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Facing the NHL’s bright lights

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Mark Friedman

For Mark Friedman, playing his first game in the National Hockey League was a surreal experience.

As he prepared to exit the tunnel that leads to the ice at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, he saw his mother at rink side, recording his every move on video. Up in the stands were a couple of buddies who came in from him hometown of Toronto, chanting, “Go Friedy, go.”

His dad, Jeff Friedman, was in the arena, as was his girlfriend, Madelyne Marquette.

As he hit the ice for the game against the Carolina Hurricanes, his mom, Joanne Friedman, told him that, “We’re so proud.”

“I got emotional. I almost had a tear,” Friedman recalled.

As is tradition for rookies making their NHL debut, Friedman skated a lap on his own on the empty ice. And as is the case for almost all Canadian kids who played hockey growing up, making it to the NHL was a dream come true.

“It was obviously something you grow up wanting to do your whole life,” he said.

Right now, the 23-year-old defenceman is on track to becoming a regular member of the Flyers’ back end. He’s had two years of professional experience with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, the Flyers’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate. Prior to that, he was a three-time all-star in the National Collegiate Athletic Association, playing for Bowling Green State University.

His coach, Kerry Huffman, himself a former NHL defenceman, believes Friedman has what it takes to play in the big leagues. “Mark has had a great year in terms of how much he’s developed. He’s a really effective defencive defenceman who moves the puck very well.… The Flyers think highly of him,” Huffman said.

As to his future in the NHL, Huffman said that, “At this point, a lot of it is opportunity, getting a chance to play. He has the ability to go into training camp and (force the Flyers) to take a good long look at him.”

Standing 178 centimetres tall and weighing 84 kilograms, does Friedman have the physical stature to succeed in the NHL?

“He’s very strong for his size and he plays better when the games are physical,” Huffman said, adding that, “he skates so well.”

Offering a scouting report on his own play, Friedman said, “I’m a guy who’s not the biggest, but I like to play physical.”

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A third-round pick, 86th overall, in the 2014 draft, Friedman impressed the Flyers’ brass with a strong performance in training camp and was one of the last players sent to the minors.

“He’s played well enough to be here. Absolutely, that’s it, that’s why he’s here,” coach Dave Hakstol, according to a report in the Courier Post. “From Friedy’s perspective, he’s done all the things that we’ve asked him and he’s gotten a little better throughout camp. I think a little bit of that comfort level grows and bottom line is he deserves to be one of the final eight guys that are here.”

Friedman had a good season with the Phantoms last year. In 73 games, he scored five goals and added 20 assists.

Called up to play in the Flyers’ final regular season game against the playoff-bound Carolina Hurricanes, Friedman admits he was a little nervous at first. But after settling down, he earned 13 minutes of ice time and was pleased with the way he performed.

“I had a couple of scoring chances throughout the game,” he said.

Once he got comfortable, he felt he could keep up with the pace of an NHL game.

It’s not that the players are bigger, stronger and faster than in the minors, but “the execution is better and it makes it feel faster,” he said. “There are crisper passes and everyone is in the right spot.… It felt almost easier. There was less havoc” than in the AHL.

“It was an experience I’ll never forget,” he added. “It was probably the best day of my life.”