Malatesta making strides one skate at a time

Photo: Kory Callihan/Cleveland Monsters

by Caroline Halloran | AHL On The Beat

Hockey, a sport that has roots tracing back to Europe and North America, has etched its way onto the hearts of many and has emerged as a cultural and social phenomenon.

Originally played on frozen ponds, the game is now contested in packed arenas, fueled by a love for competition that runs as deep as the history of the sport itself.

For Montreal native James Malatesta, his love for hockey is no different than most players’. What separates Malatesta is his grit, passion and drive to chase a dream he has cultivated since childhood: playing in the National Hockey League.

As Malatesta dives into his first professional season with the Cleveland Monsters, what was once a dream is now a reality.

Like many athletes before him, Malatesta laced up his skates at the early age of four. He made sure to stay active in his youth by participating in various sports like lacrosse, soccer and football. By the age of 12, he would fully commit himself to the game that would later become his profession.

From 2019-23, Malatesta played with the Quebec Remparts in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, gaining exposure and experience that only strengthened his skill set. During the 2022-23
season, he played in 55 games, tallying 37 goals, 29 assists and 66 points. As an added testament to all of his success, Malatesta took home the Guy Lafleur Trophy after being named the most valuable player of the QMJHL playoffs.

During his decorated junior career, he was selected in the fifth round of the 2021 NHL Draft by the Columbus Blue Jackets.

The 5-foot-9 forward is now making strides in his transition to the pro game.

“It’s definitely been a change,” Malatesta said. “The guys are a lot stronger, bigger and faster, but I knew it was going to be a transition. Every game I am trying to get better and ease into it.”

That said, Cleveland’s depth to start the season has been Malatesta’s favorite part of his professional transition. The high number of athletes on the Monsters’ season-opening roster certainly fosters competition for playing time, but also helps nurture the camaraderie the team is building in Cleveland, showing that the young roster is working, and working well.

Like many athletes, Malatesta developed his style by emulating the players he grew up watching, including NHL forwards Yanni Gourde and Brad Marchand.

“They are not the tallest guys, but they work hard, they go to the dirty areas, and get goals,” said Malatesta.

It is evident that Gourde’s and Marchand’s styles of play impacted Malatesta. He too has a strong work ethic and drive, along with a soft-spoken, kind nature despite his tendency to mix it up on
the ice.

Becoming a professional hockey player has been a dream come true for Malatesta. Now that he has arrived in the American Hockey League, being surrounded by a sizable group of players at
similar stages of their careers has him feeling excited to be in Cleveland.

“We have a great number of prospects,” Malatesta said. “We’re all young, good guys, so it makes it easier both in the AHL and Cleveland. It feels good to be here.”

While Malatesta gets acclimated to a new situation on the ice, his off-ice development has also been aided by his teammates.

“Some of the guys were helping me look for places to live, some helped me move into my apartment, while others offer advice and answer any questions I may have. Everyone is very welcoming,” Malatesta said.

When he is not playing hockey, you will catch him on the tennis court or at a golf course. Malatesta is looking forward to exploring his new connection to Cleveland since this is his first time being in the area.

“I do not have a favorite off-day activity in Cleveland because we have not had any off days yet,” Malatesta joked. “But the rink is really nice.”

For this 20-year-old rookie, there is more at play than meets the eye. He’s more than an up-and-coming talent, he’s a player who consistently demonstrates his potential both on and off the ice.

With the 2023-24 season underway, fans have already seen a glimpse of his dedication, passion and consistent effort while witnessing his first professional goal on home ice against the
Providence Bruins.

As he embraces the challenges that come with his transition to the professional game, he reminds himself, “There’s going to be ups and downs. But you have to face adversity head-on.”