Note: Rick DiPietro may be the most often disputed member of the NY Islanders. However, unless you've actually sat down to talk to the man, one-on-one, you really don't know him. I've had the ability to do that many times over the last few years. Last week, while he was coaching a goalie camp at IceWorks where all proceeds went to the NYI Childrens Fund, I sat down with him again. While I hardly expect any of what you read here to change your opinion of him, I still will always try to present his side of the story. He deserves at least that much.
I’ve kept the text from the Isles PR Director locked in my phone since January announcing that Rick DiPietro would miss the next ten weeks of the season with a sports hernia and knee swelling. It was disappointing knowing how hard Rick had worked to make it back to the ice. I was hoping he would surprise people and make it back before the end of the season. Rick was hoping the same thing. It didn’t happen.
When April rolled around and no one was mentioning anything about Rick’s recovery, it was obvious the eight games he played would be it for his season. Disappointing in deed.
When I arrived at IceWorks in Syosset, I was happy to leave the tropical heat outside the double sliding glass doors, as were all the parents relaxing and watching their sons from outside the smaller rink. I was ushered beyond the door and on to the bench stepping over water bottles and ice chips to wait for Rick.
Along with more than a dozen youngsters of various ages, there was the man I hadn’t seen on skates since the beginning of the year. Happy and comfortable in his goalie gear, he skated from one end of the rink to the other, checking on each camper offering pointers on each drill. He offered comfort to one small camper splayed on the ice by the boards. He helped him up and the young man started again. This is Rick DiPietro at home on the ice schooling the next generation of Long Island NHL hopefuls. This is Rick -- happy and from the looks of things -- healthy too.
I hurried after him as he motioned for me to follow him to the locker room where we could chat for just a few minutes before he had to get back to his campers. All the while, I scolded him for not shaving. “I shaved yesterday! I did!”
Eric Cairns opened the locked door for Rick and had to back up to let him through in his gear. There is no point in me writing that other than I really like Eric Cairns and I’m always happy to see him. The favorite Islanders tough guy is a real gentleman.
Rick sat in his stall and Jesse D. Eisenberg, Mr. Skates on a Plane
himself, stood across the room leaning against the wall. I sat next to Rick and started with an easy one: “So how are you feeling?”
“Great. Fantastic. Excited. I wish the season would start tomorrow. It’s like Christmas Eve every day.” And Christmas isn’t coming soon enough. I told him how I still have the text from Kimber Auerbach on my phone since January. I asked him how difficult that was to go through after working so hard to get back.
“It was awful. It just seems like it’s been one thing after another. It’s funny, because it’s almost like the harder you work the more stuff goes wrong. But, as I’ve said, though out this whole process, I’ve made a commitment to this team, the organization, the fans; I’m going to do whatever I can. Through hell or high water, I’m going to do it. All of this is just a long test. It will make sipping from the Stanley Cup that much better. “
Yes, he still believes it will happen one day.
“You learn to appreciate things. I’ve grown so much as a person. The life lessons that you learn going through so many downs, and so many lows -- you learn a lot about yourself. Just putting my pads on and taking shots; I get hit in the neck with a puck and I’m not mad. I’m just happy I’m out there making a save and having fun. It’s definitely made me see things in a whole new light. I’m definitely not taking anything for granted.” His words were sincere and introspective. I wonder if he mentally was counting the scars as we spoke. But they are healing.
I asked if he had any apprehensions about next season. “No. Absolutely not.” Not the knee, not the hip, nothing. Not this time.
Even with his absence from the ice, Rick hasn’t been absent from the NHLPA. He has always been very active in his union. I asked him how things have changed since the last CBA negotiations from the PA standpoint. I asked if the PA has better communication under this administration.
“I think the PA has always had good communication. I think it’s a unique situation. We have 750 guys that you represent, and that’s tough. But I think Don’s (Fehr) done a great job and has made everyone feel part of it and feel like this is THEIR union and THEIR voice and he’s there to mediate and to give suggestions, at the end of the day it’s US. As players it’s our future, our livelihood and he works for us.” This is a far cry from the Bob Goodenow administration.
Rick DiPietro is known for a lot of things, but the one that crops up most in hockey articles isn’t his achievements as an American born hockey player, it’s the 15-year contract he signed: the first of it’s kind in the NHL. With the negotiations currently going on between the NHL and the NHLPA, I had to ask about his thoughts on long term contracts as they are being put on the table for discussion.
“Mine’s a GOOD long term contract.” He said adamantly. And he’s right. Kovalchuk’s 17-year deal takes him to 43-years-old and is all front loaded. So what does the man who will never escape the connection think?
“I think that’s the natural progression in a salary cap system. That was the only logically way to go. You sign a young player or a franchise player to make him want to stay as a part of the organization and to make a dual commitment, long term deals were the necessary evil.” I didn’t really expect him to discuss his own deal, but he did.
“My deal was probably the first deal, but it’s straight through. Average salary, it’s not front loaded, it’s not back loaded, there’s no incentives. It is what it is and that’s it. When we were negotiating the contract I said ‘Listen, I don’t want to play in the NHL for another team. This is the team.’ I love where I am.”
He means it. As soon as he signed on the dotted line, he bought a house here. He didn’t want to have to do it again. He wanted to stay with the team that had the faith in him to draft him first overall.
“When you look at it, yeah a 15-year contract, it’s like a marriage. Through the years there are going to be ups and down. But I’ve made a commitment -- we WILL win a Stanley Cup here, on Long Island while I’m part of the team. I believe that 100%. I dream about it every day. I’m telling you, it’s going to happen and I feel confident about it.”
I asked him about his goalie camp and what the biggest lesson he’s teaching these kids. He thought for a second. “Hmmm, the biggest lesson I’m teaching these kids is -- obviously hard work, first thing. As I say all the time, there’s only two things in this life you can control as a goalie: how hard you work and how cool your equipment looks.” I laughed because I’m pretty sure there are a few kids out there that wanted to be a goalie because of that equipment. Oh, and playing the full 60.
“I do explain to these kids that they need to enjoy it. We’re obviously a little quirky as goalies to be able to stand in front of these crazy guys shooting pucks. But at the end of the day, as long as they’re trying hard, giving their all and doing everything they can on every shot to keep the puck out of the net -- that’s the big thing. That’s something that Mike Milbury used to say to me whenever I’d try to say something: ’STP’. Just stop the puck. That’s our job. At the end of the day, that’s what we get graded on.”
Graded on, scrutinized, analyzed and ultimately vilified or worshipped. There is a saying in the NHL, “Goaltending is 75% of the game. Unless you don’t have it. Then it’s 100%.” It’s the most difficult position to play and the most stressful. But there were 15 Long Island kids between 8 to 16 years-old out on the ice that were willing to be tested.
He went on to tell me he teaches them that no one is perfect. “There’ll be some times when they get down because they let in a goal. I tell them this practice isn’t a race. Just keep doing it, do it right and it will all pay off in the game.”
Only the third day of camp and Rick already noticed big changes in the kids who were soaking it all in. He smiled just thinking about it. “I could do this all day.”
Growing up in Massachusetts, Rick is used to seeing hockey being a big part of youngster’s lives. But he’s also seen a big change in the last ten years on Long Island. Youth hockey is flourishing, even under the heavy price tag. Renting a sheet of ice on Long Island is more than double what it costs in other states. While the cost is prohibitive, the quality of youth hockey on Long Island can’t be argued.
“I go watch the Long Island Gulls with Dougie Weight’s son, I talk to these people that go to these tournaments and the Long Island teams are legitimate teams. The Gulls don’t lose many games. The Long Island teams have definitely come a long way since I was a kid.”
The day will come when there will be more than just a few NHL players born and raised on the Island. We both believe that.
He also openly admits he admires Charles Wang for many reasons. So often I read fan opinions that Charles Wang really doesn’t care about winning. As someone who is very close to the man that so few of us really know, I had to ask him if it was true. He cut me off mid-sentence.
“He is, right now, the MOST competitive human being I have ever met in my life. I keep telling him they should make a movie about him because it’s so amazing. You’re talking about a guy who is a self-made man that came from nothing. It kills him, it absolutely kills him. He doesn’t even want to lose in basketball one-on-one.” I have to admit, I was a little surprised to hear that this man in his 60s is still playing basketball. But that was just a random thought. Rick continued. “He knows, and Snow knows, the organization was in a bad place when he took over. And to build that all the way back up -- and then throw a salary cap on top of that with the restrictions -- you need to be bad, really bad before you can be good. I know there are some times when we’re mediocre and that sets you back a little bit. You need to be terrible, then it goes in cycles. Look at Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh was awful, now they’re great. You’ve got that window. Tampa was at that point. So it’s just trying to capitalize on the time that you have when it’s right. We’ve got all these young guys, we’ve got the foundation set.”
I asked what he felt the ’identity’ of the Islanders needs to be for next season. “I always say to the guys in the locker room, we just have to have a swagger about our game. We need to know going into a game that we can win against anybody. We’ve proven that. We’ve had some of our best games against the best teams. Then we’ve had ones against teams that we should have been more competitive against. We need to know that we’re young but we do have a lot of experience. And that’s a good thing. You saw the steps that Johnny took last year.”
As expected, John Tavares is the prime example of how much a young player can change in a short amount of time. A-Mac and Hammer can be shinning examples of that too.
It may come down to confidence. Teams like Detroit shouldn’t come into the building thinking they’ve already beat the Islanders even before they lace up their skates. Winning is a belief system. And they should have it next season. Against any team in the NHL any day they play.
That’s Rick’s goal -- along with being IN goal.