Colaiacovo working his way to the top

It was a warm — unseasonably so even for late summer — September Sunday morning when I met Carlo Colaiacovo in 2001. We were both in Kitchener for the Maple Leafs rookie tournament and it was early — very early.

While most 18-year-old kids were still asleep in their beds, deep in dreamland, Colaiacovo was just beginning to live out his dreams on the ice, however painfully.

Carlo missed the games of the tournament due to a shoulder injury, but he was under the watchful eye of St. John’s assistant coach Kevin McClelland on this morning as he went through some extensive on-ice conditioning.

Up and down the ice went Colaiacovo, weaving here and bobbing there, always at full speed.

The fog created by that incredibly humid Kitchener morning nearly engulfed the youngster as he ran through drill after drill. It was as if he was skating in a dreamland as the mist emanated from the surface.

Fifteen minutes turned into 30 and then quickly 45 before he left the ice, his tongue dragging.

“I would love to still be in bed, sleeping away a Sunday morning like other guys my age,” Colaiacovo said with a weary smile. “However, I’m out here to chase my dream of playing hockey, someday in the NHL.”

Three years later he is on the cusp of realizing that dream as he continues to work his tail off, this year as a member of the AHL’s St. John’s Maple Leafs.

“Carlo has been one of St. John’s best players all season long,” states the organization’s prospects development coach, Paul Dennis. “He is developing at an accelerated rate which is a function of his ice-time and playing in all situations at the pro level.”

The Maple Leafs have monitored this young man’s progress quite carefully and they have liked what they’ve seen. He’s anchored the defense of two World Junior Championships silver-medal winning teams, made the cut on the NHL’s Maple Leafs squad to start the 2002-03 slate and was named to the American Hockey League All-Star Game in his initial pro season this year.

“He’s come the furthest in his mental approach to the game,” says Dennis. “He often plays with an edge and that has occasionally resulted in injuries, both this year and in the past. He has developed the stamina to play hurt and work through the pain.”

To this approach, add a package of speed and skills and you nearly have a complete pro defenseman.

Two plays earlier this season give you a glimpse into the immense potential of which Carlo Colaiacovo is just starting to realize.

His first goal of the season came on Oct. 28, and it couldn’t have come in more dramatic fashion. In overtime at home against Milwaukee, Carlo was caught on the ice at the end of a long shift. Exhausted, he headed to the bench for a change but heard the screams of his teammates from the sidelines to join the play.

He peeled off and headed back up the ice with Brad Leeb on a 2-on-1 break. Too tired to verbally call for the puck, he tapped his stick, waiting for the pass. Leeb fed it to him and he snapped home the game-winner from the hash-marks for his first professional goal.

“It was pretty exciting — the type that young guys dream of, being in overtime and at home,” remembers Colaiacovo. “Hopefully, it will be the first of many.”

Largely known for his offensive capabilities, there is no lack of defensive acumen in his game either. He plays the body, will sacrifice himself to block a shot and will literally do anything called for to protect his end, first and foremost.

Against Binghamton early in the year, he displayed those abilities in another big win.

With St. John’s leading 4-3 late in the third period, they had to kill off a Robb Palahnuk penalty to preserve the win.

With the Sens’ goalie pulled, it was a 6-on-4 advantage for Binghamton.

Colaiacovo blocked three straight shots on the opponent’s power play and finally cleared the puck while sprawled out on the ice after stopping the last one. That commitment to winning each and every battle is what has gotten him this far.

Now, Carlo still has some room for improvement, like all rookies. He needs to become bigger and stronger to survive the physical battles he often initiates. And despite his defensive prowess, he still needs to learn the game “away” from the puck.

When you remember that 18-year-old kid working so desperately hard on a blistering Sunday morning a couple of years ago, you know he will do what it takes to propel his game further and take it to another level.

Watching 21-year old AHL rookie Carlo Colaiacovo shows you that he has a little more travel left in him and it will only be up the ladder.

Timothy Hennie is the editor of the Blue and White Report