VANCOUVER - Andrej Meszaros had not been to Vancouver in more than 5 years before arriving in Canada's Pacific Northwest on Sunday morning with the Flyers.
On Monday night, as he dropped a ceremonial first puck and watched his name be unfurled in the Vancouver Giants' Ring of Honour at the Pacific Coliseum, Meszaros felt like he was back home.
Meszaros spent just 1 year skating in juniors with the Giants, so he was surprised to receive the call, but he says Vancouver is where he became a man.
"It was a very nice moment, I was really honored that the organization did that for me," Meszaros said. "It was a classy act. I'm always going to have great memories of playing here."
Meszaros played 2 years of professional hockey in his native Slovakia before being drafted by Ottawa and committing to playing in North America. The Giants are owned by Gordie Howe, former Flyers coach Pat Quinn, singer Michael Buble and two prominent Vancouver businessmen.
While learning the English language, Meszaros collected 11 goals and 30 assists in 59 games. The next season, in 2005-06, Meszaros jumped to the NHL and put up nearly the same numbers with Ottawa as a 20-year-old rookie on the blue line: 10 goals, 29 assists.
Meszaros has been back to Vancouver twice since, when he scored his first career NHL goal against the Canucks on Dec. 9, 2005, and when he competed for Slovakia in the 2010 Olympics. He missed a trip with the Lightning in 2009 because he was hurt.
"It goes by fast," Meszaros said. "It was nice to see everyone. I haven't been here for a long time. When I was here, junior hockey was king. Before that, I had never seen so many people watching junior hockey."
Since leaving Vancouver, Meszaros has skated in two Olympics for Slovakia (also in Torino in 2006), a Stanley Cup final with Ottawa in 2006 and inked a $24 million contract.
But if Vancouver is where he became a man, Philadelphia is where he has rediscovered himself. He has 13 points in 35 games, which puts him on pace to double the combined output of his last two seasons in Tampa Bay, and he has a league-best plus-20 rating. Meszaros has benefitted from a deep blue line, where he isn't counted on to be the top dog, but also a left wing-lock system that enables him to roam and attack.
"He's been terrific for us," coach Peter Laviolette said. "He's played a lot of minutes, a lot of tough minutes. He plays both ends of the ice. He's been a great fit, a great person."
Sometimes, Laviolette said, it's tough to remember that Meszaros is still just 25.
"I think he plays an experienced game," Laviolette said. "When you take [Chris] Pronger out of the lineup, the roles get jacked up a little bit. But he was counted on before [Pronger's injury] in all situations, including power play and penalty kill. He's someone that we trust and count on."
Forward Jody Shelley returned to the lineup last night after serving a two-game suspension and sitting out for the following two games as a healthy scratch. With the Flyers' long holiday break, Shelley had gone 17 days without playing in a game.
Dan Carcillo, who did little to spark the Flyers during their lifeless 5-0 loss to Florida before the break, was scratched instead. Shelley knew once he received his two-game suspension it would be hard to break Laviolette's lineup again.
"That's part of being on a good team," said Shelley, who drew a match penalty in last night's loss. "That's just how it goes. Everyone wants to play. When you do something to take yourself out of the lineup, whether it's a suspension or not playing well, someone else is champing at the bit to get in. It's a positive thing to be in an organization like this.
"It's a tough lineup to break up when your whole lineup is playing well." *