BARRY TROTZ was readying his NHL-leading Washington Capitals for their game against the Flyers late last month when he was asked if he "had seen their little rookie."
"The Ghost?" he asked.
"I can't say his name. It's too long."
Try spelling it all the time, I said.
"Yeah, no kidding," Trotz said. "Why can't it just be 'Ghost' until we all get used to it?"
Well, we're getting used to it. Fast. We're getting used to writing Shayne Gostisbehere's name when he scores another overtime goal as he did Saturday night in Toronto. We're getting used to it when he's tying or grabbing a lead in regulation via those fleet feet and that innate hockey IQ.
We're getting used to it when he's making one of those "did you see that?" spins with the puck in traffic, cocking his stick in that already-familiar power-play pose of his before crushing a one-timer toward the net.
Everyone has a comparison, it seems, a player The Ghost reminds them of, either right now or potentially. Phil Housley was an early leader. For a while mine was Brian Leetch, who averaged just over a point a game in his first full season with the Rangers. Playing in the more free-wheeling days of the last century and early part of this one, Leetch finished with 981 points over 17 seasons. Housley, playing in roughly the same era, had 1,232 in 21 seasons.
Both are in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Both deserve to be. For their size, in a league that was allowed far more liberties than the current one, both proved incredibly resilient.
But I am hard-pressed to remember any player who can hit that one-timer so consistently hard the way Gostisbehere does, and the list of players who have that Gretzky-like magneticism to the puck the way he does is a short, and impressive one.
"There's a lot of Erik Karlsson in him," Trotz said that day. Still just 25, the Ottawa Senators' all-star defenseman and team captain is, in his seventh full season, having his best one yet. With 65 points in 60 games, he's on pace to exceed the personal best of 78 points, set at age 21, his third full NHL season.
After Saturday's game-winner, Gostisbehere has 12 goals and 22 assists over 40 games this season. And as any Flyers fan can tell you, every one of his goals has tied the game or given the Flyers a lead. They can also tell you his goal Saturday night extended his rookie points record for defensemen and is the longest point streak by a defenseman since Chris Chelios - another Hall of Famer - did it 20 years ago.
"The skating is dynamic," Trotz said of Gostisbehere. "That's the first thing I noticed during the rookie game in Voorhees last year. His skating stood out and then, there's a lot of deception to his game. He'll fake like he's dropping the puck and then continue on.
"And he can really bomb the puck for a little guy. Ah, I shouldn't say he's little. What is he, 6-foot, 5-11?"
Gostisbehere is listed at 5-11. He's also listed at 160 pounds. If you don't believe he's that tall, what does that say about how much he actually might weigh? Karlsson, too, is listed at 5-11, but he's weighing in at 190 these days. And Leetch, listed as 6-foot, played most of his career at 180 or above, as did the 5-10 Housley.
Still just 22, the hope is The Ghost will fill out as well.
So if you see him around town, buy him a steak, or at least a protein drink. OK?
The Flyers have had a ton of stylish players through their rich history. The league has its impressive list too. Everyone has their Neo from The Matrix, and I respect them all.
Mine will always be Bobby Orr, before his balky knees dropped him a rung below Olympus. That Orr was Michael Jordan. He could do anything he wanted to in the early part of his career, seemingly any time he wanted. Bulls teammates often spoke of "Michael Time," those points in critical games where Jordan played the game as if he was Neo.
That was early Orr, too.
Gostisbehere is not on that level. He probably will never get there.
But he gives you Neo moments almost every game.
And this we can say: He is more hybrid than knockoff, as all true athletic artists seem to be. There are certainly elements of other players in Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Magic Johnson, Bobby Orr, etc. But no one was quite like any of them before, and no one quite like them since.
Statistics are nice. But sports holds a special place for those who can never truly be measured by them, who need just one word to describe them.
Ghost has that already. Although maybe not for the same reasons, at least not yet.
"How do you spell it?" Trotz asked me that day, after the questions were over.
"G-o-s-t-i-s-b-e-h-e-r-e," I said.
"Right," he said.