For most players, the East Coast Hockey League is hockey's equivalent of purgatory. It isn't quite hell - but it's close enough to feel the heat.
For David Laliberte, the Flyers' newest rookie to make his NHL debut, the ECHL was an opportunity.
Laliberte, 23, was shipped to the Wheeling (W.Va.) Nailers after an uninspiring training camp with the Phantoms in September 2007.
"I was, for sure, a little disappointed," Laliberte said of his first pro assignment. "I thought I had a good camp in the AHL, but they sent me down. I knew that I had a lot to work on, though. You try to battle every day to get better."
Laliberte's battling paid off quickly. Playing in the booming metropolis that is Wheeling, against teams from towns like Elmira, Johnstown and Reading, Laliberte earned a call-up to the AHL after just 27 games.
Last Saturday, Laliberte became the 413th ECHLer to make it to the big show. That sounds like a huge number, but for a league that has operated since the 1980s, it's a stat that translates into less than 30 players per season.
He wasn't summoned from Adirondack by Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren to be an extra forward. He was expected to bring the game that earned him six points in eight games with the Phantoms this year.
Laliberte did that by scoring his first NHL goal on his second shift, paving the way for a 6-1 rout over the hapless Carolina Hurricanes last Friday.
"It's a dream," Laliberte said. "The puck came to my stick and it just went in. It was an unbelievable feeling. I had a long road but I'm pretty proud about my evolution and my development."
For most, the ECHL, which operates as the NHL's Double A affiliate league, is a place to bury players who will never see the bright lights of big-league arenas. That is, unless you get drafted by an organization with deep talent and few openings, like the Flyers.
The Flyers nabbed Laliberte in the third round of the 2004 draft, before he went on to play three more seasons in the juinor Ontario Hockey League.
"Quite a few guys have worked their way up to be good players," Flyers coach John Stevens said. "You learn there what you need to do to better.
"Laliberte did a lot to show us that. He really got stronger. He was a guy that we all thought in training camp would play some games this year."
Laliberte was no less impressive on Monday against Tampa Bay. Skating on the second line with Jeff Carter and James van Riemsdyk, he was a plus-2 in 12 minutes, 53 seconds on the ice, in which he also saw some power-play time.
Oh, yeah, and he scored for the second straight game, becoming the first Flyer since Eric Lindros in 1992 to begin his NHL career with two goals in two games. He is the Flyers' second impressive rookie this season. Van Riemsdyk was tops among all NHL rookies in both points (13) and assists (11) before last night's games.
"I think I just try to keep it simple," Laliberte explained. "I know that I have a good shot. I just tried to bring the puck to the net and drive the net hard. I want to be in front of the goalie."
A player with good wheels and size, Laliberte has brought some jump to the Flyers lineup in the absence of Danny Briere and Simon Gagne. Stevens praised him for his work ethic on the walls and willingness to battle for pucks.
"He is a competitive guy," Stevens said. "He's got the skill level. He is strong on the wall and does a great job in front of the net."
"To play on any NHL team, you need to be strong on the boards, on both sides of the ice," Laliberte said. "That is something that I've been working hard on the last 3 years, to try and do something [here]."
With a taste of the ECHL, the small-town St.-Liboire, Quebec, native knows this trip is something to savor.
"You always want to play in the NHL as soon as possible," Laliberte said. "I'm here now. I'm just trying to live 1 day at a time and stay here as long as I can."
Simon Gagne underwent successful surgery yesterday to repair and reinforce the rectus abdominis muscle in his abdominal area. Dr. William Meyers also repaired a small hernia near his bellybutton. General manager Paul Holmgren said he still expects Gagne to miss 6-8 weeks . . . Matt Carle's plus/minus rating (plus-11) is second in the NHL . . . The Flyers, who are 2-2 on the road, play at Buffalo Friday.
For more news and analysis, read Frank Seravalli's blog, Frequent Flyers, at http://go.philly.com/frequentflyers.