Max Willman set to make NHL debut in Flyers season opener vs. Vancouver
Max Willman has made his way up from the ECHL to the Flyers opening night roster.
When Joel Farabee pulled Max Willman into the center of the post-morning skate stretch circle, every Flyer started tapping his stick to celebrate the 26-year-old’s NHL debut.
“Definitely didn’t expect anything like that,” Willman said with a huge smile that lasted the entire time he spoke ahead of the Flyers’ season opener against the Vancouver Canucks.
With the Flyers’ newest two forwards unavailable (Patrick Brown is in COVID-19 protocols and Zack MacEwan is waiting for a U.S. work visa) and Kevin Hayes still recovering from abdominal surgery, the organization called up Willman from the Lehigh Valley Phantoms on Thursday. Willman’s performance through training camp, as well as his journey to the center of that stretch circle, has earned the respect of his teammates.
“He’s definitely a guy that hasn’t had the easiest road,” Keith Yandle said. “Another Massachusetts guy, too, so always a guy that you root for. Yeah. A guy that’s earned everything and you’re definitely excited for a guy like that. Fun to be a part of.”
Willman, who hails from Barnstable, Mass., started his rise through the professional hockey ranks two seasons ago,when he signed an ECHL contract with the Reading Royals. Before that, he had been drafted in the fifth round of the NHL ntry draft by the Buffalo Sabres but almost stopped playing hockey. After a college career at Brown and Boston University, he scored nine goals and 16 assists for the Royals before signing a professional tryout contract (PTO) with the Flyers’ AHL affiliate, the Phantoms.
“I always just try to play at that next level wherever I was and maybe when I was in high school and some NHL scouts were coming, I kind of had a, oh, that would be a cool idea, almost not really even thinking anything of it,” Willman said.
Years of that hardworking attitude finally earned Willman an NHL contract, making him just the third person to play for both the Flyers and the Royals. The Flyers signed him as a free agent on March 24.
However, after participating in Flyers training camp, he was sent back to the Phantoms.
Wednesday, Willman played in the Phantoms’ final preseason game, a loss to the Hershey Bears. Following the game, Brent Flahr, the Flyers’ vice president and assistant general manager, called Willman into his office and told him he’d be practicing with the Flyers on Thursday.
“I was kind of on my way back to the gym, stretching, and he was like, oh, one more thing,” Willman said. “‘You can tell your parents to come down. You’ll be in Friday.’ So that was that.”
While the rest of his teammates, including defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen (day-to-day), participated in the morning skate, Nate Thompson stood in the tunnel and watched. He was dressed in a T-shirt and baseball cap rather than a sweater and a helmet.
Thompson had practiced Thursday. However, at the previous practice on Tuesday, Thompson was part of a big collision and was down for a while. But when coach Alain Vigneault was asked why Thompson wasn’t out there, his answer was simple.
“He’s just old,” Vigneault said.
Thompson, 37, is the oldest player on the team by two years. He was drafted 18 years ago and played his first NHL game in 2008.
“I’m kidding, I’m kidding,” Vigneault continued, laughing. “Thomer, he’s an experienced guy. Everyone prepares themselves the way that they need to, and he didn’t need to skate this morning.”
While Thompson didn’t skate but will play, Ristolainen skated but will not play Friday night. He is still “day-to-day” with his lower-body injury, Vigneault said.
The Flyers will play the Canucks at 7 p.m. at the Wells Fargo Center. The game will be aired on NBC Sports. ... Nick Seeler, who was recalled from the Phantoms after Ristolainen was injured, will skate on the third pair with Yandle. Vigneault said Seeler will play on the right side. ... Yandle, who is also making his regular-season debut as a Flyer, said he’s happy to be on the right side of the Flyers fan base. “When you’re coming into Philly, you’re not just playing the team — you’re playing the fan base,” Yandle said. ... Oskar Lindblom has scored a goal in the Flyers’ first game in three consecutive seasons. Will the streak continue?