After a breakout rookie campaign, Phil Varone’s name is commonplace amongst Rochester Americans fans, and one that became synonymous with the goal horn at Blue Cross Arena last season. But the 21-year-old center doesn’t fit the mold of your typical leading scorer, and his path to becoming the player he is today was slightly less conventional than most.
Varone played lacrosse while growing up in Vaughan, Ontario, home to Canada’s largest amusement park, Canada’s Wonderland. It wasn’t until around age 10 before he took up much of an interest in hockey.
“My older brother was always really into hockey,” Varone said. “I didn’t like it much at first, but he’s the reason I started skating. He and my dad taught me everything I needed to know. It all took off right after that.”
Before long, Varone was taking the ice for the Ontario Hockey League’s Kitchener Rangers, who drafted him 78th overall in the 2006 OHL Draft.
Two seasons later, after a trade sent him to the London Knights, Varone found himself in another draft - the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. That year, Varone had his name called in the fifth round (147th overall) by the San Jose Sharks.
For a while, it looked as though Varone would blow his draft expectations out of the water. He scored 52 points in 58 games for the Knights in 2008-09 and was developing accordingly.
Last year I would say was the best of my career. The goal now is to build off it. - Forward Phil Varone
But during the 2009-10 season, while working at a point-per-game pace, Varone ran into a wall of injuries. After a pair of shoulder surgeries, the Sharks decided to cut ties with the undersized forward.
“After I got drafted, a lot of things started to go south,” Varone said. “With injuries and such, I guess I just wasn’t fitting into the organization.”
With his NHL future up in the air, Varone was forced to rethink everything. He played his overage season with the Erie Otters and surged to career numbers, scoring 81 points in 55 games.
Still awaiting another shot with a professional club, Varone considered going to school to bide time -- an option he bypassed years earlier for a chance in the OHL.
With his bags all but packed to head off to the University of New Brunswick, Varone received a call that complicated things a bit. The Buffalo Sabres were on the phone, and his decision suddenly was not all that clear.
“I was kind of torn between the two,” Varone said. “I always thought it would be a lot of fun to go to school and get my degree.”
But Varone cancelled his university plans and arrived in Rochester, also declining offers from several other NHL clubs for a shot with the Sabres.
“They (Sabres) contacted me first, so the decision was pretty easy,” he explained. “They wanted me here and everything kind of fell into place after that.”
Varone accepted a one-year contract with the Americans and immediately began to make the most of it.
At 5-foot-10, 185 pounds, size has never been an advantage for Varone, especially while squaring off against larger competition at the faceoff dot. But his shiftiness on the ice and playmaking ability has allowed him to carve out a significant role as he enters his second season as an Amerk.
After leading Rochester in scoring with 52 points and tying for the assist lead among American Hockey League rookies with 41, Varone was rewarded with a three-year entry-level contract last March.
Now, as he heads into the first year of his new deal, Varone can finally begin to enjoy his new-found sense of arrival.
“Last year I would say was the best of my career,” he said. “The goal now is to build off it.”
|Phil Varone (Photo: Micheline Veluvolu) |
Born: December 4, 1990, Vaughan, Ontario
Last Amateur Club: Erie (OHL)
How Acquired: Signed by Buffalo as a free agent, March 19, 2012.
CAREER: 2011-12: Had a breakout rookie season with Rochester, leading the Amerks with 41 assists and 52 points while appearing in all 76 games • Was one of four AHL rookies to lead his team in scoring and ranked 10th overall among all first-year skaters • Finished the season tied for 12th in the league in assists (41), leading all AHL rookies • Was second among all Rochester skaters with a plus-17 rating • Led the Amerks with four shorthanded points (2+2) and finished second among AHL rookies in that category • Ranked second among league rookies with a .750 shootout percentage (3-for-4) • Tied for the team lead in postseason scoring with three points (2+1) • Recorded two points (1+1) in his pro playoff debut in Game 1 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals at Toronto (4/19) • Named the Amerks’ Most Improved Player as voted by his teammates and was the recipient of the Scoring Champion Award • Scored his first pro goal at San Antonio (12/16) • Registered his first pro multi-point game (0+2) at Adirondack (12/10) • Recorded his first professional point (assist) against Grand Rapids (10/16) • Made his professional debut at Hamilton (10/8)… 2010-11: Led the Erie Otters (OHL) in postseason scoring with a team-high 10 assists and 13 points • Recorded career-highs in goals (34), assists (48) and points (82) in 59 combined OHL games with London and Erie • Finished the regular season third on the team in scoring while averaging 1.39 points per game and earning a career-best plus-21 rating • Scored six of his 34 goals on the power play, also leading Erie with three shorthanded tallies • Named the Otters' Most Valuable Player at the Otters Summer Awards Banquet… 2009-10: Was a point-per-game player for the London Knights (OHL), scoring 31 points in 31 games (9+22)… 2008-09: Scored a team-high 10 goals and finished third among Knights skaters in postseason scoring with 19 points in 14 playoff appearances… 2007-08: Finished fourth among London skaters and fifth among league rookies in overall scoring… 2006-07: Scored his first career OHL goal vs. Erie (12/8) • Recorded his first OHL point (assist) at Erie (11/25) • Made his OHL debut vs. Windsor (10/6).