The first hint that Rob Zepp’s path to the NHL might be a bumpy one came when his entry-level contract with the Atlanta Thrashers was voided because the fax to central registry arrived six minutes late.
This was back in June 2001 and forced the goaltender to re-enter the draft.
If Zepp were the kind of person that believed in signs, it would probably have become the central anecdote he told in older age when recounting why he fell short of his childhood dreams.
However, we’ve come to learn that Rob Zepp is not that kind of person. What he is instead is the proud owner of some hockey trivia — at 33 years 105 days he became the oldest goalie to win his NHL debut since 1926 on Sunday night — and a symbol of hope.
Guys like him simply don’t find themselves standing between the pipes for a NHL team very often. In fact, when the Philadelphia Flyers circled No. 72 on their lineup card in Winnipeg, Zepp became the oldest goaltender in more than four decades just to get his first start in the league.
It was the culmination of a few leaps of faith.
There was a certain courage required to bolt for Finland back in 2005 after getting stuck in the ECHL. That eventually led him to Germany, where he won five championships in seven years with Eisbaren Berlin, and felt extremely comfortable until rolling the dice by signing a two-way contract with the Flyers.
“I felt like it might be my last opportunity,” Zepp said over the weekend. “I didn’t want to reflect back on my career when it was over and just kind of wonder: ‘What if? What would have happened if I didn’t take that chance?’ You grow up as a kid and your goal and your dream is to play in the NHL.
“No matter how much success I had over in Europe, it was always my intention and my goal and my dream to play here.”
Zepp was a goalie from the very beginning. He played just a handful of games as a skater during his first season of minor hockey in Newmarket, Ont., before strapping on the pads and never looking back.
The position suited him and he made his way from AAA to the Ontario Hockey League’s Plymouth Whalers, where he played on some good teams under Peter DeBoer and Steve Spott.
However, his progress stalled after getting selected by Carolina during his second time through the NHL draft. Zepp began his pro career in the ECHL and still found himself playing there four years later.
So he packed his bags for Europe.
“(I wanted) to try to play at a higher level and more meaningful minutes than I was playing,” he said.
The real breakthrough came when he hooked up with goalie coach Sylvain Rodrigue in Berlin. It was Rodrigue who challenged Zepp to get outside of his comfort zone and start thinking about becoming the biggest goalie in the world, not just in Germany.
This was during the period where Berlin dominated that country’s domestic league and Zepp became a starter for the national team after gaining citizenship through his family heritage. He was in goal when Germany nearly upset Russia in the semifinals of the 2010 IIHF World Hockey Championship — a game he points to as the biggest of his career.
Amidst all of that success, the flicker of his dream stayed alive.
“When you win those championships — wherever they are — it’s something nobody can take away from you,” said Zepp. “It gives you a confidence and an air; just a belief that you can win and be successful.”
He first began talking with the Flyers during the 2012-13 NHL lockout, when Claude Giroux and Danny Briere spent a couple months in Berlin. Giroux, the Philadelphia captain, marvelled at the goaltender’s work ethic.
Flyers general manager Ron Hextall was working in the Los Angeles Kings organization at that time, but was familiar with Zepp because they were interested in bringing him in, too.
Eventually, all of the pieces fell in place last summer and he signed a one-year deal for the league-minimum salary ($600,000) at the NHL level and $250,000 in the AHL. It was a bit of a gamble for both sides, but Zepp got the relationship off on good footing by having a solid showing in pre-season.
“When we sent him down, I said ‘Rob, you did everything you probably could have accomplished in training camp and if someone goes down we’re going to feel comfortable bringing you up and giving you a shot,”‘ said Hextall.
That moment arrived Friday afternoon, when practice came to an abrupt end after Steve Mason collapsed in a pile in his crease. Mason needed teammates to help him off the ice with what the Flyers called an upper-body injury.
After watching Saturday’s win in Toronto from the end of the bench, Zepp was thrown into the fire on Sunday night. The Jets peppered him with eight shots in the opening four minutes and built a 3-1 lead after two periods.
However, the journeyman goaltender became something for his teammates to rally around. They allowed just two shots against him from that point on and completed the comeback when Jakub Voracek scored 10 seconds into overtime.
Later, Zepp stood beaming in the visiting dressing room at MTS Centre while posing for pictures with the game puck. It was the kind of moment the goalie had occasionally figured might never happen because of the unusual path he’d chosen.
“Europe isn’t a death sentence any more,” said Hextall. “It used to be once you went to Europe you were done essentially in the NHL because you wouldn’t get scouted.”
There is a touch of irony in the fact that Zepp’s breakthrough came with the Flyers — an organization known more for diminishing goaltending careers rather than breathing new life into them.
But, as teammate Mark Streit mused the other day: “There’s always exceptions to the rule.”
Zepp is not only an exception; he is a reminder about the power of possibility and the importance of self-belief. Taking the ECHL-Finland-Germany-AHL route to the NHL is not normally how it’s done, but we now know for sure that it can be done.
“I’ve really been reflecting on the journey since I got called up,” Zepp told reporters in Winnipeg on Sunday night. “There were so many moments that had to happen for this to come together. … I’ve been playing hockey for 26 years and to be able to get here and play — you know, the game wasn’t perfect — but to get the win like that at the end was just incredible.
“I appreciate this more than anybody knows.”
The best things in life are always worth the wait.