by Kinsey Janke || for NHL.com
Before Rocco Grimaldi arrived under his tutelage, Tom Rowe already knew a fair amount about just what exactly it was the five-foot-six winger could do on the ice.
“I watched him on video quite a bit, and I’d watch him on TV, which sometimes isn’t the best way to do it, but it gives you a good idea,” said Rowe, head coach of the American Hockey League’s San Antonio Rampage. “I loved the fact that he’s quick, and he moved the puck well and could beat guys one-on-one. Those were the things that stood out to me.”
Finding Grimaldi wasn’t hard. A product of both the U.S. National Team Development Program and the University of North Dakota, the California-born 21-year-old had already won three gold medals in international play before the Florida Panthers drafted him No. 33 at the 2011 NHL Draft. He’d add another gold with Team USA at the 2013 World Junior Championships, scoring twice in the 3-1 win over Sweden in the final game.
“Both of those programs really taught me how to be a professional – not just play professional, but act professional as well,” said Grimaldi. “I think it definitely shaped me, but I also had coaches growing up who had played at the pro level or had coached guys that are at the pro level now, so I think I always sort of had it running through me.”
Grimaldi was introduced to hockey via a friend of his older sister’s who played the sport. After the entire family went out to a game, Grimaldi, like many who see the game for the first time in person, fell in love. First, it was roller hockey, then a swift graduation into ice hockey. Those humble beginnings were shared with current San Jose Sharks forward, Matt Nieto, another California kid whose path to the National Hockey League also included stops with Team USA, a college hockey titan, and time in the AHL.
During his draft year, there were rumblings about his height, but for Grimaldi, even-keeled and highly-skilled, the concerns of others always bounced right off of him.
“People say a lot of stuff. You’ve just gotta take it in one ear and out the other,” he said. “I knew that I was created at this size and there’s nothing I can do about that, but there is something I can do about how hard I work and the time I put in and shaping my skills and things like that. It never has really bothered me.”
Rowe, too, is in his first full season with the Rampage, having replaced Peter Horachek last November when Horachek got the call to Florida. Most professional hockey coaches demand a lot from their players, and Rowe is no different. But with Grimaldi, the drive to succeed and to continue fine tuning his game is already there, already well integrated into his play and his mindset.
“He competes. He’ll compete as hard in practice as he does in a game, which has really been impressive to watch,” said Rowe. “He’s an extremely focused young guy. He obviously wants to be a pro, wants to be in the NHL like everybody, but he is dialed in.”
Only 22 games into the 2014-15 season, Grimaldi has already made a few impressions. Most notably, on Nov. 18, he became one of the rare players in pro hockey history to lace up the skates for games in two leagues on the same day. Starting the morning early with the Rampage’s annual school-day game, Grimaldi was pulled aside before the start of the third, told to go home, pack a bag, and get on the next flight to Los Angeles to be ready in time for warm-ups with the Panthers that night at Staples Center.
“You know, I woke up that morning and was only focusing on playing Oklahoma City,” he recalled. “Then our general manager pulled me aside and said, ‘You’re leaving right now,’ so I was like, ‘Well, OK.’ It was in my hometown, too, so if I wasn’t excited for that game, I don’t know what would excite me.”
Grimaldi had made his NHL debut on Nov. 1, a home game against Philadelphia, and would score his first NHL goal four days after the Los Angeles game in Nashville. But the proximity to his SoCal home allowed Grimaldi’s parents and grandparents, one of his former coaches, and a small group of childhood friends just enough time to head down to South Figueroa Street in time for puck drop, making this game one for the books.
Grimaldi will graduate from North Dakota in May, heading into his final semester as a communications major with a leadership minor. The similar routine – practice then homework, rinse, repeat – has been a helpful guide through these first months of pro hockey, making the responsibilities of both much easier to balance having already gotten the rhythm down pat during his three years at the university.
When asked about his goals for the season, Grimaldi doesn’t immediately reel off a laundry list of things he’d like to improve on. Instead, he repeats a nugget of advice recently given to him: Set goals that are attainable, and do things each day to actively improve. For instance, if he goes out there and actively counts his goals and his points, he says, his focus narrows, and if the production doesn’t come, his confidence falters and his game suffers.
Grimaldi has recorded 10 points through his 22 games with the Rampage, plus the one goal in seven games with Florida. He’s adjusting nicely on the San Antonio roster after posting 77 points in 86 games with North Dakota.
“I just try to develop everything that I can right now, and I really take that advice to heart. I’m developing my shot, and I’m just trying to develop all the little areas in my game,” he said. “I know a lot of people say that I’m a goal scorer, or an offensive player, but I really take pride in being a defensive player, too. I really take pride in the little things that nobody notices.”