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Youngest Flyer is fitting right in

When you talk to the Flyers, they all agree that defenseman Luca Sbisa is mature beyond his years and doesn't play like an 18-year-old.

Flyers Luca Sbisa in locker room after practice at the Skate Zone in Voorhees. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)
Flyers Luca Sbisa in locker room after practice at the Skate Zone in Voorhees. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)Read more

When you talk to the Flyers, they all agree that defenseman Luca Sbisa is mature beyond his years and doesn't play like an 18-year-old.

Ah, but he is only 18, and the Flyers are taking extra care to make sure he's just as comfortable off the ice as he looks on it.

"He's still a junior-age kid, and it's not fair that he live on his own," general manager Paul Holmgren said.

So Holmgren has arranged for Sbisa to live with a local woman, who, over the years, has become the unofficial housemother for some of the younger Flyers.

Former Flyers Maxime Ouellet, Justin Williams and Todd Fedoruk also lived with Allison Staffin. Sbisa will move in with her - she lives about four miles from the team's practice rink in Voorhees, Camden County - when he finalizes the purchase of a car this week.

"She's a principal or a vice principal at a high school near here, so she's used to dealing with kids that age," Holmgren said.

During training camp, Sbisa lived at the Hampton Inn, a five-minute walk to the Flyers' practice facility. In the first

five-plus weeks of the season, he has been living with teammate Riley Cote and his wife, Holly, and their two Chihuahuas in Sicklerville. Cote, 26, has taken Sbisa under his wing.

"It's his first year in the NHL and he's 18 years old, so the least I can do is help him out and show him the ropes a little bit," Cote said after practice yesterday. "Show him around, give him my truck whenever he needs it. He's a great kid; he's always upbeat and always fun to be around.

"We hang out and cook dinner together and do things together. It's just like having a little brother around," added Cote, who calls Sbisa "a low-maintenance kid and never a problem."

Sbisa has only one problem with the soon-to-end arrangement with the Cotes: "One of their dogs is nice, the other doesn't like me that much," Sbisa said. "He barks at me and when I stretch out my hand, he tries to snap."

Sbisa laughed.

"But we've made some progress. I can pet him sometimes if he's in a good mood."

Entering training camp, no one figured the 6-foot-2, 190-pound Sbisa would be trying to become pals with Cote's dogs, or finding a place to live in the Philadelphia area. The Flyers' first-round pick (19th overall) in the June draft was a long shot to make the club this season.

Sbisa didn't look at it that way.

"The coaching staff said everyone has a chance to make the team," he said before the Flyers' first exhibition game, "so I'm going to take that chance."

As it turned out, injuries to defensemen Randy Jones and Ryan Parent opened some spots - and Sbisa, one of the team's most fit players, seized the opportunity.

"He doesn't play like he's 18," coach John Stevens said. "He shows a lot of poise out there. There's no panic in his game."

The worldly Sbisa, who was born in Italy and moved to Switzerland when he was 1, isn't a typical 18-year-old.

For one thing, he speaks four languages - English, German, Italian and French.

For another, he already has spent more than a year away from home. He played for Lethbridge, Alberta, last year - he had six goals and 27 assists for the Western Hockey League team - and, along with one of his junior teammates, lived with a family that included two daughters.

"It was two guys against two girls, and we had some pretty good battles," he said, smiling.

Living in the United States, he said, has not been much of an adjustment. "I think Canada and the States are pretty much the same, no offense to anyone," he said. "It's the same culture, and it's not way different than Switzerland. It's kind of different in how they build their houses and stuff, but the people are the same."

Sbisa's family roots are part Swiss, Austrian, Italian and English. "My mom is from England and her dad is from Italy. It's all mixed," he said. "I'm Swiss but with Italian blood."

He is looking forward to moving in with a "housemother" - "I only met her once, but she seems very nice," he said - and wants to give the Cotes their privacy.

"My mom's very happy about it," he said. "She wants someone taking care of me and looking after me and that kind of thing. It'll be good for me."

Sbisa started the process of buying a BMW X6 yesterday; when he gets the car, he will be able to move.

"If I move in there now without a car, I'm stuck there," he said.

Complicating matters is that he doesn't have a Social Security number, though is working on that. "You need it for everything in the States - opening a bank account, getting a car, a credit card," he said.

He is also one of the few NHL players still in school. "I get back from practice and have to do homework," he said.

He writes papers online for a program - an apprenticeship in business - that is the Swiss equivalent of college.

"I was supposed to write a big essay for Nov. 3, but I didn't make it in time," he confessed.

A road trip and home games with the New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers got in the way. "I got a new date to send it in," he said, "but it's pretty hard to keep up with it."

Sbisa doesn't have a girlfriend and doesn't plan to have a serious relationship anytime soon.

"The guys tell me to stay single for a while," he said.

Sbisa's father visited with his son last month as part of the Flyers' father-son bonding trip to Atlanta and back home.

"It was very nice to see my son and the team and the guys he lives with," Massimo Sbisa said during his visit. "I can watch the life that the guys have. It's not only what we see on television, but it's hard, hard work."

When the Flyers play, Massimo and his wife, Isabella, get up at 3 a.m. because that's when the games are shown on the Internet in Switzerland.

"We don't sleep too much, but the excitement level is high," said the elder Sbisa, who owns a cleaning business with his wife.

"I can't imagine how they do it," said Luca Sbisa, who converses with his dad in German and with his mom in Italian. "They have to get up at 7 for their business. I don't know how they manage to watch the games and work."

Sbisa, whose salary is $875,000 this season, has been playing on the Flyers' second defensive pairing and has even appeared on the power play. Still, there are no guarantees he will stay with the club after Jones and Parent return next month.

That doesn't faze Sbisa.

"I can't worry about something I can't control," he said.

He is among the rookie leaders in assists (six) and has averaged nearly 19 minutes per game. There were some shaky moments at the outset, but he has steadily improved. Overall, his plus-minus rating is a minus-4.

"You get more and more games in, you kind of figure out how to play up here," he said. "I still have a lot to learn and it will take me a lot of games, and obviously I'll go through a lot of mistakes. The thing is to learn from them. I'm willing to do that and work hard."

On the ice, he seems unflappable. Off it, when he's not playing video games or going to the movies or a concert with the Cotes, he is sometimes amazed he has gone so far so fast.

"I haven't realized yet what's going on with me," he acknowledged. "You want to play in the NHL since you're a little kid. It's happening so fast for me. If I think a year back, no one thought I was going to get drafted. The NHL seemed so far away, and in a year, everything changed for me in a very quick way."

A Swiss TV reporter who works for that country's version of ESPN is bringing a camera crew to follow Sbisa. Sports Illustrated is working on a story about him.

"Sometimes I have to sit back and think what I'm doing now," said the second-youngest defenseman in Flyers history. "Playing in the NHL is like a fairy tale sometimes. It's a great time, and I'm enjoying every second of it."