PHILADELPHIA – It’s sort of like a movie director calling a young talent and yelling into the phone: “You got the part!’’
Max Willman knows the feeling. He was all set to play another season with the AHL Lehigh Valley Phantoms in Allentown when his cell went off the other day. The Flyers said get into your car and start driving south.
That he did and Friday night he was scheduled to make his NHL debut against the Vancouver Canucks.
The Flyers put in the help wanted call after learning two recent acquisitions, Patrick Brown and Zack MacEwen, would not be able to play – Brown because of COVID-19 protocol and MacEwen because he’s coming in from Canada and has to wait for his U.S. work visa to clear.
Willman, 26, a native of Barnstable, Massachusetts, almost couldn’t believe it when he was informed of his promotion. He had spent four-plus seasons playing for Brown University and three more in the minor leagues waiting for this moment.
“A lot of emotions when I got the notice I was coming up and playing tonight,’’ he said at Friday’s morning skate at the Wells Fargo Center. “So that was pretty special. We actually had a game that night. After the game (Flyers assistant general manager) Brent Flahr called me into his office and he said, ‘You’re going to go up and practice tomorrow (Thursday). You can tell your parents to come down, you will be in Friday.’ I’m definitely just excited to get out there and play. Not too many nerves yet. I’m sure they will come later.’’
The Willman family is flying from Boston to experience the big game.
“They’re so excited and proud,’’ Willman said. “I’m glad they can enjoy it with me.’’
There were bound to be some butterflies on those first couple shifts playing on a line with veteran Nate Thompson and second-year man Nicolas Aube-Kubel.
“It really hasn’t sunk in yet,’’ said Willman, a former fifth-round pick by Buffalo in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. “I always tried to just play at that next level wherever I was. Maybe when I was in high school and NHL scouts were coming, I thought ‘that would be a cool idea’ but almost not really thinking anything of it. I think last year and the year before, more and more I was making that (the NHL) my goal. It’s something I’ve always dreamed of.’’
The Flyers are developing a little bit of a Massachusetts fraternity. Kevin Hayes, Brown and Cam Atkinson all played for Boston College. Joel Farabee played for Boston University. Keith Yandle hails from the state and now comes Willman.
“It helps in the locker room,’’ Willman said. “A little familiarity goes a long way. Whether you don’t know someone personally but you know friends of friends. . .it helps bond the group even more. Makes it easy coming into the room knowing a lot of familiar faces.’’
Yandle appreciates what Willman has had to go through.
“It hasn’t been the easiest road,’’ he said. “Another Massachusetts guy, too, someone you always root for. He’s earned everything. You’re definitely excited for a guy like that. It’s fun to be a part of.’’
Farabee recruited Willman to lead the team stretch at the end of the skate as a welcoming gesture.
>Full house a winning hand
For the first time since March, 2020, the Flyers were expecting a capacity crowd on Friday night and the players said it’s good to have everybody back. That home-ice advantage has worked well for the Flyers over the years and last season’s first-empty, later-small attendance turnouts were part of a disappointing 12-12-4 home mark, the first time the Flyers failed to break .500 at the Wells Fargo Center since 2007.
Travis Konecny is the type of player who feeds off big-crowd energy.
“It’s going to be a lot different,’’ Konecny said. “Last year it felt like you were at practice. The Flyers fans alone, it makes a difference for us. They’re goin’ to be rarin’ to get back at it tonight. It’s going to be a lot of fun seeing them back in the building.’’
Coach Alain Vigneault wants the Flyers to feed off that energy.
“You can sense the heightened sense of awareness,’’ he said. “We were on the ice for 11 minutes this morning and there’s good focus. We have something to prove.’’
>Seeler in for Ristolainen
Although injured defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen took part in the morning skate, he was scratched for the game. Ristolainen was held out as a precaution and Nick Seeler was called up from the Phantoms to take his spot.
Seeler was set to play alongside Keith Yandle. Yandle compared Seeler’s physical style to that of Justin Braun.
“I think he has a lot of the qualities that Braun has,’’ Yandle said. “He’s a pretty simple guy who does a lot of great things. Both are always in position. They’re physical, they’re not afraid of contact. They communicate on the ice, which makes it easier out there.’’
Vigneault on why Thompson didn’t take part in the morning skate. “He’s just old,’’ Vigneault said kiddingly. “He’s an experienced guy. He didn’t need to skate.’’ . . .The coach said Yandle was penciled in for the left side and Seeler on the right.