The Father's KeeperStar Islander goalie Rick DiPietro finds inspiration and support close to home. By Ron Dicker
Islander goalie Rick DiPietro
can afford a guru, governess, life coach, and every other mentor that big money can buy. But he's sticking with the guy who's been giving him advice since he learned how to lace up his skates: his dad, Rick.
"He's always the first person I go to," the 26-year-old DiPietro says.
In a month that celebrates Father's Day, the DiPietros are a study in what works between a father and a son who plays professional sports. The child's celebrity and wealth-a toxic recipe in many families-appear to have only strengthened their bond.
In September 2006, the senior DiPietro shepherded his son through negotiating the longest playing agreement in NHL history, and currently the longest in North American Sports: $67.5 million spread over 15 years. The elder DiPietro acted as a sounding board for his son during the talks, helping him see the choices more clearly. "He's taught me a lot of amazing lessons as I've grown up," notes Rick. "Whenever I'm making a big decision, such as the big contract, he is a huge help."
Rick remembers not so long ago when his father would tell him exactly what to do. "He would never let me quit anything I started," the younger DiPietro says. "He made it clear that I owe it to my teammates and coaches and everyone involved to stick with it and do my best." When things don't go right, in hockey or in life, DiPietro meditates on what his dad preached. "His big thing has always been mental toughness, not allowing things that I can't control as a goalie to bother me," the player says.
The two are close geographically as well. Last October, his father, who is divorced from Rick's mother, Cheryl, moved from DiPietro's hometown of Winthrop, Massachusetts, to Huntington, Long Island, into a house rick bought for him, just seven and one-half miles from his own home in Oyster Bay.
"I've been away from home since I was 15 years old," says DiPietro, who, as a teenager, trained in a national junior developmental program in Michigan. "We haven't had the opportunity to do the things that a father and son do: going out to dinner, watching football games."
DiPietro's dad is a fixture at home games. He has witnessed his son's milestones: DiPietro is the only Islander goalie to collect 30 or more victories in two season, and last season he played in and started his first All-Star game. Elder Rick has also watched his son wrestle with the expectations that befit his stature as the only goaltender to be the first player chosen in the 2000 NHL Draft. While the Islanders boast a rich early history, winning four straight Stanley Cups in the first half of the 1980s, they haven't advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs during DiPietro's tenure. This year, unlike their area counterparts, the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils, they failed to make it to the postseason.
The senior DiPietro has seen his son fight through a series of injuries as well. A pair of concussions ended his regular season prematurely in 2006-2007, and then he had hip surgery after the playoffs. This past season, he missed the last eight games to undergo an operation on his other hip. (He reports that his rehab is proceeding on schedule.) THE MONEY PICTURE
DiPietro enters the third year of his contract next season. Both player and father insist that the eyebrow-raising largesse of Islanders owner Charles Wang was never the endgame. The father points out that his son might have gained more riches down the road through unrestricted free agency. Young DiPietro says he wanted to stay with one team for his career, as the Devils' Martin Brodeur has so far. He wanted the time to help restore the Islanders to prominence.
The DiPietros have invested the much talked-about windfall for the long haul-as in life, not hockey. The money, older Rick says, "is put in a place where, if God forbid, his career were to come to an abrupt end, he would be in a position to be able to continue his lifestyle and not have to work again."
While younger Rick emphasizes that he ultimately makes the financial decisions, senior minds the store. Older Rick reviews copies of younger Rick's financial statements and answers questions about bills or unfamiliar tax concerns, his son explains.
Says the younger: "He didn't want me to make the same mistakes that a lot of young guys do, make that money, make it early, and start to spend lavishly and get crazy. He wants me to be smart about it."
So far, so good, dad says. The strategy has thus far weathered the recent economic downturn and the star's admitted penchant for fancy cars and watches. "The only thing we have to do is hold Rick back from spending," the senior says. "But I give him credit. He's been very smart about it."
The elder DiPietro says he and Rick agreed on a benchmark that would signal the go-ahead for Rick to spend more freely. For now though, DiPietro, engaged to a model named Cassandra, says his next "indulgence" will be a new home. DIFFERENT STYLES
The father-son business relationships seems to strengthen their overall connections, observes says. "They're really close," says Islanders defenseman and friend Chris Campoli. "Every time they're around each other, you can tell Big Rick is so proud of Little Rick."
Some Islanders refer to Mr. DiPietro as Mr. Deeps, and others call him Big Rick, but physically he is nothing of the sort. At age 59, he is fit in a non-jogger sort of way, his son says, though with the metabolism of a marathoner. "Little Rick," a muscular 6'1" 210 lbs., from weight training, says he is not so blessed.
They greet each other after every game "not with a handshake; it's a hug," says Garth Snow, DiPietro's former backup and now the team general manager. "His dad is such a key person in Rick's development as a person and as a hockey player."
Over time, DiPietro's father has stepped up his game critiques. He'll let Rick know if he commits to blocking a shot too soon. Dad has developed a good eye, the goaltender says. "Sometimes I call him on a Saturday and ask 'what are you doing?' and he'll sat, 'Oh, watching old games on TiVo.' He loves it."
There are times when the son wishes he heard only encouragement: "Sometimes I want him to be the Yes Man," the junior DiPietro says. "But I never worry about him just blowing smoke. Sometimes the truth hurts. He tells me straight. And I appreciate it."
As well as they seem to understand each other, they are very different. "Mr. DiPietro is very mellow," says Campoli. "Rick's kind of the center of attention."
Indeed, the younger DiPietro's brashness has irritated teammates and opponents at times. That is where his father plays goaltender in his own way, deflecting what he says is undue criticism. "They misunderstand his competitiveness for being cocky or overconfident," he explains.
DiPietro believes his own sociability has begun to rub off on his father. "I've gotten him to open up, to have more fun, and be more relaxed about everything," he says. "Sometimes he's the life of the party now. He's telling jokes. He's a lot funnier than what I remember as a kid. It's unbelievable how the relationship grows when you get older. You get to see a side of your parents that you never saw as a young kid."
DiPietro says he takes more after his mom, Cheryl DiPietro, in the communication department. His parents divorced when he was just maturing as a pro. His mother remains in Winthrop.
"It's something to deal with," DiPietro says. "At the end of the day, as selfish as it is that you want them to stay together, as you get older you realize that you want your parents to be happy. And if it's divorce, then that's the way." HONORING THE PAST
The father-son mutual admiration was forged long before the son was paid to play hockey. DiPietro revs up his verbal motor when the subject turns to his father's battle experience as a National Guard helicopter pilot and airport administrator. He says when his dad was a Guardsmen, he would take him and his little brother, Alex, now a 23-year-old defenseman at Babson College, to work. The goalie loved it. "One of the greatest memories I've ever had. He'd bring us up to the base. He'd have his flight suit on and we'd get to eat with the guys, go check out the helicopters."
DiPietro figured out a way to honor his pop publically. While shuttling between the minors and the Islanders in his second season, he thought a change of wardrobe might help him become more consistent. Recalling his father's 1969 Army service as a combat assault pilot in Vietnam, he took note that the Islanders' home ice is called the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. So DiPietro had his mask designed in a patriotic pastiche that included the Huey helicopter that his father flew on missions.
"I was very proud of that," Rick's father says. "It meant a lot to me that it meant a lot to him. I still stay in contact with the guys in Vietnam. They've seen the symbol on his helmet."
DiPietro has commissioned a new helmet tableau for next season, and says it will contain many of the same elements, including a more detailed Huey.
Father and son still have a few more things to do before the helmet unveiling, though. They plan to take a few cooking classes together this summer. ("He'd cook spaghetti and meatballs every night," the younger Rick says.) Then Rick, his little brother and their dear old dad depart for what young Rick calls their annual "man-cation," a fishing and golf trip.
He is close with his mom as well, saying he always wanted to repay the effort both his parents made in getting him to where he is now. But the more visible presence in his life is his dad. Their mutual love and trust have guided Rick to a big-time career with rewards to spare. But be warned, young Rick: the fatherly wisdom will keep coming.
Asked about the biggest pleasure of their relationship, the elder DiPietro answers, "What immediately comes to mind is when he'll ask me for my advice. I'll give it. He may seem to disagree, but at the end of the day he ends up taking my advice. It always makes me feel good that when I give input, it has meaning to it."