Listed at 5’11’’, 180 pounds, the second year Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors forward has earned a reputation as a notably fierce competitor in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) ranks.
“He’s absolutely fearless,” explained Majors head coach and general manager Dave Cameron of Rinaldo, a sixth round selection (178th overall) of the Flyers at this past summer’s NHL Entry Draft. “The other team always knows when he’s on the ice, or at least they better be aware, because he will quickly announce himself.
“Zac plays with a great deal of pride and emotion. He’s a gritty player who wears his heart on his sleeve, and who will do anything to help us win. But he knows and understands the game, too, and he’s developing into a very solid overall player for us.”
|Zac Rinaldo was drafted by the Flyers in the sixth round of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. (Photo courtesy Mississauga St. Michael's Majors) |
These are very exciting times for Rinaldo, 18, who, in addition to being drafted attended his first prospect camp and main training camp with the Flyers prior to the start of the 2008-09 season.
“It’s all happened kind of fast, since the summer,” he said. “After getting the call from the Flyers, everything has gone in fast-forward. Camp was a great experience, but I’m back here in Mississauga now, working to help my team and better myself as a player. Beyond this, I feel that anything is possible.”The Hometown Boy
Rinaldo was born on June 15, 1990 in Mississauga, Ontario, the sixth-largest municipality in Canada with a population of roughly 670,000, located just southwest of Toronto. He also spent time during his formative years living in nearby Hamilton.
“I started skating at about five years old,” he said. “My dad took me out to the rinks and helped me get my start. He was my main influence early on, because he taught me how to skate, and taught me the game. Eventually, he got me into power skating, and I improved pretty quickly.
“I got into organized hockey, like most kids do where I’m from, and it just took off from there. It’s something I’ve always loved, and have been playing almost my entire life, really.”
Despite growing up in the shadow of the world’s largest hockey market, Rinaldo was not a fan of the Maple Leafs, or any other team, in particular.
“I was more into watching the NHL as a fan of the game,” he elaborated. “I loved playing and watching and learning as I moved up in different levels and got more experience.
“The player I liked the most growing up was Eric Lindros,” he continued, despite being only two when “The Big E” debuted with the Flyers back in 1992-93. “Actually, it was kind of special to be drafted by Philadelphia, just because of that.
“[Lindros] was from Ontario and a guy who I loved to watch, because I’ve always enjoyed the big power forwards, the guys who play that physical style with a lot of aggression.”
And his favorite current player?
“Oh, definitely Sean Avery,” he noted, without hesitation. Flyers fans, of course, are familiar with the controversial former New York Rangers agitator, who signed with the Dallas Stars as a free agent this past summer.
“I love the passion he has for the game, the emotion he shows every time he’s out on the ice. He plays with that never-quit attitude, that in-your-face style that I try to emulate. I really enjoy watching him play.”
He’s a tough kid; a real competitor. You just can’t have enough guys like this in your organization, and we were pleased to be able to get him in the draft.” - Chris Pryor, the Flyers' director of hockey operations, on Zac RinaldoFirst Impressions
Rinaldo began to gain the attention of scouts while playing Tier II level hockey for the Hamilton Red Wings of the Ontario Provincial Junior Hockey League (OPJHL) in 2006-07.
He finished eighth in scoring that year on a high-powered offensive team with a very respectable 32 points (16g, 16a) and a plus-2 rating in 44 games. But it was his physical play and hyperactive style that helped him to stand out.
Though overly-aggressive and undisciplined at times, Rinaldo’s hit-anything-that-skates mentality and willingness to drop the gloves made him an instant hit with teammates and a valuable member of team. He finished first on the team by a healthy margin with 193 penalty minutes.
His ability to produce points, in actuality, was almost an added bonus.
Ultimately, Rinaldo saw action in six games with the then-Toronto St. Michael’s Majors of the OHL during the season. He would move up to the team, accompanying the Majors in their move to Mississauga, the following season. But the brief audition was an important element in his development.
“It was good to get those games under my belt,” he remembered. “The biggest difference between Tier II and major junior is the speed of the game. Every time you move up, the pace gets faster and the games are more intense. It was good to get a feel for that.
“Overall, my experience in Hamilton was good. It really prepared me for the OHL, and the style of game I had to play there.”
In those first six games in Toronto, Rinaldo played sparingly. He recorded two penalty minutes and did not appear on the scoresheet otherwise, but gained confidence simply by putting on a Majors uniform for the first time.
In 2007-08, Rinaldo moved up to the OHL, full-time.
“The Majors moved to Mississauga, my hometown, before my first full season of major junior, and that was special for me,” he explained. “It helped me make that adjustment, and just being able to live and play in familiar settings was a good experience for me.
“I feel that I was fully prepared and ready to make the jump. I’ve always felt that I have been a confident player, and I look forward to new challenges. You need to be confident in your ability and understand what you do best to achieve your goals and be a team player.”The Arrival
As expected, Rinaldo did not set the scoreboard on fire during his rookie season in the OHL. He did, however, provide an almost immediate and much-needed element of grit to the Majors lineup, despite some growing pains.
Overall, the season was a success for the then-17-year-old forward, who also proved to be a versatile performer for Dave Cameron’s upstart squad, playing both center and left wing during the campaign. Rinaldo would finish eleventh on the team in scoring, with 14 points (7g, 7a) in 63 games.
For the second straight season, he would lead his team in penalty minutes. This time around, he recorded 193 of them, for an average of over three per game. The next closest player, Kyle Neuber, had had 131. No other player cracked 100 minutes.
“Zac did a good job coming into the league and settling into a role as a checking line guy for us, and found his niche as an agitator,” said Cameron. “Of course, with young players, especially guys who play that aggressive style, there are going to be times when they are over-eager.
“I thought that Zac learned from his mistakes well and the important thing is that he got better as the season went on. We were able to give him more ice time and more responsibilities as the season progressed, and those are the key things you want to see from any player in development.”
The Majors finished in the middle of the OHL pack with a record of 31-32-2-3, but managed to squeeze into the postseason. They were quickly eliminated, however, by the Niagara IceDogs, in four straight games. Rinaldo played in every game, recording nine penalty minutes.
“We were the underdog, but losing in four straight did leave a bad taste in our mouths,” he said. “It just makes us want to get back [to the playoffs] and win that much worse.”
The end result of the Majors’ season aside, Rinaldo put in a very solid body of work during the season, positioning himself as a potential prospect for July’s NHL Entry Draft in Ottawa.
“I thought I had a good season and that I could be drafted,” he explained. “I was following the draft on my computer and wasn’t sure what would happen. When my name came up next to the Flyers logo, I was relieved and just very excited. It was just a dream come true, and it meant that all of my hard work had paid off.”
A phone call from Chris Pryor, the Flyers’ director of hockey operations, soon followed.
“It all kind of felt like a dream,” continued Rinaldo. “Once my phone rang and I talked to Chris Pryor and was welcomed into the Flyers organization, it all just kind of hit me. This was real. And I knew that I was going to have to work that much harder to eventually make it to the NHL.”
“Zac was a player we had followed, and we were pleased with the progression he showed during his first two seasons in the OHL,” explained Pryor.
Laying the Foundation
If Rinaldo’s experience of playing as a rookie in the OHL and being drafted by an NHL team wasn’t enough of a whirlwind experience, what came next was surely knocked him off his feet.
“Before the season, I came to Philadelphia for my first ever prospect mini-camp with the Flyers. After that, I attended the main training camp with the big team,” he noted.
“Wow… it was quite the experience. It was great getting to know some of the other guys in the prospect camp, but it was tough. [Strength and conditioning coach] Jim McCrossin put us through some pretty intense workouts. It was a real eye-opener, but very rewarding.”
Before being sent back to Mississauga for his second full season in the OHL, Rinaldo participated in the early stages of the Flyers’ main camp. He was named to the Team Snider mini-squad, which went on to defeat the other three units and capture the intra-roster Clarke Cup.
Amongst his teammates were Flyers captain Mike Richards and veteran Danny Briere
|Rinaldo is currently in his second season with the Mississauga St. Michael's Majors (OHL). (Photo courtesy Mississauga St. Michael's Majors) |
“At first, I was just kind of in awe of these guys, until it kind of hit me I wasn’t there just to watch them but to play alongside them. They were both great, helping out the young guys, giving us advice. All of the veterans I interacted with where great. I took a lot away from the camp experience, and I think I did okay.”
Pryor agreed. “Zac put in a very good showing and definitely left his mark. He was not afraid to mix it up with just about everyone out there, and he made the most of his opportunity here. We expect very good things from him this year, and feel he will deliver.”
Back in Mississauga, Rinaldo joined a Majors team that got off to a difficult start. The team has recovered, somewhat, in recent weeks, again a middle-of-the-pack team at 8-11-0-1.
“We’ve been kind of up and down, but I think we’re starting to put it together,” said Rinaldo. “Things are falling into place and we’re coming together as a team. For me, it’s an opportunity to become more of a leader. I’m not one of the younger guys on the team anymore, and now it’s my responsibility to help take charge and get us going in the right direction.”
Rinaldo has seen an increase in responsibilities, and thus far is responding to the workload. The rough and tumble forward currently has four points (1g, 3a) in and a plus-1 rating in 16 games. And, to the surprise of no one, he once again leads his team with 52 penalty minutes.
“I feel like I’m in a very comfortable place,” he said. “I know my role here. I’m not the biggest guy, but I like playing a big man’s game. I see myself as the energy guy, the guy who stirs things up when needed. I’m trying to steadily improve my offense and work hard every night to help the team any way I can.”
Added Cameron: “He’s playing in more game situations now, working the power play, killing penalties. It’s all part of the maturation process, gaining more ice time, making the most of the opportunities.
“Of course, there are things Zac still needs to work on, like patience with the puck, decision making, playing away from the puck, and knowing when to and when not to be aggressive in certain situations. But, that will all come. Again, the important thing is that we’re seeing improvement in those areas, and that can only bode well for him as he continues in his development.”