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Zepp's return to Phantoms is bittersweet

On the one hand, Rob Zepp achieved his longtime dream of playing in the NHL. Now that he has a taste, he wants to come back.

GLENDALE, Ariz. - As Rob Zepp packed his bags and prepared to leave the Flyers yesterday in the desert, he did so with the ability to finally answer a few questions:

Will I ever make it to the NHL? Am I good enough to get there?

No question was as satisfying to answer, though, as the one that came repeatedly from his 5-year-old son Gavin since the Zepp family relocated to Lansdale, Pa., this fall after a decade chasing pucks in Europe: "Daddy, when are you going to play for the Flyers?"

Zepp, 33, was loaned back to AHL Lehigh Valley yesterday by the Flyers, with Steve Mason healthy and back in net. He is also the answer to a trivia question as the oldest goaltender to win in his NHL debut since 1926, which he did in Winnipeg on Dec. 21.

Yesterday's demotion, one he knew eventually would come since he was called up under emergency conditions with Mason's injury, left him with mixed emotions.

On one hand, Zepp was thrilled to conquer a lifelong dream to make it to the NHL. He'll never forget the "very emotional" phone call home to his wife after that thrilling 4-3 overtime victory in Winnipeg - the "culmination of a lot of hard work and determination on both our parts" for the high school sweethearts. He is also $32,258 richer for his 10 days of service.

On the other, Zepp leaves with an unsatisfied feeling. His goal wasn't to be the answer of a trivia question or to be one of the 30 one-game wonders in Flyers history.

"I'm happy to have gotten my first start and gotten my first win," Zepp said. "To have it be such a big win, I'm happy with that. I'm also not satisfied, from the standpoint that it was one game. I want to move past and beyond that game and play more games and prove myself over the long haul."

Can he do it? Will he ever get another opportunity?

Those are the lingering questions. At the very least, Zepp's magical ride made him a bit of a cult hero throughout Canada. He was the talk of the hockey world before Christmas. His story, one of perseverance with a never-give-up attitude, resonated with fans, executives and even his teammates.

Zepp was drafted 99th overall in 1999 by Atlanta. Of the 98 players picked ahead of him, only five of those players were still in the NHL when he made his debut last week. He was forced to re-enter the draft in 2001 after his signed contract with the Thrashers didn't make it to the league's registry until a couple of hours after the deadline, because of a clerical error with a fax maxhine.

Realizing he was buried with the ECHL's Florida Everblades in 2004, he bolted for an opportunity in Europe with the idea of eventually working his way back. Even with five championships in the German league in seven seasons, a comfortable salary and way of life with his family in Berlin, he never lost sight of his goal.

"I think if you look at the big picture, you would've said this wasn't possible," Zepp said. "I believed given the opportunity, I could achieve it. If you wouldn't have known me, you would've said, 'This guy is crazy. What is he doing?' I think the guys who played with me and knew me, they were well aware of my ambitions and goals. A lot of guys just gave up along the way."

Zepp credited coach Sylvain Rodrigue, now a goaltending consultant for the Edmonton Oilers, with changing his style and pushing his game to a new level. The changes weren't always comfortable, but Zepp remained consistent.

Flyers general manager Ron Hextall acknowledged Zepp was on his radar during his time in Los Angeles. A few other teams were interested then, too, including the Flyers under Paul Holmgren.

"He was on a lot of radars," Hextall said. "I think after you see a guy win five championships, it's time to get him off the radar and on your team."

Zepp said he thinks his sensational debut provides his "previous resumé with that much more credibility," because he did it on a level NHL executives are familiar with. He earned the respect and trust of coach Craig Berube, who said Zepp's "style, quickness and structure in his game" gave the coach confidence.

In case this all never came to pass, Zepp earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Waterloo in Ontario and a master's degree in business administration from the United Kingdom's respected University of Liverpool.

On his entry-level NHL contract with Carolina, he noticed a small clause in the deal that provided an allotment for a few thousand dollars every year for college education.

"I'm not sure how many guys took advantage of it," Zepp said, laughing. "But I saw that and certainly did."

He wrote his master's thesis on "providing a set of guidelines to enhance motivation in teams," not just in the sports world, but also in business. Heading back to the Phantoms, his motivation is clear.

"This is the best hockey in the world. This is why we play," Zepp said. "To get a taste, to maybe have that opportunity to do it on a full-time basis, not that I needed motivation before, but I certainly have. I've been here and done it. You don't build a career on one game. You build a career over time."