Phil Varone (84) smiles with Matt Ellis this morning. ©2014, Dan Hickling, Olean Times Herald

Sabres rookie Phil Varone set for NHL debut, emotional over first recall

BUFFALO – Phil Varone had no clue why Chadd Cassidy pulled him off the ice Wednesday. The center thought perhaps he had been traded or the Rochester coach just wanted to discuss this weekend’s games.

Nope. Cassidy informed the 23-year-old the Sabres had recalled him.

“When he told me the news, it brought some tears to my eyes,” Varone said this morning inside the First Niagara Center. “I called my parents right away. It’s something I’ll never forget.”

Varone will make his NHL debut tonight against the Carolina Hurricanes. Interim coach Ted Nolan plans to skate him between Marcus Foligno and Brian Flynn.

“I don’t think words can describe it,” Varone said. “Extremely humbled. Extremely excited. Nervous. It’s been a long time coming. I’ve worked for it. I’ve worked all my life for it. When it finally comes, you don’t expect it. But I’m extremely, extremely fortunate to be in this situation right now.”

Of course, Varone’s parents and family will be making the short drive down from the Toronto area tonight. He’s already scrounged up seven tickets.

“They’ll be people buying tickets at the door,” Varone said.

Varone paid a lot of dues to make the NHL.

“He’s a highly skilled player,” Nolan said. “The best part about it, he’s earned everything he’s been given.”

San Jose drafted him 147th overall in 2009 but never signed him. After maxing out his Ontario Hockey League eligibility – he had 33 goals and 81 points in 55 games with Erie in 2010-11 – Varone reached a crossroads.

The Sabres wanted to sign him to an AHL deal in 2011. But Varone also could’ve gone to play Canadian University hockey.

His father convinced him a professional opportunity might not materialize again.

Varone led the Americans in scoring in 2011-12, slumped a bit last season and has eight goals and team-high 33 points in 38 games this season.

“My first year I did well,” Varone said.” Last year was kind of a step back. I didn’t have my head in the right place, just thinking about too much. This year, it’s kind of a clean slate. I got to give a lot of credit to my coaches down there. They gave me a lot of opportunity to succeed.”

Nolan knows tonight will be special.

“This thing only happens one time,” he said. “You only play your first game in the National Hockey League one time. His parents are close by. His family’s close by. It’s a special day for him.”

In other lineup news, center Zenon Konopka will return tonight after a one-game benching for too many goaltender interference penalties.

“We talked today, when he goes to the net, he’s got to stop in front of that blue paint,” Nolan said. “You go through it, especially a player of his nature, you’re going to get called for it all the time.”

Wingers Linus Omark and John Scott will sit. So will banged-up defenseman Mark Pysyk, a scratch last game.

Nolan joked the rookie’s not day-to-day but “hour-to-hour.”

Jhonas Enroth will start in goal.

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