.
Yesterday, after a 6:30 a.m. flight from Chicago, Vandermeer was on the ice practicing for his new/old club. He didn't have the chance to bring a lot of personal effects, but the one thing the Flyers hope he brought is his snarl.
Vandermeer was a decent Flyers defensive prospect when he was traded to the Blackhawks in February 2004. Philadelphia was gearing up for a playoff run and needed help at center because of injuries to Keith Primeau and Jeremy Roenick. Chicago was willing to give up Alexei Zhamnov.
In reacquiring Vandermeer, the Flyers are trying to address a different problem. Lately, and especially during the current four-game losing streak, they have been a little too reactionary and lacking aggression. It's hoped Vandermeer gives the locker room a shot of intensity.
"That's the way I've always played and I'm not going to change that," said Vandermeer, 27. "I just want to keep my game real simple, play physical."
The change of scenery could help Vandermeer, too. The 6-1, 210-pounder was a healthy scratch for four games in October and two more this month.
"We've been through this with Jim," Blackhawks coach Denis Savard told the Chicago Tribune on Dec. 9. "Early in the year he struggled . . . and [now] we're back to square one again with him. Consistency is something we look for our players to have every night, and [with] Jim, he's had that problem trying to keep his game consistent. I expect more out of him, simple as that."
In 26 games for the Blackhawks, Vandermeer had two goals, seven assists, 44 penalty minutes and was a plus-three.
Flyers coach John Stevens had Vandermeer with the Phantoms for parts of three seasons, so there is familiarity. Yesterday, Vandermeer was paired with Jason Smith in practice, but that's very tentative. A few defensemen - namely Smith, Derian Hatcher and Kimmo Timonen - have been nagged by various injuries making any firm pairings almost impossible.
"I talked to him about how he was used in Chicago," Stevens said. "Sometimes he'd play a lot, sometimes he didn't play a lot. He's a well-rounded guy who will see time on all situations."
The Flyers shipped rugged winger Ben Eager to Chicago, a team that seems to finally be showing life after four dismal seasons. Vandermeer saw a lot of that losing firsthand.
"I'm not saying I'm disappointed. I'm very happy to be here," Vandemeer said. "But you play on a team that's losing, losing, losing and then you start to turn things around and you want to be part of that. But to be back in Philly here . . . I'm excited about that. I want to do the same things I did here before, except I have a little more experience, a little more poise, a little more confidence."
Simon Gagne took a small step in returning from a concussion by participating in a regular practice yesterday.
Wearing a traditional orange practice jersey with a Flyers logo, instead of a large red cross, Gagne skated alongside Mike Richards and Joffrey Lupul.
"I didn't have much contact or any big checks on me, but overall I felt pretty good," said Gagne, who has missed the last 18 games with a concussion.
"I'm still having a little bit of a problem with my neck," he said. "But I see some progress and that's a good sign."
Neither Gagne, 27, nor Stevens would speculate on when the talented winger would return to the lineup, but it's unlikely to come before the first of the year.
"When I start to feel good, I will definitely take a good week of practice with contact and everything and if I get to it, then it would be time to start talking about playing in games," he said. "It's a little early, but we're going in the right direction." *