PHILADELPHIA - Michael Leighton wore an orange-and-black uniform, crouched in goal under the Philadelphia Flyers' 2009-10 Eastern Conference championship banner and heard 18,000 fans cheering for him in the NHL arena.
Leighton was back on the ice where he felt he belonged.
While the setting of his greatest professional moments were fit for a triumphant homecoming, the circumstances left Leighton realizing how removed he is from resuming his NHL career. This start wasn't for the Stanley Cup finalist Flyers, it was for the Adirondack Phantoms, the Flyers' AHL affiliate, against the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins on Friday night.
Leighton played his first regular-season game in Philadelphia since he started Game 6 of the finals against the Chicago Blackhawks in June.
He has no idea when—or if—he'll be back in Philly this season wearing a Flyers sweater.
"I think he knows the only way back up here is to come down, do well in practice and win games, and have a chance to go back up again," Phantoms head coach Joe Paterson said.
The 29-year-old goalie's comeback may not be that simple.
Back when training camp opened, Leighton was the Flyers' No. 1 goalie. He earned the job after a stellar post-season run that earned him a US$3.1 million, two-year contract over the summer, his first real taste of financial security. Leighton was the first Flyers goalie with three shutouts in one playoff series, shutting down Montreal in the Eastern Conference finals before leading the Flyers within two victories of their first Stanley Cup championship since 1975.
After a series of starts and stops, his career at last was skating toward the right direction.
"That's the hardest part," Leighton said, "You sign a contract and you're happy. You want to be in Philadelphia, you want to be the No. 1 guy."
What Leighton failed to reveal when he signed his new deal was that his back had been bothering him since the playoffs. He felt worse during summer workouts but believed he could play through the discomfort. It didn't work.
Leighton was injured in a pre-season game against Toronto and needed back surgery to fix a bulging disc.
He had numbness in his left leg; pain and weakness in his foot. Only now is Leighton feeling like his old self.
"It's to the point now where I'm comfortable playing," he said.
His recovery from surgery had more obstacles than simply rehabilitation.
Sergei Bobrovsky, plucked as a free agent last summer from Russia's Kontinental Hockey League, emerged as a starter after a strong training camp. The 22-year-old was the youngest Flyers goaltender to start an opener when he beat the Pittsburgh Penguins on Oct. 7. Brian Boucher, who opened the playoff run as the starting goalie before getting hurt, returned as the reliable backup. Bobrovsky had 19 wins and Boucher 11 entering Saturday's game against New Jersey.
There was no room in a crowded net for Leighton.
In Leighton's only start this season with the Flyers, he made 32 saves, but was shaky in the win. It was his first action, other than two rehabilitation stints in the AHL.
With no use for three goalies, Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren placed Leighton on waivers earlier this month.
"I talked to Holmgren when he sent me down, and he said, 'It's not you, the other guys are playing well and we don't have time to work you back in,'" Leighton said.
Holmgren tried to trade Leighton and found no takers. Forced to ride buses with Adirondack, Leighton still isn't sure he wants to be traded.
"I don't know what my answer is," he said. "I obviously want to be in the NHL, but I want to be in this organization. I love it here. It'd be a tough call. I want to be in the NHL, but I'd like to be a Philadelphia Flyer."
Leighton lives in a hotel room in Glens Falls, N.Y., "trying to pass the days," while his family stays in Windsor, Ont. He's used to the routine after bouncing around the league since being drafted by Chicago in 1999.
"I've done it before, so it's not like if a guy's in the NHL his whole life and then gets to the minors, he might think differently," Leighton said. "I don't mind playing three games in three nights, sitting on a bus, playing cards, having fun. I like just hanging out with the guys. It's not that different for me."
Leighton's potential return is complicated by the waiver wire. The Flyers would put him on re-entry waivers, meaning any team could claim him for half the remaining value of the contract, leaving Philly on the hook for the other half.
Calling him up is a big gamble for the Flyers—which leaves him stuck with the Phantoms.
"I can't think about that right now," he said.
Leighton was at the Wells Fargo Center on Thursday with some of his Phantoms teammates to watch the Flyers beat Ottawa. He texts his former teammates, but admits feeling left out of the fun being had by a team sitting atop the standings.
He made 38 saves against Wilkes-Barre in a 4-2 victory and tipped his mask to an appreciative crowd.
On Sunday, the Flyers are in Chicago for a Stanley Cup rematch.
The game will rekindle memories for Leighton of the packed crowds and nerve-racking moments of that series—while he's watching on TV.