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Zepp takes NHL plunge with Flyers

After decade playing in Europe, he finds way to NHL

Philadelphia Flyers' Rob Zepp in action during a preseason NHL hockey
game against the Washington Capitals, Monday, Sept. 22, 2014, in
Philadelphia. (Matt Slocum/AP)
Philadelphia Flyers' Rob Zepp in action during a preseason NHL hockey game against the Washington Capitals, Monday, Sept. 22, 2014, in Philadelphia. (Matt Slocum/AP)Read more

NEWARK, N.J. - Wasting away in the remote hockey outpost of Fort Myers, Fla., with the ECHL's Everblades, goaltender Rob Zepp packed his pads for Europe in 2005 in search of better competition.

The jaunt across the Atlantic was supposed to be a layover, not a one-way ticket, with the ultimate destination being a return to North America and ultimately the NHL.

Then, life happened.

One season in Finland quickly became two. Zepp was recruited to move to Germany, to play for the Eisbaren Berlin, also known as the Berlin Polar Bears.

In the blink of an eye, one championship season turned into a ring for each finger. He earned the European Trophy for best goaltender on two separate occasions. He was earning salary well into the six figures, living in a world-class city in an apartment paid for by the Polar Bears, and his son Gavin (5) and daughter Madelyn (2 1/2) were both born in Germany.

Zepp was no longer just a Canadian from Bradford, Ontario, but also a full-fledged German citizen tending goal for Deutschland's national team.

A decade flew by quicker than he could imagine.

Suddenly, Zepp was at a career crossroads at the ripe, old age of 33. The question was beyond difficult: Stay on top in Europe or take one more shot at the NHL, with another season riding buses in the minor leagues much more likely?

"We had a really good thing going in Berlin," Zepp said. "We were really successful. It's a first-class place to be. I've tried to prepare myself to not only be successful over there, but be successful over here one day.

"I've had some opportunities the past few summers, but either the timing wasn't right or the situation wasn't right. But I'm not getting any younger. Given my age, I felt like this was the last opportunity for me. It was now or never."

Zepp, 33, took the plunge. He signed a 1-year deal with the Flyers on July 1, guaranteed just $250,000 and a chance to compete for the starting job with the Phantoms - and nothing more.

Now, after a few exhibitions, Zepp appears to have made the right call with a Flyers organization that has used more than two goaltenders during the regular season four of the last five seasons.

It's only training camp, and Ray Emery, 32, is already injured. He has played just one half of an exhibition game. The Flyers were already worried about his injury history prior to re-signing him this summer.

Zepp was easily the Flyers' best player on the ice last night in New Jersey, though that might not say much. The Flyers were shellacked by a 3-1 score that doesn't tell the full story. They were being outshot, 35-7, at one point in the third period.

Zepp allowed just two goals - both of them on the power play to Scott Gomez. The other goal was an empty-netter.

"He's played well," coach Craig Berube said. "Coming in, they knew [what he was about]. Scouts and management like him. I'm not sure [his success] is a surprise to them."

Zepp landed on the Flyers' radar through the 2012-13 lockout, of all ways, when Claude Giroux and Danny Briere signed with his team in Berlin. Both Giroux and Briere put in a good word with management, who began dialogue immediately.

"Besides being the best goalie in the German league, what hit me with Rob was his attitude and professionalism," Briere, now with the Avalanche, told the Daily News last night. "He was the hardest worker on and off the ice and I was convinced he could play in the NHL because of all of that."

Zepp's appearance against Washington last Monday was his first game on North American ice in 9 years. His step back toward the NHL at his age is nothing short of miraculous. He was the fourth-ever draft pick (99th overall) by the Atlanta Thrashers in 1999, but never signed with the team because his contract was received by NHL registry via fax 6 minutes after the deadline.

Of the 98 players picked before him in 1999, only five still have an NHL contract for this season: Daniel and Henrik Sedin (Vancouver), Barrett Jackman (St. Louis), Jordan Leopold (St. Louis) and Matt Carkner (Islanders). Adam Hall, who played for the Flyers last season, was selected ahead of Zepp but is now playing in Switzerland.

In other words, Zepp is closer to the NHL now, 15 years after being drafted, than No. 1 overall pick Patrik Stefan. Amazingly, Stefan quit playing hockey in 2008, flaming out in Switzerland while Zepp was in Europe.

Zepp's journey, by comparison, has been long and circuitous, but paved with success. He is now reaping the rewards of his persistence.

"You play ever since you're a kid trying to make it to the NHL," Zepp said. "I really believe in my ability. Obviously, you never know until you get to that level. I'm thrilled to have the opportunity now. I didn't want to look back one day and wonder 'what if?' the rest of my life."

Slap shots

Even with a light exhibition lineup, Craig Berube chided his team for a lack of effort in the 3-1 loss. "I'm disappointed in the veterans tonight," Berube said. "It's not acceptable. I don't care if it's exhibition or not, you still have to work and skate" . . . Rookie Taylor Leier scored the Flyers' only goal, which came shorthanded . . . Robert Hagg, Marcel Noebels, Leier and Brett Hextall were also called up from Lehigh Valley for the contest . . . Sean Couturier returned to the lineup after missing a few practices with a minor "upper-body" injury.