Phil Varone prepared for the moment since he was 5, so he had enough time to plan his response. He was like many young Canadians who grew up stick-handling through imaginary opponents while fantasizing about the NHL. If he could play one game, just a single shift, his life would be complete.
It was all kid stuff, a ridiculous childhood dream that came true Thursday after two euphoric days he’ll forever cherish. It began Wednesday after Rochester Americans coach Chadd Cassidy summoned him to his office. Varone didn’t know what to expect when Cassidy waited for him with a smirk on his face.
“Pack a suit,” Cassidy said.
It only meant one thing. But when you’ve waited for the opportunity as long as Varone had, when you’ve worked as hard as he did, you want to make sure. Varone muttered something along the lines of, “You better not be messing with me.” No, Cassidy said. The 23-year-old was headed for Buffalo and the NHL.
“It’s tough to believe,” Varone said. “I called my parents. I called my girlfriend. Tears were instantly in my eyes, instantly in their eyes. You think about this day over and over. No matter how much you’ve prepared for it, you’re not prepared. My family has put so much into my hockey with their time and effort.”
For years, he woke up every morning with the intention of putting in the time and effort to reach the NHL and fell asleep wondering if it would ever be enough. He needed 190 games in the AHL to cover the 70 miles separating Rochester and Buffalo, the distance between his life and his life’s mission.
He certainly didn’t look out of place Thursday in a 5-3 loss to the Hurricanes. He had the primary assist on Brian Flynn’s goal in the second period. Varone nearly scored himself after Marcus Foligno found him flying through the slot. His shot took Anton Khudobin out of position and left the net open, allowing Flynn to score an easy goal.
“I was extremely nervous. I felt like throwing up before the game,” Varone said. “Once the puck drops, it’s business, like most nights no matter where you play. ... This is something special. Not everyone gets to do it. Not everyone is fortunate enough to do it. I’m counting my lucky stars.”
Varone, who led the Amerks with 33 points (eight goals and 25 assists) in 38 games, sounded like a little kid earlier in the day. He walked starry-eyed into a $10 million dressing room and found his name above his stall. He barely slept the night before the game but wasn’t short on energy or passion.
Too many athletes in all professional sports carry themselves as if they’re a gift to the league rather than the other way around. Varone was so appreciative that he sounded like he might kiss the Sabres’ logo at center ice. He was a refreshing addition to a team looking for hunger and enthusiasm in a long, dreadful season.
“It’s awesome,” said Matt Ellis, who knows every pothole between Buffalo and Rochester. “When a player like Phil comes up and gets his first game in this league, everybody is excited. It brings you back to your first game and saying, ‘You know, I made it.’ It caps off what he worked for since the first time he put on skates.”
Varone’s long and bumpy road started the day he was born, Dec. 4, 1990. It looks like just another date on the calendar but often comes with consequences for players who spend their childhood trying to catch up. In hockey speak, he was a back-half ‘90 while growing up in Vaughan, a Toronto suburb.
Basically, it means he was born later in the year and therefore was younger than almost everybody in his age group.
For some, such as Patrick Kane, it didn’t matter. For many, the months separating him from kids born early in the year can make a huge difference during critical years of development.
Varone grew up playing against the likes of Steven Stamkos, John Tavares, Cody Hodgson, Alex Pietrangelo and Michael Del Zotto. Stamkos, Hodgson and Pietrangelo were born in the first seven weeks of 1990, making them nearly a year older than Varone. They were stronger and faster, which translated into more ice time and accelerated their progress. They were childhood stars destined for the NHL.
Varone was an undersized forward trying to keep up. He didn’t know he would be drafted until San Jose took a flier on him in the fifth round in 2009. The Sharks took a peek, lost interest and never offered him a contract. The Sabres signed him but never even put him in an exhibition game. On Thursday, he suited up for real.
It was the latest sign the Sabres’ new management team is committed to evaluating player personnel from top to bottom. They’re providing opportunities to players who might otherwise be overlooked. Varone worried he would fall through the cracks, but he continued practicing and developing and improving and dreaming.
Finally, it came true.
“I wouldn’t change it for the world,” Varone said. “I’ve learned a lot. I’ve gone through a lot. It makes you appreciate it that much more. I would never take this for granted. It was a far-fetched dream when I first started playing hockey, for my parents to think I would one day be at this point. I can’t express how fortunate I am.”