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Dalpe's path of perseverance pays off with memorable goal

Veteran forward and proud dad reflects on a hockey career full of ups, downs

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider /

Zac Dalpe read the play perfectly, cut through the middle of the ice and put himself in the right spot to receive the pass from Max Domi. 

It was a veteran play, and Dalpe finished it like a man who knows how to score. The 31-year-old Blue Jackets forward took Domi's pass and quickly tucked it past Andrei Vasilevskiy on Tuesday night to tally the first goal in Columbus' 4-2 victory over the defending Stanley Cup champs. 

To some, it might have been a meaningless goal in a game that probably won't have a ton of historic significance down the road. The scoresheet won't be printed and framed by many, and Dalpe's goal might end up a footnote you find on Hockey Reference years down the road.

But for Dalpe, to say it meant a lot would be an understatement. While he had scored 62 goals in 133 AHL games over the past few years, it had been 1,629 days since the Ohio State product had gotten one at the NHL level, and Dalpe was overcome with emotion when the puck went in the net, spinning away from the net, pumping his fist and flashing a smile that was a mile wide when he was embraced by Domi. 

Video: TBL@CBJ: Dalpe tips home a pass in front of the net

What went into that making the smile so big in that moment?  

Years of rehab from three knee surgeries that have nearly ended his career, not to mention years of riding the buses at the AHL level, plugging away for a chance at that moment. The pride of being a father of two -- soon to be three -- young boys who has worked his butt off so his kids can have the chance to remember him as an NHL player. The fortitude to bounce back from losses, like his mother Lisa's death from cancer in 2015, not to mention the death of his best friend in a car crash. 

So when Dalpe was congratulated by his teammates, received an ovation on the video board and checked his text messages later, it's fair to say he was overcome by the emotion of the moment. 

"They showed my face on the Jumbotron and I think people started standing up and clapping, and I will be honest. I can say this with all sincerity -- I almost started crying," Dalpe said. "You want to talk about leadership and stuff, I got a really cool text message from Nick Foligno after the game, a really cool text message from Max Domi. Those are guys that are studs in the NHL, and they took the time to see what unfolded in front of them, and that to me is why I play the game. It's those cool little stories like that that you get to share with people. 

"My wife sending me a video of my 4-year-old (son Brooks) trying to copy the celebration that I did. All the goals and assists and bad games and good games, you're not going to remember that in 20 years. You're going to remember the Nick Foligno text messages and Max Domi text messages and videos of your kid's reaction to your goal. That's the kind of stuff that I live for. It's something that I can keep in my heart for the rest of my life." 

The goal was just the 13th of Dalpe's NHL career, a number far lower than he likely expected when he was a standout young player. But the bigger, more important number might be 11, the number of professional seasons he's been able to carve out in a winding path that has ended with a pro hockey home in Ohio. 

A Hockey Lifer 

That Dalpe has become such a long-tenured part of the Blue Jackets organization means in some ways his career has come full circle. 

A native of Paris, Ontario, Dalpe was a young standout who put up big numbers at the junior level in the British Columbia Hockey League, making him a second-round draft pick of the Carolina Hurricanes. Thirteen years ago, he arrived at Ohio State as the No. 3-rated freshman forward in the country, a goal-scoring standout expected to push the Buckeyes back into the conversation as an elite program.  

He helped do just that, posting 13 goals and 25 points as a freshman for a Buckeye team that broke a four-year NCAA tournament drought. Dalpe was even better as a sophomore, totaling 21 goals and 45 points in 39 games, but the Buckeyes couldn't replicate that success as a team. With head coach John Markell's contract not renewed and Dalpe with little left to prove that season, he signed with Carolina and made his pro debut in the spring of 2010.  

Considering Dalpe was a second-round pick whose goal-scoring skills were prominent in college, he admits now that he expected to replicate that success at the NHL level. 

"When you're this 18-year-old kid that scores goals, you hope it's going to translate to the NHL level," Dalpe said. "You don't want to say that you think it's going to come easy, but in your head you're just like, 'I'm going to score goals in the NHL,' and then you get to the best league in the world and there's at least 70 million dollars worth of guys in the other room that are trying to stop you from scoring. Things don't play out that way." 

It's something Dalpe found out the hard way. He quickly was able to score goals at the AHL level, notching 23, 18 and 21 tallies in his first three years with the Charlotte Checkers. But at the NHL level, he became something of a tweener, not quite skilled enough to score goals in a top-six role but not someone who fit the mold of a traditional grinder, either. 

Dalpe played in 41 games over three years with Carolina, posting five goals and 10 points, then had his biggest NHL role in 2013-14 with Vancouver. With John Tortorella as his head coach, Dalpe played in 55 games, totaling four goals and three assists as a checking line forward. 

He then had stints in Buffalo (21 games, one goal) and Minnesota (11 games, two goals) before being claimed off waivers by the Blue Jackets in February 2017. He played in 12 games in 2017-18 and one game a year later, with his main role to serve as a veteran mentor -- and a dependable goal scorer -- for Cleveland of the AHL. 

Along the way, he had to change his game some to survive. While he could still score goals in the AHL, to make it in the NHL as a bottom-six player, he had to add things like stronger defensive instincts and even the occasional fight to his game.  

"I've had to implement stuff into my game like even just physical play to fighting and stuff just to stick around," he said. "It's that old saying, adapt or die, you know? That's kind of what I've done. And the game has changed the last 10 years since I made it into the league. It's much faster and you're constantly trying to change with the time, and luckily I'm still involved in the league." 

Dalpe and Tortorella have a long-term relationship given their time in Vancouver to their years in Columbus, and what the head coach sees in Dalpe is a good pro who is willing to pay the price to play the right way. 

"He's the type of guy that I think we need right now," Tortorella said. "A guy who is just gonna work and try to do the small things." 

Family Man 

While Dalpe has played all over North America in his career -- in addition to playing for five NHL teams in parts of 10 seasons, he's suited up for six different AHL teams -- he's not made the journey alone. 

He comes from a hockey family, as his brothers Ben and Phil also played growing up, with Ben currently working in the front office with the St. Louis Blues. Dalpe talks often to his father, Paul, and always has the memory of his late mother held dear. 

But the family has grown over the past few years with his marriage to his wife, Cassandra. The two have two kids, 4-year-old Brooks and Beau, who is almost 2 years old, plus a third boy on the way in the coming weeks.  

That's made this year a bit of a struggle, as he's spent much of the last few weeks living in a hotel in Columbus and traveling with the team to road games while Cassandra and the kids have remained at their home in Cleveland. 

When Dalpe first entered the lineup March 30, he said his hope was to show his sons that dad still has what it takes to play hockey at the highest level. Being sent the video of Brooks reacting to his goal and receiving the support from his family is one of the things that has made the grind (and the payoff) worth it. 

"I think that's what makes it," he said. "My wife is 38 weeks pregnant, so I'm sitting in a hotel in Columbus by myself and she's about to pop. She's always looking after a 4-year-old and an almost 2-year-old. I'm FaceTiming her from Florida and Tampa and the kids are yelling in the background because they're hungry and stuff.  

"I don't think people understand what goes into the life. I'm not complaining, it's just the way it is. In the summer, I have to go to the gym for so many hours a day and skate for so many hours a day. She's kind of left on an island, especially during the pandemic. There's not a lot of help to watch the kids, so just getting the goal, I think somedays it doesn't seem worth it, but it is worth it.  

"She told me (Tuesday) night how proud she was and she would go through those days a million times over to see the kids react the way they did. That made me pretty emotional, for sure." 

Dalpe said at 4 years old, Brooks has a pretty good handle on what is going on around the team and his dad's career. The goal is to continue to play to the level the youngest Dalpes are able to spend time with their dad around the locker room, just as many fathers and sons have done throughout the history of the sport. 

"(Brooks) knows all the team names and players and the difference between the Cleveland Monsters and the Columbus Blue Jackets," Dalpe said. "He understands that. Obviously the youngest one, he's still mad when I leave the house every day, but my 4-year-old is very, very much deep into everything. 

"And talking to Stefan Matteau and Max Domi, Nick Foligno, those guys that grew up around the rink with their dads, I get super, super giddy when they talk about being in the room. Obviously with Covid and stuff, it sucks not having your kids around, but that's always something I wanted to do. I always want my kids to be the kids that got to see their dad play at a very high level, so that's why it's special to me.

"When those guys talk about it, they were the kids. They light up when they talk about it, and I can only imagine what goes through Brooks' mind when he gets to watch me play and stuff." 

A New Role 

Dalpe has had a fair share of things to overcome throughout his career, including those knee injuries that he said will likely impact him down the road as well as major hip surgery in 2015. He began this year with Cleveland, where he played in five games and was named the team's captain, an honor he calls one of the highlights of his career.  

But on Feb. 25, he was called up to Columbus to serve on the taxi squad, a new experience in a career full of them. Being on the taxi squad meant he practiced at times with the team and traveled on road trips in case a quick roster move had to be made, but he also went more than a month without actually playing in a game, leaving him feel as though he was in a bit of limbo -- "half called up," as he put it.  

Dalpe chose to use that time to think the game in a way he never had before.  

"I looked at it as I got to do what I love still year-round, and not only watch the best players on the Columbus Blue Jackets but watch the best players on the other team as well and how they go about their day and how they play the game," Dalpe said. "I don't know what I want to do after hockey, but I was kind playing general manager in my head a little bit or even coach, just studying the way Torts runs his bench and the way the other coach runs his bench. 

"It has been a weird year, but I think I've gained tons of knowledge over the course of the last two months and just what makes guys tick and what makes guys great. I had the good fortune of doing that, and then you get into a game and it's the high-flying pace of the NHL and you just hold on, baby. Let's go for a ride." 

To this point, Dalpe has played in five games this season, holding on just fine. While he's a fourth-line forward depended on to provide energy and a little sandpaper, he's filled that role well, and the goal Tuesday vs. Tampa Bay was the cherry on top. 

It also felt that way for his teammates, who know how long Dalpe has persevered to get another shot, as not only did he go almost five years between goals, he hadn't played in an NHL game since November 2018 before his return to the lineup. 

"We've become fast friends," Foligno said. "He's a really good guy and a really good pro. I think he cares a lot about the guys and his role on the team. He understands where he fits but also has the hunger to play in this league and has the ability. He has speed, he can hit, he can skate. At his age, he flies. He's a guy that can make an impact on the game. He just never complains and just keeps working. He's just been going about his business and you really pull for guys like that." 

"His story speaks for itself," Domi added after Dalpe scored Tuesday. "He's such a good guy. A very resilient individual. With everything he's been through, it's pretty special to see. The smile on his face says it all. He's such an awesome dude, and he deserves it." 

It's hard to argue with that. It's been a professional life well lived, and there's still more to the story to be added, one hopes. In the meantime, it seems like Dalpe wouldn't have it any other way. 

"It's been a whirlwind, but I think that's the Dalpe way," he said. "You talk to anybody from Paris, we're a nose to the grindstone type of family. Nothing ever came easy, so why expect your career to come easy? We've always been people that have ran through the wall instead of kind of tiptoeing around it." 

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