It started with a call-up to the Flyers during a bus trip from Allentown to Toronto, a tap on the shoulder from Phantoms coach Scott Gordon that Tyrell GouIbourne instinctively read as a cruel joke.
Over the next 24 hours, that’s what it felt like, too. A rush to make a plane from Toronto to Philly. A weather delay. The plane was boarded. The toilet in the rear of the plane froze, and the plane was evacuated. The flight was canceled at 1:30 a.m. The next flight, early Thursday morning, was delayed and hours later it, too, was canceled due to the storms up and down the East Coast.
A day of mayhem ensued, the 23-year-old prospect sitting helplessly in an airport terminal until the hours and minutes to what was supposed to be his NHL debut against the Islanders Thursday evaporated into nothing.
“Twenty four hours of travel,’’ Goulbourne said after finishing his first practice with the Flyers Friday afternoon. “Felt like I was going to Europe. But I could do that this whole week and be happy.’’
Provided he was still wearing a Flyers jersey when it ended. Ultimately, Goulbourne ended up on the last flight out Thursday night to Baltimore, accompanied by his mother, grandmother and auntie – all of whom had caught up to him in Toronto after departing from his native Edmonton when they were informed of his news.
He is expected to finally see action Saturday as a fourth-line left wing when the Flyers host the St. Louis Blues in a 1 p.m. matinee.
Crazy. Hectic. Not exactly how he dreamed his NHL life would begin. Then again, given that he was playing in the ECHL just a season ago, riding buses everywhere and regressing his way out of professional hockey, that dream itself seemed like a cruel joke. A controversial third-round pick in 2013 who was known for his physicality, Goulbourne seemed bedeviled by the role-oriented world of professional hockey and the minute details that world demands.
Penalties hurt him. Productivity hurt him. Most of all, a lack of consistency hurt him.
“I pretty much hit rock bottom down there. I’ll be honest,’’ Goulbourne said. “I didn’t know what was going to happen, what was going on. Near the end of the year, it just clicked, and from that moment on I worked as hard as I could. I didn’t worry about anything. About what anybody said, what anybody was doing. Just worried about myself. I had a good offseason, did exactly what they told me to do, and now I’m here.’’
On the surface, the promotion is puzzling. On a Phantoms team loaded with top-six talent, Goulbourne has five goals and six assists this season. But after two AHL seasons in which he finished with unhealthy minuses, he is a plus-8 who kick starts other lines with hard forechecks and gritty play. Tony Androckitis, who regularly covers the Phantoms for InsideAHLHockey, estimates that Goulbourne has drawn 10 minor penalties this season while committing just four in his 38 minutes of penalty time.
In case you haven’t noticed, the Flyers have a bad habit of starting slowly. Just once in the last 20 games have they emerged from the first period with a lead regardless of who they are playing or the last time they played.
“You’re going to have the odd clunker. Every team does,’’ Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said the other night. “The clunkers have been too consistent. … What we are looking for from him is a little bit of energy. He has outstanding speed, a heavy player, a heavy stick. He’s a good penalty killer, and he’s been a good player for us [with the Phantoms]. The energy, the speed, the forecheck, physical play. He has come a long way in three years.”
Oh, one other thing: “Hell of a fighter. That’s for sure,’’ said Flyers rookie defenseman Robert Hagg, who played with Goulbourne in Lehigh Valley. “ I think the fans in Philly are going to like him.’’
That would extend the dream of course. If Goulbourne can combine his physicality with productivity the way he did as a junior player, when he played on the top line and scored 23 goals, this could be the start of a big dream, not the culmination of a smaller one. He is on the last year of his entry level deal. The salary he receives over the next few seasons could be greatly determined by his next few games.
“This is what I’ve been working for,’’ Goulbourne said. “There’s a lot of guys who could be here instead of me. So I’m really thankful.’’