-- If the Winter Classic is a chance to take hockey back to its roots, than John Vanbiesbrouck
could have been the equivalent of the steady quarterback from a childhood touch football game.
Vanbiesbrouck, who spent 20 seasons in the NHL, was invited to play for the New York Rangers
and Philadelphia Flyers
alumni teams at the 2012 Molson Canadian Winter Classic Alumni Game.
"I was asked by the Rangers one week and the Flyers the next week," he said. "It was a double honor."
Vanbiesbrouck chose to play for the Rangers for a simple reason -- they asked first.
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"I played in the New York Rangers
' alumni golf tournament and Anthony Zucconi (Rangers' Manager of Alumni and Community Relations) came up to me and said are you still playing and I said no. He said would you consider playing in the (Winter Classic Alumni Game) and I said sure I'd consider it. I got back to him and said I was still considering and then I got a call from (Flyers GM) Paul Holmgren
about 48 hours later and I said Paul I committed to playing with the Rangers -- sorry."
It's fitting that he does play for the Rangers, because he spent his first 11 seasons with the team, ranking fifth in team history with 200 wins and fourth in games played with 449.
After playing five seasons with the Florida Panthers
, Vanbiesbrouck signed with the Flyers in the summer of 1998. He spent two seasons there and lost his job to rookie Brian Boucher
late in the 1999-2000 season. He was traded to the New York Islanders
in June 2000.
"I have a lot of great memories playing here as a Flyer but also as an opponent," said Vanbiesbrouck. "Going into the Spectrum was probably, as far as my estimation, in the old Patrick Division, was probably to me the hardest game to play in. When we used to go into (Long) Island to play the Islanders, which was the rivalry, we had a bunch of Rangers fans. But there weren't any here in Philadelphia. When you're on the flip side of that and you're playing for the Flyers, this crowd gets going … I think that every player can tell you, when the Flyers fans get going, it's a great motivating factor."
Vanbiesbrouck said there's one very welcome benefit to him rejecting the Flyers.
"I'm happy that I wasn't able to play for the Flyers because it allows Bernie (Parent) to play," said Vanbiesbrouck. "I grew up watching Bernie. Bernie was a big hero of all goalies. I was a young boy in '75 and '74 when they won their Cups, but he epitomized goaltending … Bernie was a guy that won everybody's heart."
Vanbiesbrouck also will have a chance to go against his former boss -- Bob Clarke, the Hall of Fame Flyers legend who as GM of the Flyers brought Vanbiesbrouck to Philadelphia.
How would Vanbiesbrouck handle a Clarke breakaway?
"Probably take three steps out and stop," he said. "He's kind of big now, and he's probably not that mobile. He wouldn't want me to pokecheck him at all. These guys don't like pokechecks, but that's the first thing I'd do to him. But I wouldn't do it because he'd probably slash me in the back of the legs when I wasn't looking."
Vanbiesbrouck said the best part of playing Saturday will be stepping back into the Flyers-Rangers rivalry one more time.
"I'm fortunate that I was able to play 20 years in the National Hockey League," he said. "I'm fortunate I was able to play for two of the greatest organizations in the sport. I'm fortunate both times, I played for coaches that gave me an opportunity to start and play and lead. I have a lot of honor and respect for both these organizations. Most of all I think this rivalry between the Rangers and the Flyers is starting to heat up again. As a fan now, in my perspective, I love to see this."
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK