NHL players are used to September bringing training camp, exhibition games and preparation time that leads to opening night of the NHL season. They're not necessarily used to jumping out of offseason training directly into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Yet that's what the transition was kind of like for the seven Flyers taking part in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. They reported to training camps for their respective teams just after Labor Day - three weeks before the Flyers opened their main camp - and in just a matter of a few days, they were suddenly thrust into world-class competition. Now that October is here, all seven Flyers have a step up on their normal preparations for an NHL season as the opener in Los Angeles draws near.
"It was a good experience, [like] playoff hockey," said Jake Voracek, who played for the Czech Republic team with Michal Neuvirth. "It was a little different. First [exhibition] game we played in Russia, it was really fast. You had to adjust and get used to it right away.
Claude Giroux had much the same experience playing for Team Canada, which won the tournament. Giroux was coming off hip surgery in the offseason and didn't play very much after getting banged up in an exhibition game against the USA squad, but he's feeling terrific now that he's back in Philadelphia.
"I didn't play great and I didn't feel great either," Giroux said. "But just being on that team, learning a lot… you want to play, but I feel great now. That's what the main focus is."
Giroux was certainly around the action enough to appreciate what it was like.
"The tournament was pretty intense," he said. "The pre-tournament games we played against the United States, they were pretty physical. It didn't feel like a preseason game. It felt more like a playoff game. When you get those games early in the season I think it's good to get the ball rolling."
The World Cup experience was a little bit different for four members of the Flyers' contingent. Mark Streit, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Shayne Gostisbehere and Sean Couturier all have international experience playing for their respective countries. But in this tournament, they were lumped together with others - Streit and Bellemare were part of Team Europe, which was comprised of players from eight different European countries outside of the main four teams from the continent. Gostisbehere and Couturier fell into the player pool for Team North America, which was comprised of players from either the US or Canada who were under the age of 24.
"When you come back after the entire summer and you come back here, sometimes you feel like the preseason games aren't enough to put you into season shape," Bellemare said. "That tournament, that was not preseason. The level of competition was so hard. It was February or March kind of hockey."
Team Europe made an excellent showing in the tournament, ending up in the finals against Canada. And Bellemare made one of the best impressions of any individual player in the tournament, repeatedly drawing praise from hockey pundits for his tenacious defensive play that Flyers fans have come to know well over the past couple of years. For him, it was almost a perfect situation.
"If you play in that tournament, you play against the best player every single shift," he said. "For me, when I play a fourth-line role, it can't be better. Those are the guys that I have to be able to play against to get ice time here. So it was a really, really good tournament for me."
For Streit, a veteran of many training camps both in Europe and in the NHL, it made for a September unlike he had ever experienced.
"It was tough at the beginning when you have two team practices and then you play the friendly games," he said. "After that, during the tournament, I felt great. I've never played like that in September. It was a different kind of preparation groove."
Team North America was expected to have its hands full in the tournament, going up against teams with much more experienced players. But North America became a fan-favorite team from an underdog perspective, taking out both Sweden and Finland in the preliminary round and nearly knocking off Russia. They outshot the Russians 46-25 and were only undone by a second period in which the Russians scored four goals - otherwise, they would have made it to the semifinals.
"When we came in there wasn't really much expectation for us," Couturier said. "People kind of jumped on the bandwagon and started cheering for us, and it was awesome. I think we turned a lot of heads and kind of showed what the future of the game is probably going to be like."
Gostisbehere, who like Giroux was coming off surgery in the summer, was happy to get an opportunity to make an early return.
"You don't play in those games in September normally, so it was pretty cool," Gostisbehere said. "I think the tournament was a good stepping stone for me, and to branch off my injury and give yourself the confidence that you're feeling good for the year."
One of the highlights of Flyers training camp so far has been the goaltending. Both Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth have been excellent, with Neuvirth benefitting from that extra time in the tournament.
"It's always been my goal to play for my country," Neuvirth said. I didn't know what to expect, but it was great. It was nowhere close to preseason games here. All the best players there… had an opportunity to play a game against Canada. It was a great setup, Toronto was great. I have nothing but positive memories."
As a whole, the Flyers who played in the tournament thoroughly enjoyed their experiences. But they're all happy to be back with their main team now, and are eager to start the regular season.
"It was a lot of fun with a good bunch of guys," Couturier said. "It [was] a pretty intense three weeks with training camp and those six games. Three games in four nights is a lot for September, but now I feel pretty good coming into camp and feel like maybe I'm a step ahead."