VOORHEES, N.J. — Reece Willcox is still just the ripe, young age of 22.
But as he stood on the ice and looked around the Skate Zone practice rink on Friday morning, he couldn’t help but feel like an elder statesman around his fellow defensive prospects.
That’s because Willcox, a fifth-round pick of the Flyers in 2012, is in the midst of his fifth development camp, skating alongside those much newer to the organization.
“[The first camp] feels like a long time ago,” Willcox said. “Being an 18-year-old and just recently drafted, I came in here pretty nervous. I didn’t know what to expect, didn’t really know anyone, so it was pretty uncomfortable for the first few days and it took me a while to get comfortable.”
But uncomfortability has morphed over time into invaluable experience, and Willcox is using that invaluable experience to his advantage this week as Flyers’ coaches and brass look on.
The fourth-oldest non-goalie in camp, Willcox hasn’t taken a typical road an NHL prospect takes to get to this point.
The Surrey, British Columbia native played all four years at Cornell, taking on top-four defenseman minutes from the moment he stepped on the ice as a baby-faced freshman in 2012-13. With the Big Red, he honed his stay-at-home style while posting five goals and 23 assists over his four collegiate seasons.
"I came in as a freshman and I was pretty young and physically immature,” he said. “It probably took me about a year to put on some weight and get comfortable at the college level and compete out there. Going in as a freshman, we had a really solid defensive core with a lot of older guys, so I kind of had to earn my keep that first year and then later on, I got into more important roles.”
That’s been the arc of Willcox’s young hockey career – earning his way. After his senior season at Cornell came to a close in April, Willcox earned his way to his first pro contract, a three-year entry level deal with the Flyers that allowed him to squeeze in six AHL games with the Phantoms at the end of last season.
He wasn’t overmatched in those six games and even added a goal and two assists and was a plus-2.
“That was huge for me going into this year just to get a taste of where I need to be going into this season and knowing what I need to work on to be successful,” Willcox said of his time in Lehigh Valley last season.
Willcox isn’t one of the sexier defensive prospect names in camp. No, that distinction rather belongs to Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim and Sam Morin, all of whom were first-round selections.
Those three are the most likely to fight for a spot with the big club come the fall as the Flyers continue to infuse young talent on to the blue line while Willcox, a 6-foot-4, 204 pounder with a right-handed shot, is likely ticketed to start the year back in Lehigh Valley.
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But this is where Willcox’s experience kicks in.
Whereas a payer in his first or second development camp may put immense pressure on himself to impress, Willcox has spent enough mid-July weeks in these development camps to know it’s true when people within the organization say these camps are not for player evaluations.
Despite all the young defensive talent that has come into the system since he was drafted four years ago, Willcox knows he just has to stay within himself this week.
The nerves have worn away over time.
“Right now, it’s not a competition and we are just trying to get better individually,” he said. “But, obviously, when you have younger guys coming in each and every year, you have to prove yourself and try to remain a top prospect in the eyes of the coaching staff and management.
“That’s something I try really hard not to worry about too much. But obviously, we have a lot of young D men in the system right now. I really just try not to worry about that and worry about my own game and everything else will work out from there. … I’ve been here four times already and I know what to expect. There is nothing to get nervous about for me.”