Di Pauli’s journey a long one from Italy to the NHL

Photo: Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

by Nicholas Hart | AHL On The Beat

Every night that his parents would let him, and even some nights when they wouldn’t, Thomas Di Pauli would wake up at 2 or 3 in the morning, go to the computer and watch hockey.

Growing up in Italy, the time difference forced Di Pauli to wake up at this time to see his favorite NHL stars.

Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Mario Lemieux, he couldn’t wait to watch all of them. He had to put in a little extra effort and sacrifice some sleep to see them play, but every time he did, it was well worth setting the alarm.

Fast forward almost two decades later, and people all across Italy were waking up in the middle of the night to watch Di Pauli make his NHL debut.

Di Pauli’s lifelong dream came true on Jan. 4, 2020, when he suited up for the Pittsburgh Penguins in a game against the Montreal Canadiens.

“That was a goal I set when I was young. To have it come true means everything to me,” Di Pauli said. “It brings everything into perspective. This is why my family, we moved to the United States in the first place, to pursue this dream.”

Di Pauli’s journey to his first NHL game was a long one, filled with trials and tribulations. Of course, it all started with his parents deciding to move from Italy to the U.S. when he was 12 years old. Despite swapping coasts and navigating a new culture, Di Pauli thrived with the support of his parents and brother, Theo.

“It brings a tear to my eye, thinking about what my parents did for me,” Di Pauli said. “It means everything. I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for them. I wouldn’t be the person I am today.”

As a young player, Di Pauli caught the eye of scouts with his open-ice speed and tenacious competitiveness. He was eventually scooped up by the prestigious United States National Team Development Program and was recruited by the University of Notre Dame. He was drafted, and everything seemed to be lining up for Di Pauli to achieve his dream in no time. However, when all seemed right is when it all could have gone wrong.

Di Pauli suffered a spell of ailments that he battled through with the Fighting Irish, but would eventually follow him through the start of his professional career with the Penguins.

Photo: KDP Studio

An injury in his first training camp delayed his pro debut by months. Then, back surgery to cure his nagging issues since college ended his rookie season prematurely. The years that followed included more procedures, broken bones, and months of games missed due to hits for which the offenders were suspended. This was not an example of a player having one troublesome, recurring issue that kept him on the training table. These were a series of unconnected events that led to injuries, and, unfortunately for Di Pauli, continually cost his precious time in his development.

After three straight years of seemingly unpreventable setbacks, it would be completely understandable for someone to get a little discouraged if not completely demoralized. But not Thomas Di Pauli. Through all the adversity, he maintains that his confidence was unwavering, and he knew that his shot at the NHL would arrive eventually.

“Family, friends, they were always in my corner, and that made me realize that I have to do this,” he said. “Not just for myself, because it’s what I’ve always wanted for myself, but for other people who helped and did so much for me. In my mind, there was never a doubt that I was going to get that game.”

And on that night in early January in Montreal, that’s exactly what happened. Years of determination and sacrifice not only by Di Pauli, but also his parents and siblings, culminated in his dream finally being realized. And because of his journey and everything he faced along the way, the moment he stepped on the ice in a Pittsburgh sweater was not only a special one for him and his family, but for everyone in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton who saw him work his way there.

“It’s very rewarding to see someone who works so hard get his opportunity in the National Hockey League,” said Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins head coach and general manager Mike Vellucci. “No one’s going to outwork him in any game. I’m really happy for him. We all are.”

That night in Montreal will always be an unforgettable one for Di Pauli, but his insatiable competitive streak won’t allow him to satisfied with just the two games he’s earned with Pittsburgh so far. He’s made it very clear that he wants to make it back, and that games three, four, five and beyond are his motivation to get there.

And for all those young, faithful Italians who stayed up to watch him play with a gleam in their eye, Di Pauli departed a little motivation for them, too.

“My advice to all the little kids in Italy that want to play in the NHL is to have fun, enjoy the game and to skate as much as you can,” he said. “That way, I think there will be more Italian-born NHL’ers in the future, and I’m looking forward to that day, for sure.”