PHILADELPHIA -- Tommy Soderstrom has heart. His doctors can vouch for that. The concern is whether a problem with that heart will cut short his NHL career.
Soderstrom, an engaging 24-year-old rookie goaltender from Stockholm, Sweden, suffers from Wolff-Parkinson syndrome, a rare disorder in which the brain sends a disruptive extra electrical impulse to the heart.
Three operations right after training camp appeared to correct the problem, but a recent exam showed that the impulse had partially reappeared.
Doctors fear that the condition, when combined with the intense physical exertion of playing hockey, could cause Soderstrom real problems.
So far, Soderstrom said, his doctors have allowed him to continue playing while they monitor his heart. If the impulse has not grown stronger when they examine him early next month, he will be permitted to play as he is, he said.
But if it has increased, Soderstrom said, he would face at least one more operation and another month-long layoff.
The timing, he said, couldn't be worse. With Dominic Roussel sidelined with a pulled groin, Soderstrom had finally gotten to play.
"I'm not very happy about this now," Soderstrom said after the Flyers lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning, 4-1, last Sunday. "I'm just beginning to play confidently. I was finally relaxed before [Sunday's] game."
Flyers general manager Russ Farwell was not available for commment yesterday.
Soderstrom, stoic from the start of his troubles, said he doesn't lose sleep over his heart condition. Soderstrom has always talked about life after hockey. But that was before he got his big chance to play in the NHL.
Now he is frustrated by this turn.
Soderstrom made his NHL debut Dec. 17 and lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins, 5-4, in overtime. He made 22 saves against the best offense in the league, then bounced back to beat the Chicago Blackhawks, 3-1, Dec. 19.
Last Sunday's loss still burns in Soderstrom's mind -- "I let in four goals," he said, shaking his head -- but he has already begun preparations for improvement.
As for Wolff-Parkinson, Soderstrom ignores it.
"What can I do?" he said. "I must wait and see what happens. Until then, I'll play hockey."
Coach Bill Dineen said he likes what he sees in Soderstrom. A low-key motivator himself, Dineen said he admires the goalie's mature attitude toward hockey and life in general. Dineen also likes the way Soderstrom responds to pressure.
"Obviously, he was really outstanding Saturday," Dineen said of Soderstrom's 27-save performance. "And I thought he played well [Sunday]. I like the guy. He's quick. He has good feet. He stands up well. He plays the angles well. He's got good reflexes, a good glove hand."
Soderstrom looked nervous against Pittsburgh in the first period when he continually dropped to his knees or his backside to make even routine stops.
But it was obvious Saturday against the Blackhawks and Sunday against the Lightning that he had learned from those early mistakes.
"When he stands up, he's pretty tough to beat," Dineen said.
Soderstrom, who was 4-1 in a brief stint with Hershey of the American Hockey League right after his operations, said he expects to get even better with more experience. He has talked with goaltending coach Bernie Parent about his flaws.
"I'm a lot more comfortable now than before that first game," Soderstrom said. "The first two goals in the first game, they were tough. I must work on everything because this is a new day. Mostly I must stand up all the time. I talked with Bernie about that after [Saturday's] game. I thought I went down on my butt a little too often, and I don't like that."
Soderstrom said Parent told him not to worry too much. The backside is often the goaltender's best weapon against the sliding puck.
"Sometimes you must go down," Soderstrom said.
He said Sunday he just hoped that next month's test on his heart doesn't put him down for good.