The way Anthony Stolarz sees it, a six-hour car ride plus a nearly four-hour flight has made all the difference in the world to his hockey career.
Go back almost three years and Stolarz had no idea where hockey was taking him, especially after he was washed out of two junior league tryouts.
That’s when his parents offered to drive him from their home in Jackson, NJ to Albany, NY, for a tryout with the North American Hockey League.
The drive should have taken roughly four hours, but it became a six-hour ordeal.
“I didn’t make two previous tryout teams and wasn’t invited to any USA camps,” said the 19-year-old American goalie, who represents the Flyers' future right now. “The North American League has a camp in Albany, so we drove.”
They drove with small equipment, too. Small enough that his pads and such just didn’t quite measure up to his then 6-foot-5 frame. (He’s 6-6 now.)
“I was going through a growth spurt and all I had was my pads from the previous year,” Stolarz said. “They didn’t fit well, but I had no choice. It was really small for me. At first, it was a little awkward, and then I adjusted to it. Not everyone is 6-5 and other guys had to adjust to shooting on me. I was able to get control of my body.”
Despite the awkwardness of the moment, Stolarz made an impression on a number of people, including Flyers goalie scout Neil Little. He also drew the cherished invite for a shot with Corpus Christie.
“It wasn’t over,” Stolarz said. “I then had to make a decision to fly to Dallas for their main camp and try out. It was a good decision.”
From there, everything began to fall in place for the lankly goalie, who weighs 215 pounds.
A year with Corpus Christie led to the Flyers drafting Stolarz last summer in the second round (39th overall) with the pick obtained from Columbus in the Sergei Bobrovsky trade.
That led to a scholarship at Nebraska-Omaha last fall, which lasted all of eight games before Stolarz dropped out and landed in the Ontario Hockey League with the high-octane London Knights.
The decision to leave school didn’t sit well with his parents. Education first, they said. Which is why Stolarz took courses in London and has enrolled in an online business course this summer at Rutgers to finish his freshman year.
“Leaving Nebraska was tough on my parents because I was giving up my education, but I am arranging things to take courses in London and here,” Stolarz said, adding that he spoke to the Flyers' director of player development, Ian Laperriere, before making the decision.
“The Flyers had no influence at all in me leaving school. Players coming from the junior ranks were giving me the pros and cons of coming from different paths. Omaha was great, and I thank them for the opportunity, but the chance to play more games and work with goalie coach Bill Dark [was appealing]. The Flyers told me whatever makes me happy, they would back me 100 percent.”
Mind you, when Stolarz arrived at London, Dale Hunter’s Knights had won 24 consecutive games.
It took a while before Stolarz unseated starting goalie Kevin Bailie and back-up Jake Patterson -- one of two OHL goalies with the same first and last name, albeit a different spelling for the Saginaw netminder.
Stolarz finished the regular season at London with a 13-3-2 record, 2.29 goals-against average and .920 save percentage in 20 games.
“Take a snapshot from where Stolarz was last year at this time playing in the North American league,” said Chris Pryor, the Flyers' director of hockey operations. "Coming out before he was ready. And then going to World Junior camp in Lake Placid. Going to Nebraska-Omaha, splitting ice time there, the older guy [Bailie] got the majority of it. Leaves school and goes to London and gets the bulk of ice time there. And becomes the guy [starter] there. It’s been a great year for him from a development standpoint. He’s done well for himself.”
Stolarz was impressed by how much higher the level of competition was playing junior hockey in Canada.
“Yeah, you saw increase in skill, especially in the playoffs with Saginaw and Kitchener and Barrie in the finals,” he said. "All those teams had top-end NHL draft picks playing for them. We went to the Memorial Cup and all those guys who were signed to the NHL, the talent level definitely got better as we went on.”
He admits it became a bit imposing once the playoffs began, then London reached the Memorial Cup tournament.
“The playoffs taught me that no matter what the score, teams come back,” Stolarz said. “We had couple games against Barrie where they came back in the third period and you had to come up with a big save. I found that there is never any point where teams can’t come back. You need to focus hard for a full 60 minutes. Even in the Memorial Cup, the media and exposure was amazing. It was the best competition in the world. You got to see where you were at.”
That’s where Stolarz could measure himself against the better OHL goalies -- Mathias Niederberger of Barrie, Alex Nedeljkovic of Plymouth, John Gibson of Kitchener and Paterson.
“Paterson, Gibson, Niederberger … there was so much hype around the goalies we were playing and I didn’t want to think too much,” Stolarz said of the pressure. “[It’s] not about them, but about myself and how we were playing. Just focus on what I was doing and what I needed to draw on.”
Stolarz had a 2.53 GAA and .923 save percentage during 18 playoff games. He appeared in three Memorial Cup games with an inflated GAA of 4.50 and .872 save percentage. One of those games involved a blowout loss, raising his numbers considerably.
It’s all part of Stolarz’s first true year of learning in hockey.
“I don’t know if anyone could have guessed expectation-wise from a playing standpoint and development standpoint where he would be, but Stolarz is farther ahead than we thought he would be at this time,” Pryor said. “That’s a lot of hockey in a short period of time. For a goaltender, he’s seen a lot of pucks, played a lot of games and it’s been a good year for him.”
Pryor estimates Stolarz is about three years away from even thinking about making an NHL roster.
“We got time and we got patience with Stolarz,” Pryor said. “He needs to play and see pucks. There is no rush.”
Stolarz returned to New Jersey this week for the summer. He said he’s tired from having played so much hockey this past year.
“Toward the end of the season you could feel that grind and the games really start to take their toll on you,” he said. “Having this break is going to be nice. Get my legs refreshed and work out a ton and improve off the ice.”
This offseason, Stolarz wants to work on lateral movement and puck-handling, which he admits need upgrading.
“Working on my crease game and getting my legs stronger to go post-to-post,” Stolarz said. “Foot speed is another thing. Being able to react and get off the ice quicker. Work on patience and not make the first move, be in position to make that first save.”
So what he did learn this year?
“The main thing is how to relax and keep your composure,” Stolarz said. “Going from the North American league to college was a big jump. Then from college to the OHL was another big jump. Every level, you have to adjust better and read the play better and staying calm and composed in the net. You look at all the snipers in the OHL you go up against, you need a level head to stop the puck.”
He hopes to get an invite to Team USA’s junior development camp in August.
“That is something I always wanted to do in hockey,” Stolarz said of making Team USA. “For me, that would be amazing.
“I hope to be invited to Lake Placid and go from there. Last year was motivation for me to make it and represent my country.”