By Sam Bush
Even ardent Flyers fans were happily surprised Sunday night by Rob Zepp, the 33-year-old goalie who filled in for injured Steve Mason in goal as the team beat the Winnipeg Jets 4-3.
But few have any idea of who he is and how he got to the Flyers.
After 13 seasons bouncing around hockey leagues in North America and Europe, the 33-year-old finally got his chance to play in the NHL and made 25 saves.
“I said to [my teammates] that I appreciate this more than anyone knows,” Zepp said after the game Sunday. “I’ve been playing hockey for 26 years trying to get here. To be able to be here and play, the game wasn’t perfect, but then to get the win at the end like that was perfect.”
Zepp was born in Scarborough, Ontario, and grew up in nearby Newmarket. He starred for the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League, leading the OHL in goals-against average twice and winning the Canadian Hockey League scholar-athlete award. He was drafted twice by NHL teams; by the Atlanta Thrashers in the fourth round (No. 99) of the 1999 NHL Draft and by the Carolina Hurricanes in the fourth round (No. 110) of the 2001 NHL Draft.
He turned pro in 2001 and spent four seasons split between the Florida Everblades of the ECHL and the Lowell Lock Monsters of the American Hockey League. In 2005 he moved to Europe, spending two seasons in Finland. In 2007 he found a home with Eisbaren Berlin in Germany. He helped Berlin win five German league titles and attained dual Canadian/German citizenship; he played for Germany at the World Championship three times and in a qualifier for the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
But he always wanted to give the NHL one more chance. During the lockout in 2012, Flyers captain Claude Giroux played for Berlin and passed Zepp’s name along to Flyers general manager Ron Hextall when the Flyers were looking for an experienced goaltender to add to the organization.
Zepp started this season with Lehigh Valley of the American Hockey League. When Steve Mason sustained an upper-body injury in practice Friday, Zepp got the phone call he had waited a hockey lifetime for.
He was on the bench as Ray Emery’s backup in the Flyers’ 7-4 win Saturday at the Toronto Maple Leafs. Then came Sunday, when he led the team out against the Jets.
“It’s been kind of a whirlwind the last 48 hours,” Zepp said Sunday. “I’ve been really reflecting upon the journey to get here ever since I got called up. There’s so many different things along the way that have to come together for his to happen. There’s some doubts along the way, but I always believed in my ability.”
Zepp was tested early; the Jets outshot the Flyers 17-9 and led 2-1 after one period.
“As calm as you’re trying to be, you wait this long for something, you get out on the ice, I’m not going to lie, I didn’t feel like myself for the first 10 minutes or so,” Zepp said. “It was a little bit complicated by the fact that they [the Jets] were flying too. I don’t remember much from the first 10 minutes but I was able to get my feet under me and play my game as the game went on.”
Winnipeg pushed its lead to 3-1 on Mathieu Perreault’s goal at 11:21. The Jets nearly made it 4-1 in the final seconds of the second when Mark Scheifele got the puck alone in the slot, pulled the puck onto his backhand and appeared to have an empty net to slide the puck into. But Zepp somehow got the blade of his skate on the puck to kick it aside.
“To make a save on a player like that, alone right at the end of the second, that’s the difference between a 3-1 game and a 4-1 game, and 4-1 is a lot bigger mountain to climb than 3-1,” Zepp said. “We have a lot of offensive guys out there. They felt pretty confident in themselves that if they’d be able to generate some shots and end-zone time they’d be able to net a couple goals in the third and that’s what they did.”
Vincent Lecavalier scored two goals in the third to tie the game and then Jakub Voracek scored 10 seconds into overtime to give Zepp a historic victory.
According to Hockey-Refernce.com, Zepp is the oldest player to win his NHL debut since 41-year-oldHugh Lehman with the Chicago Black Hawks in the 1926-27 season.
“He’s worked so hard to be here,” Giroux said of Zepp. “His work ethic is unbelievable. There’s nobody that deserves it more than him. He started from down there and worked himself up here with his work ethic. We’re really happy for him and we wanted to get that win for him.”