Zac Rinaldo made his NHL debut on April 22 in Game 5 of the opening round playoff series against the Buffalo Sabres. He got the call-up again for Game 1 in the next round against the Boston Bruins. For the 20 year old from Hamilton, Ontario it's been an incredible stretch and a once-in-a-lifetime experience getting to bring his hard-hitting style to the world's best players for the first time in his career. Zac talked with the Phantoms' Bob Rotruck in a phone interview about his exciting opportunity with the Flyers:
Q: Tell me about last week and your feelings. You get called up and make your NHL debut and you get to do it in a playoff game!
Zac: Yeah, it was really cool. I definitely was not expecting that but I always had to be prepared whether I was playing or not. Being there gave me goose-bumps like the National Anthem and stuff like that. I was just overwhelmed with everything. But I think I took it positively and took what I could from the game and ran with it.
Q: I had read an article about it and the emotions and I guess your Mom had shed a few tears she was so happy for you.
Zac: Yeah. But, you know, mothers are really sensitive in that way. My Dad was so happy. He flew down with six of his buddies and they all had a great time. They're huge Philly and Boston fans so they got to see both of their favorite teams in action with me playing too so it was cool.
Q: Tell me more how it happened. When did you find out and how much time did you have to sit back and think about it before you were out there and had to be ready to go?
Zac: We got here the 11th or 12th of April and then ever since we were working on the ice and then after practice just hanging out for the rest of the day and not doing much. And then they lost and they went to Game 5 and I guess they needed some spark and some energy I guess to try to get in the lineup. So I guess they thought, "why not call Rinaldo?" since, you know, I get some energy and I get some spark going during the game. So I think it was the day before (Ian) Lapierre told me that I should be working extra hard on the ice today because they were watching me practice. Then after that I packed up my bags and headed to the Wells Fargo Center for pregame skate. I had about a day and a bit to get prepared for the game.
Q: What were all the emotions running through your mind all day long while you were getting ready for that game. As you said, you weren't really expecting this in the least.
Zac: Ummm, I don't know. I wasn't really thinking anything. I wanted to stay....I mean...if I got myself all wound up and over-excited I would have wasted a lot of energy during the day. My parents came down for the first game. And I just hung out with them. They came down and they were excited and I was really calm during the day. Surprisingly. I thought I was going to be a little more excited. But I was really really calm. And I just went to the rink as if it was a normal game for me. But obviously when I hit the ice I know that I'm playing in the NHL so I got to take it up that extra bit. But I was really calm during the day. Emotions weren't too high. My feelings weren't really all over the place. I wasn't really nervous at all. I just knew I had to perform and play at the top of my game. So I was really confident about how my play is when I play at that peak and that high competition level. So I knew what I was doing.
Q: Right. And it seemed like you did well. As you said, knowing what you're doing. And taking your game and what you do all the time anyway and just taking it in with a bunch of new guys up there on a bigger stage.
Zac: Yeah. Basically you got to try to hit 'em stronger and harder. And the bigger guys, well, Buffalo, they weren't that big...but it was definitely a strength competition compared to the AHL. You can hit guys in the AHL. It's a lot harder hitting guys in the NHL, that's for sure. You just got to hit the bigger guys harder and you got to keep your head up because the puck goes really fast when it goes out there.
Q: What did the other guys, the guys with the Black Aces, say to you when you got called up. I imagine they were really happy for you that you were getting this chance.
Zac: Yeah, it was really cool. They all supported me and all told me congratulations and told me good luck. My roommate here (Voorhees, NJ), Mike Testwuide...I was with Mike in the hotel room and he was really happy for me when it happened too. "Go lay a few bodies out, " they told me and they were all watching the game and saw me do that.
Q: What did Laviolette or anybody else say to you?
Zac: Well, they were really concerned about me taking a penalty and putting the team down and if they could trust me and stuff like that. So that was the big debate on their part. But I told them. I said I was a playoff player. My play during the regular season is kind of a perfect piece for the puzzle in the playoffs. So I guess they trusted me. And I went out there and I did the best I could not to take penalties and play smarter and playing on that line. And I did a really good job. They took me out of the lineup the night after but they said it wasn't based on my performance at all. They loved how I played on the edge. And I didn't take any penalties so they were really happy with me.
Q: That's good that you get that reinforcement from them and that they told you that they liked ho you played. Obviously they did when they put you back in the lineup again for the game against Boston. You took a penalty on probably a pretty questionable call and you also took matching 10 minute misconducts with one of their guys.
Zac: Yeah, with (Milan) Lucic.
Q: Probably not a bad thing in that situation when you're taking him off the ice for that long.
Zac: Yeah, well, they scored another 3 or 4 goals after we got kicked out. But taking one of their top players that is definitely a huge part of my game.
Q: This is a situation where you did get called up to play in another game so you know they weren't just blowing smoke when they said they liked what you were doing in that first game where you played.
Zac: They told me they really liked my style and my play and everything like that. So I was really confident when they make their decisions. And I always know that they have a spot there to be fulfilled. So I just have to stay positive and trust that they're going to do the best for me and the best for the team.
Q: This really bodes well for next season as well. Who knows where you're going to be and if maybe they're going to think about keeping you with the Flyers or send you back to the Phantoms. But certainly them giving you a look in these important games in the playoffs speaks a ton for you.
Zac: Yeah, that's huge. It's a huge step towards making the team but I have to go with the mindset that I'm not on the team at all. I'm still working my way and I have a long process to do that. But I stay positive and I'm going to workout as much as I can in the summer. And hopefully I'll come into training camp and open their eyes.
Q: Let me go back to just the Phantoms season. You got in a lot of fights and took a lot of penalties that year. I would like you to summarize how you feel your first year of professional hockey went just with the Phantoms before you got called up to the Flyers.
Zac: Yeah, a lot of fighting this year and a lot of penalty minutes. Some I deserved and some I definitely didn't deserve. I think it was a really positive year for me believe it or not. I kept my cool a majority of the season. I really did. I played on that fine line. I realized that being in a professional league I have to stay on that line and not cross that edge and that line that was drawn there by the refs and by the organization. But it was a really positive year for me and I came to Philadelphia with it.
Q: And something that you can build on for the next year and continue to grow and continue to develop as a player. I mean, still, you're only 20 years old.
Zac: I wanted to go into the league with the mindset that I needed to make a statement. That I was one of the tougher guys in the league and didn't take anything from anybody. And I think everyone knows that now. And next year I can really concentrate on playing hockey and also along with the hitting but not so much with the misconducts and stuff like that.
Q: Hey Zac. Thanks. Congrats again. We're all really happy for you.