Growing up in Margate, Florida, Shayne Gostisbehere always wanted to play hockey.
He had dreams of playing college hockey, but Gostisbehere never really considered the possibility that he would earn a scholarship or be selected in the NHL draft; or represent his country at the World Junior Championship or win a gold medal at that tournament; or win an NCAA championship, or be nearly a point-per-game player in his rookie season for the Philadelphia Flyers; or end up on the short list for Team North America at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, but that's what happened for the guy they call "Ghost."
"My sister was a very high-level figure skater and I was always at the rink," Gostisbehere said. "She'd have private lessons in the morning before school and then after school, and I was too young to stay at home, so I was always at the rink with her and one day my mom gave me a hockey stick and said, 'Don't get into too much trouble.' I've been a rink rat ever since."
As he got older, it became harder and harder to find quality competition in Florida and his team, the Florida Jr. Panthers, would travel the country to participate in tournaments. Along the way, he discovered college hockey.
"Obviously, it wasn't a common thing in Florida, but we saw a lot of college games when we'd travel and I remember just wanting to play at that level so bad and be one of those guys," said Gostisbehere, 22. "There was never a doubt in my mind that it was something I wanted to do -- at what level, I didn't know -- but it's something I definitely wanted to do."
At 16, he went to boarding school at South Kent School in Connecticut with the intention of getting noticed by college coaches. As the recruiting started, Gostisbehere realized there might be something more to this hockey thing than he realized.
"I was just playing for the fun of it, and then I started getting noticed and recruited by colleges and I just realized that if I took hockey a bit more seriously, I could get a scholarship," he explained. "At first, that was my goal and, once that happened, I just kept making new ones."
Still, getting drafted into the NHL wasn't even on his radar.
"I was coming right out of high school my draft year and I wasn't ranked or anything, and I was just happy to be going to college as a true freshman and felt I could prove myself there and maybe earn an opportunity as a free agent," Gostisbehere said.
"I didn't even know that you were still eligible for the draft for another two years until teams started showing interest midway through my freshman year. Then, I thought maybe it might happen in the later rounds, but I was just as shocked as everyone else when the Flyers took a chance on me and selected me in the third round."
Philadelphia selected the offensive defenseman from Florida with the 78th overall pick in 2012 because of his smooth skating, offensive abilities and strong defensive positioning.
"A lot of our staff saw him quite a bit that year because his team had a lot of free agents we wanted to take a look at, and it was hard not to notice what Shayne could do as well," said Chris Pryor, director of scouting for the Flyers. "We had been tracking him in prep school, but it wasn't until we saw him that year in college that we really recognized his potential at this level.
"I remember the first time I saw him, and he was a dynamic offensive player that really separated himself from the others," Pryor continued. "He's got an element of offensive flair that's pretty unique in today's game and that, along with his defensive skills, was intriguing for us."
Not only did he catch the eye of NHL scouts his freshman year at Union College, but USA Hockey also took notice and invited him to participate in their national junior team evaluation camp in Lake Placid, New York. Gostisbehere took advantage of the opportunity and was later selected for Team USA at the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship, where he helped it win a gold medal in Ufa, Russia.
"I remember being at boarding school during the 2010 World Junior Championship and watching John Carlson score against Canada in overtime to win the gold medal, and I remember thinking how cool it would be to be on that team some day, but it wasn't really something that I thought could actually happen," Gostisbehere said. "But then to go out there and actually be on that team and then to win it, it was pretty surreal."
He discovered once again there might be more to this hockey thing than he once thought.
"You realize that you're playing against the best players in the world in your age group, and you see that you're doing just fine out there and that you can actually play with these guys," Gostisbehere said. "You're there. You're one of them and it just gives you so much confidence."
He took that confidence with him back to Schenectady, New York, and in his junior season at Union helped the school win its third ECAC championship in a row and earn its second appearance in the NCAA Frozen Four.
"When I committed to Union, I never thought we'd ever make it to the Frozen Four, let alone win a national title." Gostisbehere said. "It wasn't even a consideration, but then we made it my freshman year and we realized the possibilities and potential. The first time we were at the Frozen Four, we were just happy to be there, but the second time, it was a business trip."
Gostisbehere notched a goal and two assists as Union defeated Minnesota 7-4 to win the national title, and was a legendary plus-7 to earn tournament MVP honors to go along with his All-America selection and ECAC Player of the Year award.
Three days later, Gostisbehere signed an entry-level deal with the Flyers and began his pro career. He suffered a season-ending torn ACL in his left knee in November of his rookie season, cutting his rookie campaign short. Though the rehab was grueling, Gostisbehere took advantage of the opportunity to grow from the experience.
"I looked at it more as an educational year," he explained. "I watched a lot of hockey and that's not something you do a lot as a player. So, I got to learn a lot from up above and also had the opportunity to focus on my body and take the time to heal, but also to develop physically and prepare my body for this year. I'm not the biggest guy, so I wanted to work on getting stronger."
Fully healed, Gostisbehere -- listed at 5-11 and 160 pounds -- started this season with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms of the American Hockey League, notching 10 points in 14 games and earning a call up on Nov. 14, when Mark Streit went down with an injury.
In 23 games since then, Gostisbehere has 7 goals and 9 assists for 16 points, including three overtime goals. His ability to generate offense from the blue line has earned him a lot of time on the power play -- where he has scored four of his goals -- and in the new 3-on-3 overtime format. He's also a plus-5. He was injured Jan. 7 and didn't play Jan. 9 against the Islanders with a lower-body injury.
"He's not the biggest, most physical player, nor will he be, so he uses the strength of his skating and quick feet to defend," Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol said. "He's a smart player moving the puck out of the zone and that's at a real premium at this level. He has a certain skill set that is valuable at this level and to our group. He's been a nice fit into our puzzle."
"He's got a lot of confidence with the puck," teammate and fellow defenseman Michael Del Zotto said. "He creates odd-man rushes and more ice for the other guys to work with, which lead to offensive chances, and that's when good things happen. That's one thing that hasn't gone too easily for us this season, scoring goals, and he's really helped us in that department."
"He's not an overly physical player, but his stick is always in the passing lane and he's always creating turnovers and his hockey sense is pretty good," Flyers captain Claude Giroux said. "He was thrown into the power play right away and he looked really confident and helped us right away. He's so creative with the puck."
With chatter about Gostisbehere representing the young guns of the NHL on Team North America during the World Cup in September, it'd be easy for him to get ahead of himself, but that's not how he operates.
"I want to keep a level head and stay within myself," he said. "I got here by being humble and focusing on what I could do to improve and working hard at it, and I want to keep doing that. I can always get better. I don't think I'll ever get to a point where I'll be done wanting to improve."
Just like his career to this point, there will always be something new to aim for.