Thirteen years ago, Rick DiPietro was the hottest thing in American hockey. As a freshman, the Winthrop, Massachusetts native fast became the biggest man on Boston University's campus, having arrived by way of the U.S. National Development Team, a prestigious high-school-type program in Ann Arbor, Michigan, that looks to churn out our next great hockey pro much in the way that baseball-crazy Caribbean nations fund specialized academies for elite prospects. He was skilled, photogenic, a rising American star in a sport that could always use a few more. After just one season at BU, one that ended in a heart-breaking loss in the NCAA Tournament, he declared for the NHL Draft and the New York Islanders made him the first goalie ever taken No. 1 overall.
Now, at only 31, DiPietro may have already played his final game in the NHL. Two weeks ago, still smack in the middle of a 15-year, $67 million contract that's dogged him since he put ink to paper, DiPietro was waived by the New York Islanders and eventually sent away to their minor-league affiliate. He told a local TV reporter he felt the Islanders had "ripped my heart out, stabbed it, set it on fire and flushed it down the toilet." He struggled mightily in his first two starts in the minors, allowing 11 goals on 64 shots. It looks like a miserable coda (in all likelihood) to a professional sports career that once held limitless promise.
When I heard about DiPietro's demotion, I couldn't help but feel for him personally. My sophomore year was his freshman season, and as the hockey beat writer for the student paper, I spent more time with the team than almost anyone who wasn't actually on it. I'd call him in his dorm room. He'd chat with me after games. I wrote an extended profile of him, one that focused almost exclusively on the bravado and tenacity that made earned him the conference's Rookie of the Year Award. Some wünderkinds might wash out because they never really like playing that much in the first place, pushed into playing by overzealous parents and coaches because of their natural athleticism and skill. That wasn't Rick.
The end of DiPietro's career is not a surprise — the player I'd seen the last 12-plus years rarely matched with the one frozen within the sliver of my brain labeled "2000" — but the drama surrounding his demotion made me ponder the person I once knew (or thought I knew) and how he could have possibly arrived at this point.
Stillness was not in Rick DiPietro's DNA. That was one fact any Boston University hockey fan learned quickly during the fall of 1999. He skated in, out, through, and around the crease as though he were avoiding a swarm of bees on the ice. DiPietro was a manic hockey player and everyone loved him for this. His trademark move was skating far beyond the crease and sweeping a long, unsuspecting pass down the ice and through the befuddled defense. (He had three assists on goals that season, outscoring several other players on his own team.) The BU fans also loved that he was a winner. He was the starter by Thanksgiving and slowly propelled the school up the poll rankings. By December, they were No. 7. By Valentine's Day, No. 2. Going into the NCAA Tournament, the Terriers were one of the heavies expected to advance the Frozen Four in Providence, a short car ride from BU's campus. All that stood in the team's way in the round of eight was little St. Lawrence University. Defeat them and BU would play rival Boston College for a spot in the national championship.
To this day, it stands as the longest hockey game in NCAA Tournament history. It started a couple of minutes after noon and ended just after 6 p.m. The game went into a fourth overtime, and there was little precedent for what we were witnessing. Whole injuries came and went — players disappeared to the locker room during the second OT and emerged in time to play the fourth. Instead of hopping over the boards after their shifts, the teams simply flopped exhaustedly over the wall and onto the bench. It felt as if a recording of real life were being played at half-speed, a video editor with his hand on the knob. Finally, a player named Robin Carruthers was able to slide a loose puck past DiPietro's pads not four minutes into the fourth OT. From high up in Albany's Pepsi Arena, the puck looked like a coffee bean bouncing on the ice. We were all a bit delirious from fatigue, even us scribes. When the puck crossed the line, I don't remember much cheering from anyone on either side.
Rick DiPietro's college career, everyone automatically and rightly assumed, was over. The 77 saves he made is a tournament record that still stands. He teared up in the post-game press conference. His teammates did, too. The three-hour ride back to Boston was interminable, and easy rationalization did not surface. Beat writers who say they don't become emotionally invested in a team are excellent liars. The days and weeks that followed were a blur for anyone with even tangential connections to the program, but DiPietro had to decide, in relatively short order, whether to stay in school or opt for the pros.
Less than four months later, he made hockey history.
My last semi-encounter with Rick DiPietro was the day after he declared for the NHL Draft. I dropped by the Boston University athletic department building and walked up to the sports information director's office. The phones on the floor were in a state of constant ring, and I was stopped before I even made it to the office. There, amidst the cubicles, was Travis Roy, who'd become a BU folk hero and noted author for chronicling the time that followed his shocking paralysis, something that came just 11 seconds into his first shift as a BU hockey player in 1995. You couldn't not like Travis and he was always around in those days. He and another assistant assumed I was there to talk about DiPietro and so, with no hesitation, they launched into a wry, sarcastic monotone spiel, explaining that "any and all questions related to Rick DiPietro should be made to the offices of ..." Their point was made. DiPietro had gone pro, signed with the agency run by Bruins legend Bobby Orr, and he was someone else's issue.
Before I left, they showed me was a printout mockup of one of the marketing proposals they'd been kicking around on the off chance that DiPietro stayed for his sophomore season. He would've been the toast of collegiate hockey and a Hobey Baker Award finalist. (That's college hockey's version of the Heisman Trophy.) It was a black-and-white Photoshop of DiPietro standing in front of a net, at the ready, and a brick wall had been transposed onto the goalmouth behind him. The scribbled caption underneath read THE RICK, which was perhaps borne from a "brick wall" play on words. They obviously hadn't gotten very far with it, and the cause was moot. The Rick was now a pro, the safety of an adorning campus replaced with a rabid Islander fan base that knew losing better than it knew the days of the week.
DiPietro had splashes of success here and there, even a starting nod in the Winter Olympics, but none of it lasted long. There were worsening injuries, the endless losing, and The Contract. (There was even an infamous goalie fight thrown in for good measure. Search "DiPietro knocked out" on YouTube and you'll find it.)
Phenoms go bust for any of number of reasons, but even in retrospect there were no indications back when I knew him that he wouldn't be a wildly successful professional athlete. He wasn't a head case, he didn't have a problem handling the spotlight, he didn't have any destructive vices, and he hadn't already maxed out his talent and athleticism. DiPietro seems to have been felled just by bad luck: injuries (the New York Times has a devastating laundry list of his many ailments) and the misfortune of playing for the wrong team (and the wrong grumpy fans) at the wrong time.
The ironic thing is that hockey fans, by and large, are not only passionate but quite patient. It's usually not that frustrating to be a mid-tier team. As long you're one of the 16 teams that qualifies for the Stanley Cup playoffs every season, you've got a puncher's chance, much more so than, say, the NBA, where 16 of 30 teams also make the postseason but only the regular-season elite advance to the end stages. But the Islanders' chances never materialized with DiPietro in net. Just two playoff appearances over eight-plus seasons in goal signified both ineptness and missed opportunities. The extensive injuries played their role, sure, but years of losing and excuses ultimately stirred up a combustive mixture that ended in ruin. DiPietro never attained the kind of mainstream recognition that we thought he was headed for, but he was a household name across Long Island — just for all the wrong reasons.
Many Islanders fans grew to despise DiPietro over the years, but I was always pulling for him to do well, knowing what it would mean for both that team and the larger, tantalizing notion of American hockey supremacy. Another team could still take a flyer on DiPietro at some point, I suppose. It may only come after some sort of carefully negotiated buyout, but to say there will never come another day that Rick DiPietro suits up for an NHL team still feels ludicrous. That impeccable talent must still reside somewhere. It can't really be gone, but I'll choose to remember the Rick DiPietro I saw that day in Albany, the one who (as hockey coaches like to say) stood on this head while making 77 saves over six hours of hockey. That's the one I'll remember until a better one comes along.