by Owen Newkirk || AHL On The Beat Archive
There have been no handouts for Adirondack Phantoms right wing David Laliberte, and certainly no free pass to fulfill his dream of playing in the National Hockey League.
So when the St. Liboire, Que., native made his NHL debut earlier this season with the Philadelphia Flyers, it marked the culmination of countless years of work on the practice rink from a young man who could soon become a regular presence in the world’s top professional hockey league.
Drafted by Philadelphia in the fourth round (124th overall) of the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, Laliberte entered his first pro season in 2007-08 coming off a stellar final year of juniors. Playing for the Prince Edward Island Rocket of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League he scored 50 goals and 98 points in 68 games during the 2006-07 season.
Yet even with Laliberte’s strong finish to his junior career, the Flyers begin his pro development with the Phantoms and just four days after making his pro and AHL debut, he was sent down to the ECHL’s Wheeling Nailers.
“I was disappointed to be sent down to the ECHL my first year,” said Laliberte. “I thought I had a great training camp with the Phantoms. I thought I played well, scored a couple good goals in camp and I had worked really hard during the summer. Deep down I always knew that I’d get my chance because I like to work hard every day and some day they’d have to give me an opportunity.”
Laliberte did not show his disappointment while playing for his future AHL owners in Wheeling, Rob and Jim Brooks. Instead he dug in his heels and registered 24 points (10 goals, 14 assists) in 27 games for Wheeling, while serving as the swing player between the Phantoms and the Nailers. He went back and forth all season, getting into 27 AHL games with the Phantoms, although his nine points did not secure himself a permanent AHL spot for the 2008-09 season.
“When last season began he was supposed to be sent down again to the ECHL,” said Adirondack Phantoms associate coach Kjell Samuelsson. “We had some players hurt and he stuck with the Phantoms and continued to make progress. David is a great example of what can happen when a player pays attention to small details and hard work.”
Laliberte really started to attract some attention from the Flyers brass last year by seizing his chance to play regular AHL minutes. He ended up with an impressive 28 goals and 48 points in 70 games with the Phantoms in 2008-09, ranking third on the team in goals, just one behind the co-leaders.
However, making a strong transition from the ECHL to the AHL is no guarantee of getting a call-up to the NHL. Just like his rookie year, Laliberte kept his nose to the grindstone and when the Flyers needed a forward to fill in for the injured Daniel Briere early into the 2009-10 campaign, it was the work ethic that stood above his point totals in the eyes of his coaches.
“He continued from the year before,” said Samuelsson. “He played very consistently and always worked when it came to practice or a game, and he scored goals. He is a goal scorer and he was doing that. He’s very coachable, he listens and tries to get better on the ice and that’s everything you ask for.”
On Oct. 29, Laliberte boarded the Phantoms team bus for the long ride to Toronto, ahead of game the next night against the Marlies at Ricoh Coliseum. But on the morning of Oct. 30, Laliberte’s world was drastically altered when the Adirondack coaches informed him it was time to fulfill a lifelong dream.
He immediately called his family to tell them the good news before getting on a plane to join the Flyers. His excitement of what was to come over the next 24 hours was not lost on his parents.
“I remember we were playing in Philadelphia at 1:00 p.m. the next day and I called my parents and they told me they were going to come to see my first NHL game,” said Laliberte. “I thought to myself that they are a little bit crazy to drive nine hours just to be able to see the game.”
But sure enough, on Oct. 31, 2009, at Wachovia Center as the Flyers hosted the Carolina Hurricanes for a Saturday afternoon matinee, and with his parents in attendance, Laliberte took his first shifts as a National Hockey League player.
While so many young and talented players are usually ecstatic just to step foot on NHL ice, he was not about pass up the opportunity to make his mark on the game. Twelve and a half minutes into the first period Laliberte was in perfect position for a rebound off a Ryan Parent shot and he smoothly buried a one-timer inside the near post against then Hurricanes goaltender (and now Flyers starter) Michael Leighton.
Laliberte had a goal on his first career NHL shot.
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In the second period things got even better when he had the primary assist on a goal by James van Riemsdyk. To top it all off his first-period goal ended up being the game-winner in a 6-1 win.
“I remember sitting in the locker room before the game and looking around to see the big name players like Briere, Pronger, Gagne and Richards and I was sitting next to Jeff Carter,” said Laliberte. “I just tried to focus on playing my game, to shoot the puck, to drive the net and try to play good defensively. On my second shift, my first shot, I got a rebound and it went in. It was kind of lucky, but things happen so quickly up there and it was a great feeling.”
Clearly riding on cloud nine, Laliberte remembers the wave of support he received not just from his parents, but from all his friends, relatives and other people back home that played some part in his path to the NHL.
“My cell phone was full of missed calls. It took me a couple weeks to call everyone back because there were so many messages. To have my family there that night was very special.”
On the ice he clicked with his new linemates Carter and van Riemsdyk, scoring again in his second NHL game two days later as the Flyers blasted Tampa Bay 6-2. After four NHL games he was sent back to Adirondack on Nov. 13.
Just like when he went down to Wheeling two years ago, Laliberte overshadowed his disappointment with discipline.
“The biggest thing I learned was consistency,” he explains. “I had a meeting with [then-head coach John] Stevens when they sent me back down the first time. He told me, ‘You have to learn to prepare yourself to play every night and when you’re not playing just try to relax and think about something else and do something else. Make sure you’re ready every to go and try to bring your “A” game every night.’
“That really sunk in because especially in the NHL you have play with urgency every game. I think that’s something that I try to bring here in Adirondack, to play my best level every night. It’s something I’m still working on and trying to improve.”
That work ethic was a big reason why the Flyers called him back up four days later on Nov. 17 after an injury to Arron Asham left Philadelphia down a forward. Laliberte played on a different line and in a different role this time, appearing in four more games, although his ice time dropped compared to the initial stint. Nonetheless, his attitude remained unchecked.
“Each time I just tried to take it all in, see what the other guys on the ice were doing and tried to learn. I was pretty happy about my game the second time they called me up.”
Laliberte returned to the Phantoms on Nov. 25, but was back in the show two weeks later when the Flyers recalled him for the third time on Dec. 8. That night he played in his ninth NHL game and his 150th career professional game against the New York Islanders. He saw three total games in his third call-up before coming back to Adirondack on Dec. 13.
His coaches in Glens Falls did not see much change in the player who must have been brimming with the confidence that comes from playing in the first 11 games of his NHL career.
“I don’t know if I noticed a difference, because I think he’s figured it out by himself,” said Samuelsson. “He was up there and he knows exactly what it takes to get back up there. That’s enough motivation for him to keep doing the same thing over and over again.”
Laliberte has done just that since being sent back to the AHL after his third NHL call up. During one stretch in January he had a five-game point streak, was held scoreless for one game and then had a four-game goal streak, totaling 10 points (five goals, five assists) in 10 games.
With a month and a half left in the 2009-10 regular season he ranks second on the Phantoms in points and third in goals; he also has nine points (three goals, six assists) in his last nine games played.
Samuelsson admits that though Laliberte’s rising stock was a surprise to him, he also sees real potential for the Phantoms right wing to become a regular NHL player in the near future. Yet it is no surprise that with all the accomplishments and praise, Laliberte is not changing his approach.
“I still want to improve some parts of my game, but I think that I’m working my way up,” said Laliberte. “I’m sure that I had a whole different point of view two years ago, but right now the Flyers gave me a great opportunity up there and for me I just want to keep working and improving. You never know what can happen.”
Approaching his 24th birthday, Laliberte is hungry for more games in the NHL and probably has not seen his last bite of hockey’s elite level, yet he relishes that first taste.
“Even after my first game, I told my parents ‘I played my first game in the NHL, I did it!’ In my head I heard everyone telling me I’d never play there, but now I can forget about it. I made it and it was a dream come true. I said to them, ‘I can tell my kids that I played one game in the show.’”