02/26/2015 01:48 EST | Updated 04/28/2015 05:59 EDT

Flyers goaltender Rob Zepp followed Tim Thomas's European path to NHL

TORONTO - When goaltender Rob Zepp went to Europe to try to reinvigorate his career that sputtered in the minors, someone gave him an article about Tim Thomas, who took that path to great success.

"I kept it on me and every so often I would read it and, I guess, keep the faith and stay inspired by his journey," Zepp said.

Zepp has a long way to go to match Thomas's improbable journey to Conn Smythe Trophy and Stanley Cup winner, but just following him to the NHL was the first step. The Newmarket, Ont., product turned nine seasons in Finland and Germany into a deal with the Philadelphia Flyers at the age of 33.

The journey has been a long one, but that only made it more satisfying to Zepp.

"There's always doubts (that) creep in your mind," Zepp said Thursday as he prepared to make his first start at Air Canada Centre. "I always believed that I had the ability to do it, and I really believed in myself and I had a lot of people around me who did, as well. It was just a matter of the opportunity, so I'm very thankful and fortunate that the Flyers presented me with this this year."

Zepp played his youth hockey for the York Simcoe Express, junior hockey for the OHL's Plymouth Whalers and spent some time with the ECHL's Florida Everblades and AHL's Lowell Lock Monsters. When European opportunity presented itself, he played two years in Finland before going to Germany, where he won five straight titles with Eisbaren Berlin and played for the German national team.

Getting help along the way from former Oilers goaltending coach Frederic Chabot, current Edmonton consultant Sylvain Rodrigue and former Flyers goalie Maxime Oullet in Europe and from David and Marco Franco in Vaughan, Ont., Zepp developed into a German star. David Franco said Zepp worked tirelessly to improve and made himself a bigger, better goaltender over time.

"We focused a lot of attention on getting him upright more, getting the hands where they're supposed to be, making him a bigger presence in the net," said Franco, who also previously worked with Curtis Joseph and Jamie Storr. "And when you work on having good hands, you're going to end up having very good, successful rebound control. He worked long and hard on making himself bigger."

Offers from NHL teams came and went before a connection to Claude Giroux and Danny Briere, who played in Berlin during the lockout, led him to sign a one-year deal with Philadelphia. Thursday marked his ninth NHL start, and while he doesn't know what's to come, he'd love to re-sign to back-up Steve Mason.

"I certainly have really enjoyed my time and I'm extremely grateful for the Flyers to think outside the box and really offer me that opportunity to come in as their third guy this year," Zepp said. "Certainly I enjoy it here."

If Zepp is back and continues to follow Thomas's path, he'll serve as an inspiration.

"The fact that a guy that age comes that late, it's a great hope for everybody in Europe," teammate Pierre-Edouard Bellemare said.


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