BUFFALO - When Chris VandeVelde decided to join the Flyers in training camp last September, he was given no assurances.
In fact, after sweating through the summer without a contract, he arrived in Philadelphia without even a signed AHL contract. It was so late in the summer that the Flyers said it didn't make sense to mail the contract for him to sign.
Newly minted assistant general manager Ron Hextall was the only person or thing keeping VandeVelde from playing in Europe. Hextall was his only shot at getting a sniff of the NHL again.
"I played with his son at the University of North Dakota," said VandeVelde, a forward. "The fact that someone like Ron was on my side, someone knew me in the organization, was pretty good for me. He was pushing for me. I knew if I could play well, I might get an NHL deal."
Last night against the Sabres, he matched his career high for NHL games played in a season (12). He last played that many in 2010-11 with the Oilers, who let him walk as a free agent last summer. Yet, it is VandeVelde's adventure back to the NHL that makes his story - one of perseverance and hope - a good one.
A relative unknown on the ice in training camp, VandeVelde's No. 76 was assigned, not picked, a classic move for players for whom not much is expected. But his play impressed then-coach Peter Laviolette enough to make it to the team's 25-man boot camp in Lake Placid, N.Y., at the end of training camp.
When camp wrapped, VandeVelde (pronounced van-DUH-vell-dee) was the last player sent back to Glens Falls, N.Y., with the Phantoms. He was heartbreakingly close, but he didn't even have an NHL component in his contract, a luxury the Flyers handed out frequently on deals to some players who were buried in the ECHL, a league one level lower than the Phantoms.
"I was so close to making this team," VandeVelde said. "The fact that I got sent down was huge for me. I played power play, penalty kill, put up points."
VandeVelde put up 13 points in his first 23 games with the Phantoms. His play forced the Flyers to rip up his deal and give him a new one, with a prorated NHL salary of $714,000 - recognition, he said, for his hard work.
He has outlasted names such as Tye McGinn and Kris Newbury, and played more games recently than full-timer Jay Rosehill.
Skating in a steady fourth-line role, VandeVelde has earned the trust of coach Craig Berube. His ice time is up significantly, averaging 9:23 in the last five games before last night compared with 6:40 in his first six.
Entering last night, VandeVelde had averaged 1:16 in penalty-killing time with a unit that skated off 26 straight infractions before Sunday in New York. His shorthanded time on ice is equal to Claude Giroux' season average.
"He's done his job very well," Berube said. "He's done a good job killing penalties and in 5-on-5 play he's good in the middle of the ice. He's big, can skate and handles the puck decently. He's been a pretty good player for us."
VandeVelde, a talented scorer at North Dakota with Brett Hextall, is hoping to add a little offense if given the opportunity. For now, he is enjoying the ride.
"They said if you go down [to the AHL] and work hard, there's an opportunity for you to play here," VandeVelde said. "I guess they weren't lying about that. It's great to be here, I'm having a great time. I've just got to keep going and be a reliable, two-way forward."
After suffering a concussion in Calgary on New Year's Eve, Matt Read said he spent much of the last 2 weeks relaxing, doing anything he could to not overwork his brain.
Read was finally able to return to the lineup last night against the Sabres. The Flyers went 3-3-0 without him.
"For me, I wouldn't have any symptoms during the day. I could do everything," Read said. "When I started exercising, I'd have vision problems. Looking around, I'd get foggy and too much pressure in my head."
Read, 27, said the 2-week process with his second career concussion was more "minute by minute" than even day by day. He was able to test himself with a full hour skate on Sunday and again at yesterday's morning skate before agreeing to play.
He said the toughest part was making sure he was ready while watching his teammates go to work each night without him.
"You don't want to go back too early and be out for a longer period of time," Read said. "If you have symptoms, you've just got to hold back. It's hard as a player. It was a long 2 weeks."