Kerry Huffman had moved to Cooperstown, N.Y., in 2011, to be closer to his wife's family, when he got a phone call from a friend to check out a 14-year-old kid who could skate forever. The friend was coaching in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights junior hockey program, and he was coaching a defenseman named Ivan Provorov, who he suspected might play in the NHL someday, and he wanted Huffman to verify that Provorov was indeed something special. Huffman had been the Flyers' first-round pick in 1986. Huffman had been an NHL defenseman for 10 years and had become a player agent. Huffman would know.
So Huffman drove the 150 miles from Cooperstown to the Revolution Ice Centre, the Pittston, Pa., rink that is the Knights' headquarters. Which one of these kids was the special one? It didn't take long for Huffman to pick Provorov out of the crowd.
"The first game I saw Provy play, he had, like, a nine-minute shift," Huffman said in a phone interview. "It was like he didn't come off the ice."
Huffman ended up coaching in the Knights organization for four years, and as Provorov developed into a prodigy and a potential first-round draft pick, as teams around the NHL began noticing him, the Flyers had a trusted voice close to him, tracking his progress. Six years later, still just 20 years old, Provorov enters this season, his second with the Flyers, as their best defenseman and the player on their roster who best combines excellence and aspiration. He's already very good, and to have him be that good and that young and to know that his growth as a player has been a steady upward arc is reason enough for the Flyers to believe they've found in him something they've long lacked: a homegrown franchise defenseman, a fixture on the blue line for years to come.
He didn't come out of nowhere. He didn't spring on the scene. He has stood out every step of the way.
"A lot of it, too, was not just his game, but how the other kids looked at him," said Huffman, now an assistant coach with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, the Flyers' AHL affiliate. "He had a certain way he carried himself. In the summers when I would see him, he would come in to do skill sessions. He just had a presence to him that jumps out at you when you see it.
"Obviously, when you see a 14-year-old defenseman, you never know what's going to happen, where they're going to go or what they're going to turn into. But he had a lot of raw, innate ability that certainly the other kids don't have. There are a lot of quality kids who have gone through that program — maybe 10 Division I defensemen. He was just head and shoulders above everybody."
He had to be, not merely to have an NHL team (the Flyers, as it turned out) select him with the seventh pick in the 2015 draft, but also to convince Flyers general manager Ron Hextall that Provorov, at 19, could handle the rigors of 82 NHL games. Promoting Provorov to the Flyers roster last season ran counter to every instinct Hextall has when it comes to player development. He doesn't believe that keeping a prospect at a lower level of hockey does much, if anything, to hurt him, but rushing him can damage his career irrevocably, no matter how talented he might be.
"When you're keeping a 19-year-old kid in the NHL, it's not a small decision, and it's certainly not one that I take lightly," Hextall said. "First of all, they have to make the team better. Second of all, you have to believe you're not going to hurt their development. So what do you do? You look at 19-year-olds: how they've developed, whether they've stayed up the whole year, whether they've gone back to junior. I looked at everything. You look at all the evidence, and then you make decisions with your gut. That's what I did."
The evidence included a steady stream of insight from an old friend and teammate. Huffman fielded phone calls from both Hextall and Flyers scout Mark Greig about Provorov, and he could answer any questions and quell any concerns they might have had. Provorov was born in Russia. How had he adjusted and adapted to North America? He had attended St. Mary's School in Wilkes-Barre. What kind of student was he? Huffman himself had entered the NHL at 18, and, with the benefit of hindsight, he knew he hadn't been ready. He knew Provorov would be.
"What struck me was, in terms of the Russian kids, he was so well-adapted," Huffman said. "By the time I met him, you would think he was just one of the other American kids. That's what I think a lot of people may not know. He's a very intelligent person. He did very well in school. They were fine academically with where he was. He's a sharp kid; there's no doubt.
"You could tell how well he thought the game. He could skate like nobody else could really skate. He was that kid who could stay on the ice pretty much as long as he wanted."