|Zac Dalpe has 27 goals and 63 points in only 46 games, not to mention 13 points through his first 11 playoff games this season.
It didn't take Penticton Vees coach Fred Harbinson very long to realize the skinny kid from Paris, Ontario, with a college scholarship in tow and arriving complete with his own set of hype, just might be as good as advertised.
In fact, Vees forward Zac Dalpe
impressed from Day 1.
"Honestly, it was the first day in training camp," Harbinson said. "It was after one of our first skates and I happened to be talking to the Ohio State coaches because we have three of their players on our team. We were talking about the other two guys, (Cory) Schneider and (Devon) Krogh. I told them how well they did, how they looked sharp already, but I remember, I was sitting in my car saying to them that you have a problem with Dalpe. You're going to have to worry about how many years you'll have him there.
"They laughed, but it was true. Anyone in the rink that day could see he has a special skill set, and beyond that, once you meet him and see how driven he is, you can tell he's going to be a special kind of player."
But it wasn't always that way. Dalpe had to overcome years of hearing he was too small, too young or "not quite ready."
To look at Dalpe now, though, is to see the result of years of decisions made with a professional hockey career in mind. Dalpe has chased that dream, changing teams and switching towns in an attempt to take the route that best served him in his goal of becoming a professional hockey player.
Even when it looked like time and time again that he wasn't going to make it.
Dalpe began his hockey career in Paris, a town a short drive from Brantford, the birthplace of Wayne Gretzky
. He began playing as a child,
"Like any young kid, at the age of 3 or 4 did, playing Timbits hockey," he said.
Dalpe was a little different, however, because he realized very quickly hockey was not just a game, but would be a life-long commitment.
He even traveled to Brantford to play AAA hockey because the small town of Paris only offered travel hockey programs, not the more visible AAA-caliber teams the Canadian Hockey League teams scout so heavily.
"Once I decided I wanted to play seriously, I moved to Brantford and played with their AAA team, and played there up to Pee Wee," Dalpe said. "But after that year I moved back home. I just wasn't having fun there, and I came back with all my buddies to play travel hockey back in Paris. With that team we won a bunch of championships. We won All-Ontarios twice, in 2002-03 and '03-04, and then I went back to Brantford for my OHL draft year."
Dalpe didn't get drafted by an Ontario Hockey League team, based on what he believes was a concern about his size and his ability to handle the bigger players of the CHL.
"I was really small," he said "I was 5-foot-4 or 5-foot-5 and only110-115 pounds or so. I was very small – stupid small. I had a lot of skill but no size, and I think that was part of the reason I didn't get drafted. I was heartbroken at the time, but I had parents and coaches reminding me I just had to be patient and let the size catch up to me."
And that's just what he did.
Dalpe moved again, this time to Stratford, Ontario, in order to join its Junior B team and increase his level of competition.
From playing in a relatively protected game against players roughly his own age, he went to playing against 18, 19 and 20-year-olds, many of whom had been away from home and playing the junior game for years.
Once again, it turned out to be a wise decision on his part.
"After my draft year, I played Junior B for the Stratford Cullitons," said Dalpe. "They have a lot of hockey history, and I consider myself lucky to have gotten on with that team as a 15-year-old turning 16. The first year I only had, like, 10 points, but it was a great experience for me because I just wanted to get what the junior lifestyle was all about, what it was like moving away from home and everything else that comes along with it."
After his first year of junior hockey, he had a decision to make: Continue to skate in the Tier II junior leagues and hope for an OHL call-up, or possibly take a different path. It took another town, another team and another disappointment for Dalpe's road to become clear.
"The next year I had a chance to try out for Mississauga, the OHL team, and it didn't work out right then so I decided right then and there I was going to school and that was it," he said.
That snap decision has paid off. He stayed in Stratford and did enough to earn a scholarship to Ohio State University.
"I was only 5-10, 5-11 at that time and fairly skinny, and I think that OSU showed the most commitment to me," said Dalpe. "There were some schools that I talked to, but OSU came up and met my family, they got to know me as a person, and I respected the way they committed to me so I decided to commit to them."
With the college scholarship now locked, he had the option of staying in Stratford, where he already was comfortable, or going a more difficult route, to either the United States Hockey League or the British Columbia Hockey League, arguably the top two producers of NCAA talent in North America. The OHL was out; players with NCAA scholarships can't play major junior hockey.
"There were some schools that I talked to, but OSU came up and met my family, they got to know me as a person, and I respected the way they committed to me so I decided to commit to them." - Zac Dalpe
He weighed his options, and realized his hockey career would best be served with a year in Penticton of the BCHL. So he moved again.
"In this decision, I thought it was going to be great, not only for the games, but for being on the ice every day, in the gym, doing video, and making a stronger commitment to the game," he said. "No offense to the Cullitons, they run an amazing program, but they didn't offer the same commitment level as the BCHL.
"When I made the move out here, at first I thought it was iffy because it was so far away, but I haven't looked back and it was the best decision that I've made to date."
Since he made that choice, Dalpe's career has taken off. He's grown to 6-1 and 175 pounds. He was ranked as a 'B' Prospect – meaning he was projected to go somewhere in rounds 3-5 – on Central Scouting's preliminary rankings, but then earned the No. 26 slot on CSS's Midterm Rankings, released early in 2008, which would give him a shot to go in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft, just three years after he was deemed not good enough for the OHL.
His strong play this season – 27 goals and 63 points in only 46 games, not to mention 13 points through his first 11 playoff games – only will help his position when the final rankings are released later this month.
So, too, will his team's berth in the BCHL Championship series, as well as the 2008 Most Sportsmanlike Trophy and runner-up 2008 Rookie of the Year honors for the Interior Conference that now are on his resume.
His focus these days, though, is on his team and its playoff series against the Nanaimo Clippers, slated to begin Friday. But it's also on improving as a player in every aspect.
"He's always one of the first guys on the ice, one of the last guys off the ice, he knows when he doesn't play his best, he takes criticism really well and he's very coachable like that," Harbinson said. "He understands he's a good player, but all players at this level need improvement. He's worked very hard on his (defensive)-zone coverage throughout the year, he knows he has to continue to improve to keep separating himself from the pack, and he's done that. In fact, that's what makes him such a special player."
Now, it's other people who have the tough decisions. Namely, NHL teams that have to decide just how high to take Dalpe at the NHL Entry Draft in Ottawa in June.