Nine Minutes With Rick DiPietro (extended)
I arrived at IceWorks early, as I am usually late and was told not to be. The Isles’ PR staff was doing me a huge favor by accommodating my request to speak to Rick. The least I could do was be on time.
As I drove to Syosset under a threatening sky, I realized this was the first trip of the new season for me, and I couldn’t help but smile. This drive not only meant that the long hockey-less summer was ending, but there was all the excitement and expectation of a new team and a new season.
I was smart this morning. I wore socks. After sitting in the bleachers, taking in all the sights and sounds that I missed so much, I made a note to myself that I should also remember gloves. It was hard to Tweet with frozen fingers.
It was only 9:45 am, and Radek Martinek was out on the ice looking healthier than I’ve seen him in years. Rob Schremp stopped by to say “Hi,” and we discussed the virtues and pitfalls of Twitter. “I like it!” he said enthusiastically, but we both understand the need for caution. New motto: Think before you Tweet!
With all the prospects at the rink, I wished they were wearing names on the back of their practice jerseys. I immediately recognized Calvin DeHaan and Nino Niederreiter. Three of them sat at the top of the bleachers and watched as Doug Weight called out drills on the ice. I wanted to take a photo of them for Twitter, but thought better of it.
Brian Compton from NHL.com sat high in the bleachers as well. He did an excellent feature on Josh Bailey (http://media.fans.nhl.com/_No-Joshin-Bailey-Can-Play/blog/2635031/111820.html )yesterday.
I took 25 seconds of video, screwed around with my lousy camera, and Tweeted as much as I could from my phone. Basically, any day at the rink is a good day, and I was a happy camper. Jon Sim flew around the ice like a teenager and Frans Nielsen seemed to enjoy every drill and shot he took. Mixed in with the familiar were some new faces on the ice. I made a note to go back and find out who was wearing #4 and #27. They were Mark Eaton and Milan Jurcina. I will try to remember that now.
I recognized Mikko in net. (Or at least it should have been Mikko as he was a shot-blocking wall at the far side of the rink.) I thumbed through the questions I had hastily thought of last night and looked up to see the elusive Mr. DiPietro walking towards me. It was now 10:30 and I had told my boss I’d be in by 11 am.
“Hey Dee, how you doing? Can I just go….” and then he stopped. The look of panic must have been evident on my face. I was running out of time. “You want to do it now?” He didn’t even let me plead. “Come on, let’s talk.”
I jumped up with my recorder and note book, leaving everything else behind on the bleachers. We sat next to each other at the glass so he could watch his teammates continue with their drills. While I can count every new wrinkle and gray hair I have earned the last few years, Rick seems to have let time stand still. Outwardly, he has not aged a day. But mentally he has made a dramatic transformation.
This is a man who has worked relentlessly to get back to the game. I started by asking what the hardest part of his extended rehab has been.
“As far as rehab, it’s the monotony of it all. The long hours that you don’t see results right away from. It’s a really long process that takes a lot of time and patience. And anyone who knows me, knows that patience isn’t one of my best attributes.” This is a well-known fact. “But over the last few years, I’m more mature so it’s something I’m getting better at.”
Rick says his physical repairs have not caused him to change his style or his equipment to accommodate any new limitations. “You just start to realize as you get older that there are things you have to do to protect yourself and maintain that edge without going overboard and hurting yourself. That’s something that has taken a while to learn, but I feel like I have.”
Things have not gone as planned for the team or for Rick himself. There was a fork in the road that has changed him. “As tough as these last two years have been, I think you have to take the positives out of it and learn from the challenges. I definitely think it’s made me a better person. It’s made me take each day for what it is and not take anything for granted.”
He admits, when you’re young, you think you are invincible and nothing will stop you. “As a professional athlete, you tend to think you’re Superman. Nothing can hurt you. You go to the doctor and they tell you what’s wrong, fix you and you’re back. But everything happens so quick. One day everything’s great and the next day you’re on an operating table not knowing when you’re going to come back. So the biggest thing I’ve learned is not to take anything for granted. I am very, very lucky.”
He said that during his extended absence, what he missed the most -- besides the games – was the competition. His lack of patience is only rivaled by his competitive spirit. He is a fiercely competitive man. “You ask my wife. That’s the thing that drives her crazy. I have all this pent up frustration that I haven’t been able to release in a constructive way like playing hockey.”
That fierce competitive spirit and talent made him one of USA Hockey’s best hopes for international competition, but injury changed all that. Nonetheless, Brian Burke was always his biggest supporter and held out hope that Rick would have been able to make it to Vancouver for the 2010 Olympics. He still holds out hope for international competition. “I credit USA Hockey with where I am today. Without the opportunity they gave me to be a part of that program, I honestly don’t believe I’d be here today. It was a huge step for me. Coming up through the camps, I had a ton of great coaches. And any opportunity I get to put on a Team USA jersey -- World Championships, Olympics, anything, I would! I was almost ready to call Brian Burke last year and tell him if he needed someone to carry bags, just to be a part of it, I’d do it.”
And Burke would understand, as that is the same sentiment he has always expressed during interviews. Burke said he was willing to get his bus driver’s license or fold towels for the Vancouver Olympics. Instead, he just had to be the GM. That was probably a better route for him.
But besides the competition, Rick misses the team. Hockey teams are unique in their level of comradery, which is a key to success. “Say what you will, I’m around the guys a lot, but it’s not the same when you’re out on the ice every night competing together.”
No, it’s not. I told him how I remembered watching Jon Sim look so miserable standing in the tunnel and watching his team play without him. “It’s the worst!”
I wondered if the team bonding that usually happens during training camp will be hampered by having camp on Long Island this year. “I think it’s great to have it here, but I’m definitely disappointed that we’re not going to China. That’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. That’s like on your bucket list of things to do; to see the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, it’s tough.”
Camp on Long Island will hopefully give everyone a better chance to get excited about the Islanders for the coming season, and may even get the Lighthouse talk pointed in the right direction again. (It’s possible!) The Islander veterans will help the new players and prospects become familiar with the area, and each other, with team activities. “But as far as tight-knit groups go, we have a pretty tight-knit group. Everyone loves hanging out together. You can’t NOT have fun around this team. We try to make it as much a family atmosphere as possible, and I think this team has been able to do that.”
Rick then said what I have heard so often before: “Of course, everything is better once you start winning.”
You can easily see in his dark eyes, framed by lush dark lashes that any woman would kill for, a deep understanding of the task at hand. It’s not just a matter of getting back into the game; it’s a matter of making them count. It’s a matter of winning.
Rick has kept himself closer to the game by using his time working out to THINK the game and watch hockey tapes. “Sitting on an arm bike is the worst thing ever, so I would always put a game on and watch the game; do my sprints while the other team was on the power-play. When you think about the game a lot, I think it helps. You keep yourself in that mind frame so when you come back it’s not as new.”
I wondered if there was any team he was really looking forward to facing. “Everybody! I can’t wait until the first Rangers game.”
Now I don’t know if that meant he was looking forward to seeing Marty Biron across the ice, or his old rival Henrik Lundqvist. Either way, it will be interesting.
As I discussed last winter, Rick spent a lot of time learning how to cook to keep himself busy during his rehab. If he’s not watching hockey, he’s watching Food Network and getting creative in the kitchen. “It’s one of my favorite things to do!” Luckily he has a wife that enjoys his kitchen talents. He looks to improve on dishes he likes and make them healthy. “It’s a good way to be creative.”
He proved to me how far he could stretch that culinary creativity with his answer to the following question. If the Cupcake Gourmet was to name an NHL Cupcake (Twitter hashtag #NHLCupcake) after you this season, what flavor would it be?
Rick tossed the question around in his head as if it was a Gordon Ramsey Master Chef challenge. The light bulb went off. “I already have it! I know what it is. I would want a Raspberry filled cupcake with a peanut butter glaze on a chocolate cupcake with chopped peanuts on top.”
While I pondered the quality of that amazing creation, Rick wasn’t done. “I have another one too.” Everything is a competition. If the first one didn’t get you, then the second one would. “Tell her I would like that one but I would also like a carrot cake one. That’s my favorite. I love carrot cake. With cream cheese icing and maybe some walnuts sprinkled on top.” He somewhat reluctantly gave into my idea of adding raisins.
So Cupcake Gourmet, there is your challenge. Meanwhile Rick DiPietro’s challenge is to make all his hard work pay off. And no one deserves it more than he does.
Welcome home, Rick.
*Many thanks to Tom Chiesa for his copy-editing work. Some day, it will all be worth it.