Little to play in Finland

DAVID W. UNKLE and PATRICK WILLIAMS -- Special to SLAM! Sports

, Last Updated: 4:43 PM ET

Following a stalwart career with the AHL's Philadelphia Phantoms, goaltender Neil Little felt that time was slipping away with one wish left unfulfilled.

"I've always wanted to play in Europe," said Little who signed a one-year contract last month to play with the Espoo Blues of the Finnish Elite League, the team that housed Montreal's Mike Riberio and Pittsburgh Penguin Landon Wilson during the NHL lockout.

"Besides, what more is there for me to do in the AHL?," asked Little, a two-time Calder Cup winner with the Phantoms.

With no NHL offers emerging for the 33-year-old out of Medicine Hat, Alta., Little vacillated on his decision, ultimately reaching the same conclusion.

"I wanted to try playing in Europe mostly for the life experience."

In the twilight of his professional hockey career, Little also acknowledged the "European culture and prospects for travel" factored into his decision.

Little was an 11th-round draft pick of the Flyers in 1991, a draft known more for Eric Lindros, Peter Forsberg, and Scott Niedermayer than for the relatively-weaker lot of goalies, such as Chris Osgood, Jamie McLennan, Corey Hirsch, Steve Shields, and Milan Hnilicka.

After finishing his career at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York, Little began his professional career with the Hershey Bears, then the AHL affiliate of the Flyers. He quickly became one of the most recognizable faces for the Phantoms after they entered the AHL in 1996.

After back-to-back 31-win seasons with the Phantoms in 1996-97 and 1997-8, which culminated in the team's first-ever Calder Cup, Little was sent on loan to the IHL Grand Rapids Griffins the following season as the Phantoms groomed the next crop of future Flyers goalies.

Little returned for the 1999-00 season, but never again put up the type of numbers that he did in his first tour as the Phantoms. Making way for Ouellet and then Niittymaki, Little became a more of a mentor and less of a starter.

During the 2001-02 season, the Flyers rewarded Little with his first NHL start, a 29-save performance against the Carolina Hurricanes, but Little came up on the losing end of a 4-0 game. Although he spent significant time on the Flyers bench as an emergency goalie, Little's only other NHL appearance came in relief during the 2003-04 season.

Always a faithful soldier in the Flyers organization, he is not bitter that he never had the chance to prove himself in the NHL. "I got to do things that not many people get the chance to do," said Little, "plus, I'm having a blast."

Little thanked his fans for their support over the years.

"Philadelphia is one of the toughest cities in the United States to play in if you're a professional athlete. The fans expect you to leave it out there every game."

David W. Unkle is a freelance sports writer and contributor to SLAM! Sports. His work appears on several news outlets along with hosting The Topcat Sports Show in the Philadelphia market. David can be contacted via the Show's website at http://www.topcatsports.org or topcatsports@canoemail.com.

Patrick Williams is also a freelance hockey writer and frequent contributor to SLAM! Sports. Patrick can be contacted at patrickwilliams@canoemail.com.


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