Monday, July 4, 2011

Memory Monday: Paul DiPietro

When one looks over the regular season statistics of one Paul DiPietro, they see a skilled and accomplished junior scoring star whose diminutive size (5'8" and 180 lbs) kept him from the spotlight at the NHL level. Those people would be remiss, however, as they have overlooked 2 critically important months in the spring of 1993.

Born in Saul Ste. Marie, Ontario, DiPietro was drafted by the Canadiens in the 5th round in 1990 as a late-bloomer, already having 4 OHL seasons under his belt. Regularly passed over because of his height, DiPietro drew the Habs attention in his final season where his quick but powerful release saw him post 56 goals and 119 points in just 66 games. His success then carried over to the American Hockey League, where playing for the Fredericton Canadiens, and put up 70 and 57 points in 78 and 43 games respectively.

Now, the Habs brass had seen enough. He seemed to be overcoming his weaknesses with pure talent, and he finished the 1991-92 season with the big club, managing 10 points in 33 games. At this point, David Desharnais, then 6 years old, likely had no idea what his ultimate height would be, or that he would one day live every young Quebecer's dream of lacing up the skates for the Blue-Blanc-et-Rouge, but if he had such amazing foresight, he would see a perfect role model and hero who helped trailblaze a path for so many small players to follow.

But this is not the final happy ending for our hero. As is so often the case for players lacking a large frame, DiPietro was forced to prove himself again the following year, gutting it out for another 26 contests in the AHL. The Canadiens were a formidable team in that 1992-93 season, but still, DiPietro managed to earn himself another look - and luckily for him, the timing couldn't have been better. A mid-season call-up, the player everyone called too small for the big league was suddenly thrust into a starring role come playoff time. The Habs battled their way through 3 tough rounds before besting the Los Angeles Kings to win the 24th Stanley Cup in franchise history that year, and DiPietro was more than a passenger along for the ride. He showed his true colours as a big game player notching 8 goals and 13 points in 17 post-season matches, finishing third on the team in goals and sixth in points despite missing 3 games compared to most of the team's leaders. An amazing accomplishment that no one can ever take away from him, he will always be a Stanley Cup hero.

DiPietro reproduced his playoff success the following year with 6 points in 7 games, but sadly the Canadiens did not. And from that point on, DiPietro's career took a turn for the worse, bouncing around various North American leagues, with NHL stops with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Los Angeles Kings mixed in. After the 1996-97 season, he was done in North America. For a player who hadn't battled through as much adversity already as now 26 year old Mr. DiPietro, this might be where the story ends. Perhaps find a career in motivational speaking about his experience, or something similar. I mean he did have a Cup ring to show off to children everywhere!

But no, this wasn't enough for him. DiPietro instead moved on to the German hockey league for a season, then shifted to Switzerland, establishing himself as a better than point-per-game producer in both leagues. While it may have been personally gratifying to continue playing - and playing WELL - a game he loves for a career, he fell into obscurity as far as fans of the NHL were concerned.

Yet... no, our tale doesn't end here either: DiPietro's amazing story offered him one last chance to shine. Now a dual citizen, after representing Switzerland in the 2005 Hockey World Championships, he was named to the country's 2006 Olympic Team in Turin, Italy. In a major upset, Switzerland defeated Team Canada 2-0 in a preliminary round game during that tournament on February 18, 2006. The man that scored both goals in that game? 35-year old Paul DiPietro, again hogging the spotlight on the largest of stages.

A feel-good story if there ever was one, now at the age of 40, DiPietro just completed his 11th season for Zug of the Swiss-A league. Naturally, his production has trailed off as he ages into a locker room veteran and can sense his career is near an end, scoring just 23 and 26 points over each of the last 2 years respectively. But don't expect him to go out quietly. If there is one thing hockey fans should know about Paul DiPietro, it's that there are no odds he won't defy.

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