They are a little more than 4,000 miles away from their home in Switzerland and temporarily living in a Center City hotel. Their Christmas tree is, well, not exactly the type you'll see in

It's a Wonderful Life

.

The tree is about as big as a paper cup and is supposed to magically grow when given some water.

"It was this big," said Isabella Sbisa, the mother of Philadelphia's most popular 18-year-old athlete, Flyers defenseman Luca Sbisa, "and now it's up to this."

She expanded her fingers from two to four inches.

Isabella Sbisa sat in the Flyers' family room, nestled off a long hallway in the innards of the Wachovia Center, as she ate breakfast the other day with her husband, Massimo, and 20-year-old daughter, Chiara.

Living in a hotel for the holidays and being in a foreign land is not a problem for the Sbisa family - even if their tree is too fragile to hold the Flyers Christmas ball they tried to place on it.

They are together, Isabella Sbisa said, and that's all that matters.

"It's very tough to be away," she said. "Last year, when Luca went to Canada [to play junior

hockey], it was just awful for me. I had to divide myself - the mommy, of course, was just crying, and the other side of myself said, 'All right, this is what he wants to do' and, of course, I have to let him go. But it wasn't easy at all. I was always on the phone and sending text messages to him. He went to Canada in October, and I went for two weeks in February."

Luca Sbisa went back to Switzerland in late May. In June, he was the Flyers' No. 1 draft pick and, stunningly, he made the team during training camp.

"Oh, it was so surprising," Isabella Sbisa said.

"I didn't know that my brother was so good. That's my little brother!" said Luca's smiling sister, Chiara, an assistant buyer for a Swiss fashion company. "I miss my brother, and I'm so proud of him. In Switzerland, I tell everyone, 'That's my brother. He's playing in the NHL.' "

Watching Luca

Isabella and Massimo Sbisa traveled to Philadelphia to watch their son's NHL debut against the New York Rangers on Oct. 11.

"When I saw my son playing, I said, 'That's really my son. That's really Luca there,' " Isabella said. "For me, it was something lovely and strange at the same time. It took me a couple of days to realize he had played in his first NHL game."

After living with teammate Riley Cote and his wife, Holly, for about six weeks, Sbisa moved in with a housemother, Allison Staffin, in Stratford, Camden County, located a few miles from the team's practice facility in Voorhees.

"Luca had a big change. He's a young man [now], but for a couple of things, he's still too young," Isabella said.

Those things include domestic duties such as washing clothes and cooking, she said.

"I told him, 'I prefer you stay one more year with a family.' Everything went so, so fast," said Isabella, who, like her son, speaks four languages. "I didn't want him to have a problem with cooking and washing and ironing and cleaning. Next year, all right. He will learn. He has to learn."

The Sbisas arrived in Philadelphia on Dec. 14 and are returning to Switzerland tomorrow night because their son and his team are about to embark on a 12-day road trip.

Because of hockey, Luca has been separated from his family during the previous two Christmas seasons.

"We didn't want it to be the third time," Isabella said.

After recent practices, Luca Sbisa has joined his family at its hotel.

"It's awesome. I kind of feel like I'm back home," Luca Sbisa said after yesterday's morning skate at the Wachovia Center.

But before he skated, he missed a team meeting because he overslept. As a result, he was scratched from last night's lineup.

"I didn't hear the alarm. I messed up. It's a lesson learned," Sbisa said after last night's 6-4 win over Ottawa.

As for his family, "they're here, and I go to practice and go home and see them. That's how it used to be back home, and it gives me a good feeling, gives me extra power. It's just good that they're here, seeing me playing and seeing what I'm doing - especially around Christmas time when it's good to have family around."

Tonight, Sbisa will spend Christmas Eve with his family; they will go out to dinner and all will sleep in the hotel.

Luca Sbisa laughed at the elf-size Christmas tree that is in one of the rooms.

"That's how my mom is. She always tries to make Christmas or all those family events really feel like family," he said. "She went out and bought this little Christmas tree that you put in water. It was supposed to grow like a sponge or something, but it hasn't happened yet."

Tree or not

No matter. They are together, exploring the city and meeting Luca's teammates, coaches and their families.

"I think Christmas is a family day, and it wouldn't be Christmas without Luca," Isabella said.

"For me, it's a great thing to be here," said Massimo Sbisa, who also saw his son during the Flyers' father-son trip to Atlanta in late October.

When in Switzerland, Massimo and Isabella Sbisa get up at 3 a.m. and watch the Flyers' games on the Internet before heading to work at the cleaning business they own.

They have been able to connect more with their son since he recently purchased a computer. He had left his computer, clothes and belongings with his host family in Lethbridge, Alberta, where he played in juniors last season.

"He thought he was going back to Canada," Isabella said.

Now he's an NHL player, making enough money ($875,000) that he purchased round-trip plane tickets as Christmas presents for his family to be with him during the holidays.

Chiara (pronounced (Key-R-uh) said she and Luca still playfully fight "like brothers and sisters" but have a special bond. Her brother is extremely focused on hockey. He is almost always the last player to leave the ice during practice. But he is a practical joker with his family.

Especially his sister.

"He's the same guy. It doesn't matter if he has money or not or plays here or in Switzerland," Chiara said. "He's always playing jokes and always doing funny things. He never changes."

She smiled. It doesn't seem that long ago, she said, that Luca was wearing the oversize Mighty Ducks T-shirt or the Mats Sundin jersey he had received as Christmas presents.

"For Christmas, my gift is to be here with my brother," she said. "This is the biggest gift I could have."

Contact staff writer Sam Carchidi
at 215-854-5181 or scarchidi@phillynews.com.